Several years back, as she began her studies in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, Marta Soligo noticed a seemingly unique American tourism trend, one that didn’t exist in her native Italy: Celebrity gravesites as an attraction.
She was a student at UCLA then, and first noticed visitors to Los Angeles going to the city's most historic graveyards to glimpse of the tombstones of legends of Hollywood past: Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Hefner, and Jack Lemmon.
For Soligo, this was as compelling as it was perplexing: In her hometown of Bergamo, cemeteries and memorial parks were characterized by sadness and stillness, quiet places to remember the dead.
Now a researcher and graduate assistant in UNLV's International Gaming Institute, Soligo is studying this collision between “dark tourism” — which she defines as purposefully “traveling to death-related locations such as war and murder sites, with travelers showing fascination for death and the macabre” — and celebrity tourism, which usually attracts gawkers through glitz, glamour, and high society.
Her study of Hollywood’s most famous, star-studded cemeteries looks at the trend from a sociological perspective to understand why people were visiting these places and what motivated them to do so. The cemeteries she analyzed over a seven-year period were: Hollywood Forever Cemetery (the oldest and most famous of the four), Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills), Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale), and Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park.
The Blending of Motivations
Tourists have myriad reasons for visiting the places they do, Soligo says, and travel to Hollywood cemeteries is no different. Some find these places calming and peaceful oases for self reflection. Others go to remember a loved one or to mourn a recent loss.
Things get a little different, however, when combining the driving forces behind dark tourism and celebrity tourism — specifically when analyzing tourism in celebrity graveyards. This unique kind of tourism might intrigue fans of the macabre, of celebrity culture, or both.
Dark tourism, however, has led to cemeteries to offer guided tours, where tourists can learn about mysterious and untimely deaths of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, Soligo notes. Not only this, but just the act of being in a graveyard is a haunting reminder of the fragility of life.
But Hollywood graveyards are unique in that they also draw in fans of celebrity culture. "For a new generation of fans, this is almost like a real-life star-fan encounter. Twenty-somethings who love Marilyn Monroe, of course, never had a chance to meet her in person. When they are in front of their favorite celebrity’s grave, they behave like they are meeting her for real — “They take selfies, they cry," says Soligo.
Regardless of the motivation behind the travel, however, tourists seek authenticity above all else. For example, when tourists travel to Italy, they want real Italian pasta — something they couldn’t otherwise find at home.
Hollywood cemeteries offer authenticity too. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is the authenticity of the bones and the graves themselves. If a tourist was to visit Crypt Number 24 in the Corridor of Memories at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park, they would essentially be face-to-face with Marilyn Monroe’s earthly remains. But as an additional indicator of authenticity, Hollywood past collides with Hollywood present, as these graveyards are interspersed with current movie production studios across the city.
“You're where the action took place and takes place,” says Soligo.
Sleeping, Forever, with the Stars
With the rise of mass tourism, the cemetery becomes a tourist attraction like everything else -- just another site to see. In today’s increasingly capitalistic society, Soligo says, everything becomes a spectacle and, thus, a commodity — another way to make money. Here, Soligo also gives credit to David Dickens, a UNLV professor of sociology and co-author of this research. Soligo says, “If not for his graduate seminar in celebrity culture, which I attended at UNLV in 2017, I wouldn't have applied this spectacle-commodification theory to my research.”
From guided graveyard tours to mausoleum movie screenings, even cemeteries have come around to this commodification and spectacle culture. Throughout her observations, one of the most interesting things Soligo noticed were the impersonators who paid physical tribute to yesterday’s biggest stars — Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson being two of the most popular and profitable character choices. Fans lined up to take selfies with these impersonators, almost as if their favorite celebrities had eerily come back to life.
Reflecting again on her childhood memories of Italian graveyards as sacred, religious, and somber, Soligo explained how tourists treat Hollywood cemeteries and the graves of their favorite stars as some might treat the tomb of a saint, often praying and crying in front of their final resting places.
"Celebrities are becoming almost religion-like icons, and celebrity tourism becomes a sort of pilgrimage," she says.
Clearly, this commodification and spectacle doesn’t have to end when life does. In fact, for some, that’s only the beginning...
For decades, many star-studded Hollywood cemeteries have advertised burial plots to non-famous, “normal” people. Not only do these burial grounds look like scenic destination resorts, but they promise eternal life amongst the stars to people who didn't become famous in their time on earth. By selling burial plots in these exclusive cemeteries, normal people can acquire celebrity status because they are amongst well-known celebrities -- generating their own fame by association.
“Think back to the name of the Hollywood Forever cemetery,” says Soligo, “Celebrities want to be remembered forever, and what better way to be remembered than by having your status solidified among the stars?"