Joe Mathews: The number of COVID-19 deaths in the US would fill Forest Lawn Memorial Park by January

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View N from East of the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, CA Chris English, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The numbers keep going higher and higher. California reported more than 11 thousand new COVID-19 cases Wednesday--bringing the state’s total so far to just over one (m)million. And nationwide we have surpassed a quarter million deaths.

That is an impossibly large number to comprehend. That’s why in this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California,” commentator Joe Mathews took a trip to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where 340,000 bodies are laid to rest. The United States is projected to reach 340,000 recorded COVID deaths by January.

Read Mathews’ column below:

So many gone

If you’re having a hard time processing the scale of death produced by the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a California alternative for wrapping your mind around the carnage:

Visit the largest, prettiest cemetery you can find. I recommend the original Forest Lawn, in Glendale, the most Californian of cemeteries.

I recently walked the 290 acres of this memorial park, the first of six Forest Lawn parks in Southern California, and found that it clarified my thinking and improved my mood.

It also helped me to put in perspective the full human toll of COVID-19. Since Forest Lawn opened here 114 years ago, in 1906, it has interred 340,000 souls on this property. Under current projections, the U.S. will reach 340,000 COVID deaths in January.

Such statistics reflect a fundamental human failure: We experience individual death intensely (be it a friend’s death or the killing of George Floyd), but struggle to recognize death in the aggregate. This myopia is why we need cemeteries right now.

“Cemeteries are not just a place to reflect on the past,” wrote longtime Forest Lawn chief executive John Llewelyn, in A Cemetery Should Be Forever. “They remind us to keep the present in perspective.”

Especially when the present is so frightening.

Forest Lawn’s mission was about putting a sunny California spin on death.

“I believe in a happy eternal life,” Forest Lawn’s first real leader Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917. “I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong, because they depict an end, not a beginning… I shall try to build at Forest Lawn a Great Park… filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, noble memorial architecture with interiors full of light and color, and redolent of the world’s best history and romances.”

The resulting memorial-park has been critiqued as a “Disneyland of Death.” But at this moment, I found visiting the happiest cemetery on Earth soothing, and thought-provoking.

I encountered joggers, bikers, painters, and babies in strollers. I heard birds sing as I enjoyed 360-degree L.A. views from the esplanade. A half-dozen people chatted amiably while admiring “The Mystery of Life,” a sculpture group of 18 human figures gathered at stream that flows toward an unknown destination.

By its usual standards, Forest Lawn was pretty quiet. Its art museum—which houses an important collection of stained glass and William Bouguereau’s 1881 painting “Song of the Angels”—was closed. There were no school field trips on the grounds. Tens of thousands of people, including Ronald Reagan, have been married at Forest Lawn, but during my visit there were no weddings in the cemetery’s three churches, which were locked.

Still, I enjoyed the way the place resembles Southern California in miniature, with its varied topographies (hills, valleys, a sprawling basin), and obsession with being big (Forest Lawn’s wrought-iron gates are “twice as wide” as those at Buckingham Palace).

In.an older, flatter cemetery section I walked amidst the century-old graves of people who died in their 20s of Spanish flu. In the Court of Freedom, I admired a giant outdoor reproduction of John Trumbull’s “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” and reflected on Jefferson’s wisdom in putting “life” before “liberty” and “pursuit of happiness.”

This pandemic is killing so fast that we’re not stopping to appreciate the lives lost. We will need to remember the plague’s lessons, to honor its sacrifices, so we might see its after-life as a beginning, not an end.

Here in California, we should memorialize every last one of our pandemic dead, with a monument that is beautiful and big, and makes people happy when they visit it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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