On Frequenting Graveyards
An incorrupt body does not decay.
By Carrie Monahan
Visit the crypt of Marilyn Monroe in Westwood, Los Angeles and you’ll find it tarnished: washed in a hue of rosé. Each year thousands take their hajj to Memorial Park Cemetery to press Jungle Red, Bruised Plum, Lady Danger, Dior 999 kisses around her epitaph, which reads Marilyn Monroe 1926–1962. Before his death in 1999, Joe DiMaggio had half-a-dozen red roses sent to her three times a week. Visitors today — weary and sore-toed from a trek to the Hollywood Sign or a day in the teeming delirium of Rodeo Drive — stick on laminated photos of the starlet playfully windswept atop a sidewalk grate or smiling open-mouthed at a world of admirers. Half a century post mortem, six inches of concrete stand between a throng of Iowans and the calcified fragments of Miss Norma Jeane Baker.
When she was in the sixth grade my older sister mummified an unwanted Barbie doll for a history assignment. We cut organs from construction paper before pretending to pick out her brain (deemed useless) from her nose with a toothpick. Ellie laid the doll’s colorful viscera in canopic jars she had made out of Play Doh. Having set aside a few cherished items from the Barbie Dream House — a deluxe kitchen set, six plastic pairs of heels, and a magenta Beach Cruiser — we prepared a cardboard tomb and laid a purple pleated ball gown appropriate for the afterlife next to the open-eyed, smiling corpse. We rubbed her cold and shiny skin — the nipple-less breasts and arched baby feet — with a blend of cinnamon, salt, and cloves before wrapping her tightly in strips of wet cloth. Anonymous in life, the unnamed mummy would be dignified in death.
For the past seventeen years, the dark aquamarine dining room of my family’s apartment has served as a kind of slapdash shrine for my late father. The shelves bear his collection of rusting Civil War bugles, helmets, and caps — things he collected intensely during his life. Most notable, though, is the Spanish-American War statue who stands in the corner of the room: his searing eyes, his rigid jawline, and his missing hand feebly concealed with a limp, discolored glove. From ages five to twelve, I suffered from recurring nightmares in which I would lie awake in my bedroom and hear stomping noises outside. The mannequin would march through the doorway, abruptly salute me with his bad hand, and inch toward my bed. Suddenly, I would wake up, jolted and crying.
Bernadette Soubirous died of consumption in 1879. They exhumed her body thirty years later to find her rosary beads tarnished but her body unmarred and un-maimed. Her skin had not grown papery, stretched over bones or holed like honeycomb. She had not rotted into slime or clay or a crumbling home for burrowing invertebrates. No, not at all. She lay with her eyes closed, hands still clasping her oxidized crucifix, still bearing the face of a thirty-five-year old peasant who happened to speak with God. Ten years later, a second exhumation again revealed no sign of corruption. The church moved her remains to a casket of gilded bronze and crystal.
Interred in a coffin or crypt, it could take half a century for every tissue of a human body to decompose.
When I was eight, my mother took me to see Marilyn. Though I had lost my father at two (then a grandmother at four and an aunt at five), her drawer-of-a-tomb is the first gravesite I can remember. That morning my mother had brought my older sister and me to Disneyland, where I’d spent the day gorging myself on churros and riding the Tower of Terror. Each time I had plugged my ears fiercely and shut my eyes, fearing not the two-hundred-foot drop but the transparent ghost holograms who glided along the Hollywood Tower’s flickering hallways. I knew — inexplicably and deeply — that nothing good could come from looking into their eyes.
Ashes of the average American man weigh six pounds; a woman’s weigh four.
In kindergarten I became enamored of the Salem witches — and, more specifically, their hangings. Having taken a family trip to the site of the 1692 Witch Hysteria, I spent lunchtime at school drawing bonneted young women hanging from spindly magic-marker oak trees, prompting my teacher Miss Hamm to call my mother about what she deemed a “dangerous obsession” with death. At the Salem Witch Museum my sister and I had posed for photos, lolling out our tongues as we stuck our heads and hands into fake pillory stocks. We gaped at the vacant-eyed wax figure of Bridget Bishop, found guilty of bewitchment and sent to the gallows, and ended the day at Witch’s Brew Café near the House of the Seven Gables.
Westwood Village Memorial Park lies hidden behind the bustle of Wilshire Boulevard, yet thousands of strangers visit the tiny cemetery each year to posthumously meet Hollywood’s biggest stars. Its website boasts a list of its most famous remains, including Donna Reed, Dean Martin, Natalie Wood, Roy Orbison, Carroll O’Connor, Truman Capote, and Farrah Fawcett. Monroe, though, is the crown jewel on its tiara of corpses and ash.
When I was seven I wanted to go to funeral cosmetology school to do what Jamie Lee Curtis did in My Girl. I hoped to make the dead beautiful before they fell apart.
My mother once taught us “The Hearse Song” she had learned during her summers at Girl Scouts camp in the 1960s. I used to lie in the bottom portion of my older sister’s trundle bed at night, singing the words to myself:
Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next one to die.
To prevent facial discoloration, undertakers will lift a corpse’s head in the coffin. They wash and comb the hair, then skillfully apply make-up to render the face as close as possible to its living shadow. The eyes and lips are glued shut. The post-mortem growth of hair and fingernails is only a myth.
I think I’d like to be cremated.
August 5, 1962. The Los Angeles Times headline reads, “Marilyn Monroe Dies; Pills Blamed. Unclad Body of Star Found on Bed Near Empty Capsule Bottle.” A barbiturate overdose (most likely a suicide), according to “Coroner to the Stars” Dr. Thomas Noguchi. Three days later they buried her in the Corridor of Memories in her favorite green Emilio Pucci Dress. She held a bouquet of pink roses. Her longtime friend Allan “Whitey” Snyder did her make-up for the last time.
The state of Nevada has the highest cremation rate in the country. Last year, three quarters of Las Vegas deaths ended in ashes. Mississippi ranks the lowest. The majority of crematoriums in Jackson are designated for pets.
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
And cover you up from head to feet.
My sister and I sit hugging our knees and knocking against each other in the backseat of the red Mustang convertible my mother has rented for our Hollywood vacation. Most likely she hadn’t anticipated the thickness of the Los Angeles smog or the viscosity of its heat. The alluring unfamiliarity of the West (even its highways), replete with In-N-Out Burger and words like San Bernardino, keeps me peering out the open window into the vastness of celebrity and the frontier. We arrive at our “surprise” destination — the crypt of my idol: Marilyn Monroe.
My mother pulls her signature red-brown shade of Lancôme from her purse and offers it to me like a pediatrician handing out a post-check-up lollipop. I roll up the rouge beeswax, smash it onto my lips and teeth, close my eyes, and press my mouth hard against the discolored concrete grave.
822 A.D. The church moves St. Cecelia’s remains to a new site six hundred years after her death. They uncover her body: perfectly, inexplicably, and beautifully intact. Cecelia is one of the beati.
One year, I dressed as Marilyn for Halloween, and then again at my 1950s-themed birthday party for which a six-foot-tall drag-queen Marilyn impersonator had been hired. With her beauty mark painted (about an inch too high) on my cheek and a curled blonde wig hiding my dark brown hair, I donned a miniature version of her white, low-cut dress from The Seven-Year Itch as I blew kisses and sang “I Wanna Be Loved By You” to my mother’s video camera in an eerie attempt at sultry.
Los Angeles cops had to quell the spectators surging in the streets the day of Marilyn’s funeral. DiMaggio had only invited thirty friends and family members. Strangers who worshipped her wanted to say goodbye, or they wanted to say they’d seen the body. Lee Strasberg delivered the eulogy for the starlet who “created a myth of what a poor girl from a deprived background could attain. For the entire world she became a symbol of the eternal feminine.” Then played a recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sung by Judy Garland. Garland would die seven years later of a barbiturate overdose in London.
At this point I know more details of Monroe’s death, autopsy, and burial than those of my own father.
You are driving from Manhattan to La Guardia, pressed to catch your flight to San Francisco. Sandwiched between Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway — a field burgeoning with what look like the backs of dolphins but made of cracked stone. Here are the bones of the Bosnian mother from Astoria, the Jamaican father from Jackson Heights, the receptionist from Woodside who lies next to an empty plot designated for her husband. Here — in the largest interment ground in the country — those deemed unworthy of the Corridor of Memories will spend eternity in exurban smog. Italian mobsters like Ignatius ‘Lupo the Wolf’ Saietta and Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero reside in the bristling necropolis, alongside Annie Moore of County Cork, Ireland — the first person ever processed through Ellis Island. So sardonically vast is the graveyard-industrial complex that you cannot — as you’re supposed to — hold your breath as you inch past it in airport traffic.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout.
Twenty-five years ago, Hugh Hefner, who had never met Monroe, bought the crypt to the left of hers for seventy-five thousand dollars. In 2009, the sale of the spot directly above her remains set off a heated bidding war on eBay.
My first time to my father’s grave as a cognitive human being: I am ten years old and have skipped school on the eighth anniversary of his death for a mother-daughter outing to his cemetery on Long Island. We stop for doughnuts on our way out of the city. My mother has a cold and a sinus headache. We drive past a gravedigger in a hoodie, piling the last clods of fresh dirt atop a new plot. He waves.
In 1954, entrepreneur Richard Poncher and his wife Elsie attended a cocktail party at the Regency Hotel in New York where Joe DiMaggio — in the midst of his heated divorce from Monroe — asked them, “You want to buy two crypts?”
We are driving from the near-Edenic greenery of Stanford’s campus into the sullied charm of San Francisco. Beyond the drizzle and fog, its sad factory version of the Hollywood sign reads SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY. From the passenger’s seat I look beneath the crooked hillside letters to find an imposing legion of headstones that bloom from the ground like potato bulbs. I turn down the music. I ask my friend if she realizes how many real people — with families and jobs and hobbies and pets — are underground just to the right of the freeway. She tells me she’s never really thought about it before.
Poncher bought the crypt above Monroe’s, and there he is — for the moment — entombed. He also bought the space next to it, where his widow would one day spend eternity.
But I have no words to describe the myth and the legend. I did not know this Marilyn Monroe. We gathered here today, knew only Marilyn — a warm human being, impulsive and shy, sensitive and in fear of rejection, yet ever avid for life and reaching out for fulfillment.
By 2009, Elsie Poncher was a widow in her seventies, struggling to pay off the million-dollar mortgage on her Beverly Hills home. At the urging of her lawyer, she decided to sell her husband’s pricey piece of post-mortem real estate in the Corridor of Memories, intending to move his remains to the crypt designated for her.
My mother takes my hand as we walk on the crackling wintry grass towards my father’s headstone. There are ceramic coasters printed with the faces of my sister and me — aged seven and two, respectively. Scattered about are smooth round stones inscribed with words like peace and love, and I find them Hallmarky. I want to throw them away. My mother stands ten feet behind me, not wanting to stand atop his bones. What’s left of my dad lies underneath me, six feet of soil between us and marked by a slab of granite.
Twenty-three years prior, Elsie told the Los Angeles Times, her dying husband made a request regarding his imminent entombment: “If I croak, if you don’t put me upside down over Marilyn, I’ll haunt you the rest of my life.” After the funeral, Elsie conveyed his wishes to the undertaker: “I was standing right there, and he turned him over.”
The earth above my dad’s plot is sticky, impressionable. My first and only visit to his grave — my first and only memory of the two of us together. I do not want to go back and stand over his rotting corpse or place flowers and souvenir-shop stones by his epitaph. I do not want my mother to stand behind me. I do not want to check whether the ceramic coasters have rusted over my two-year-old face. I do not want to eat toasted coconut doughnuts at a rest stop off the Long Island Expressway and I do not want to walk away from him again.
I cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked goodbyes, but in the peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality–I will say au revoir. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.
A party from Japan made the winning eBay bid to take Richard’s spot above Marilyn for 4.6 million dollars. But several hours later, Elsie’s lawyer received an email from the bidder saying, “I am awfully sorry, but I need to cancel this because of the paying problem.”
A few weeks ago, I called my mother to ask what my father had worn at his funeral. A wool, plaid sports jacket with gray trousers and a pair of brown dress shoes. She picked out his outfit, wanting him to be buried in something beautiful. She says she’ll have to call me back tomorrow since it’s half past midnight in New York.
“To the man who gave us everything and more, you’re one in a million,” reads Richard Poncher’s epitaph. For now, his remains still lie above Marilyn’s in the Corridor of Memories. Elsie still searches for a buyer of his crypt, hoping to pay off the mortgage for the sake of her children. When the time comes, she would like to be cremated.
I call again with more questions: “Was he buried with anything?” “Yes,” she tells me, her voice distorted and quivering, “a little bunny stuffed animal that was yours, an old bugle he tried to teach your sister how to play, and a poem I wrote. … I think that was it.”
“And what did the poem say?” She pauses. “That he made me feel safe, sane, and secure.” I imagine his fetid bones in a stained and deflated suit; the plush and incorruptible rabbit corpse placed under a rotten shard of elbow, flanked by a rusting bugle; and my mother’s curved handwriting on a piece of browning monogrammed stationary.
I can’t recall the name of the cemetery whose earth holds his bones, so I Google it. 0.85 seconds later, the screen accosts me with an image of a giant headstone bearing my father’s name, provided by a peculiar website called FindaGrave.com. My eyes stick to the tombstone, which is frankly much larger and more imposing than I remember. My stomach feels as if it has folded into itself and risen up through my throat. Still, I click.
Here I am in California, paying a virtual visit to my father’s grave from three thousand miles away. Strangers have posted photos of his headstone and have given him a “celebrity rating” of three stars for being a litigator at the O.J. Simpson trial and Katie Couric’s husband. A Vietnam veteran from Oceanside, California named John “J-Cat” Griffith — whose FindAGrave profile pictures him smiling under a thick mustache and cradling a dachshund named “Timmy” — wrote my father’s bio in 1998. Ten years ago, someone with the username of GraveGirl — whose avatar is Patrick Swayze’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — photographed my father’s epitaph and uploaded it to the site. Her profile reads, “I’m working on my life’s goal of visiting 1,000 famous graves in my lifetime (and hopefully more)!”
My mother finally remarried after sixteen years of loneliness and dead-end romance. She is very loved. I don’t know whom she’ll be buried next to when she dies. I resort to the Internet again. I find myself scrolling through a National Enquirer article, “Katie Couric’s Grave Dilemma: ‘Until death do us part’ — but then what?”
The ENQUIRER has learned that the perky TV star long ago made plans to ultimately be laid to rest next to her late first husband John Paul ‘Jay’ Monahan III, but sources say her new marriage could disrupt those arrangements.
An alleged “insider” adds that family members are taking sides while a “close source” suggests she should stick with the dual plot plan in Long Island “for the sake of her children.” I don’t know if I’d ever visit my mother’s grave. If she lived to one hundred, she and my father would have spent sixty years apart before their reunion in some subterranean flat. By then she would be a corpse and he a gray lattice of ligaments and bones. Did it matter to her what we did with her remains? And why would anyone besides her morbid daughter even care?
Not even death will bestow the gift of privacy.
I am twenty when she tells me about the morning he died in January of 1998. He dropped a glass in the bathroom and collapsed. My sister and I went upstairs to the Saltzes’ apartment, where she says we played with their grown-up daughter’s old dollhouse. My mother remembers what she wore on the way to hospital (jeans, a pair of black suede loafers, and a Gap sweatshirt) when they made her ride in a cop car behind the ambulance he died in.
His whole life happened on that dash between 1956 and 1998.
My older sister recalls his death a little bit differently; after all, she was only seven. Her version includes placing a Bugle corn chip on his chest instead of the instrument. She remembers his funeral attire not as a dapper wool suit but a pair of green scrubs he liked to wear as pajamas. “Mom came home and told us ‘Daddy died,’” she tells me, “And for some reason, I started to laugh.”
He had an open casket the night before the funeral. My mother tells me it was “horrible to see” — that the sight of his lips glued shut made her vomit. Cardinal O’Connor — the archbishop of New York — showed up to the wake, for which there was a line around the block. A thousand people came to his funeral the next day. My father’s friend and fellow Civil War enthusiast wore Union blues and recited Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah. And then they played Ashokan’s Farewell.
203 people have left moving images of flowers, crosses, and candles on my father’s virtual grave. A stranger named Nancy left a rotating pink and red heart and wrote, “Remembering John ‘Jay’ Monahan 10 years later” on his death anniversary in 2008. Along with a glimmering bouquet of pixelated red roses, SweetAdelaide9 recently posted, “I miss seeing you on TV Mr. Monahan. I enjoyed your commentaries and always sided with you. You are missed.” It’s been twelve years since anyone placed real flowers on his grave.
Camila and I are sixteen when her mother dies of breast cancer. She texts me and I sprint down Madison to find her crouched on the sidewalk near a bed of daffodils outside her apartment building. We walk towards the park and watch the bikers careen around the loop. It smells like honeysuckle and sulfur. My best friend’s mother was a Mexican Catholic, beautiful, effervescent, and incredibly pious. We sit in the funeral home while a priest murmurs a series of Spanish Hail Marys, meticulously counting his rosary beads. Aunts and uncles and cousins and teachers and friends fill the church on Eighty-Fourth and Park. I have been here before — to Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home and St. Ignatius Loyola — but I do not know it. I do not know then that my father’s body once lay there in place of Gabriela’s. I do not know that my mother cradled my sister and me on the funeral parlor sofa where Camila’s little sister keeps saying, “I’m only in sixth grade.”
Death has become a familiar guest. I was six when I quit holding fast to angels, thirteen when ghosts ceased to infiltrate my bedroom at night. A manic compulsion to dream up decomposition took their place. I am trying to peel it off my back.
Here is what the Catholic Church doesn’t tell you: when they exhumed Saint Bernadette’s body again in 1919, it had become practically mummified, covered in mildew patches and calcium salts. Finally, she had begun to break down. And so, they carefully covered her face and hands in wax before moving the new-and-improved Bernadette to a crystal casket in Nevers.
I ask my mother where she’d like to be buried. In fact, she’d like to be cremated. “I’d like my ashes scattered somewhere pretty,” she says, “maybe in the ocean, so some fish can have me for a snack.”
They call Varanasi the spiritual capital of India — the holiest of the seven sacred cities. Bodies burned upon a ghat and sprinkled in the Ganges will skip the eternal cycle of lives. From the oily riverbanks, mangled Charon does not ferry their souls across the Styx. The children of Israel do not cross the Jordan to find Jericho on the other side. Here, the eldest son smashes a pot full of water onto the ground, releasing his father’s soul from the prison of its body. Old cremators kneel down in the water, searching for remnants of silver and gold burned up in the ashes of the prosperous. A friend of mine once saw a wilting hand emerge from the sooty brown water before the putrid waves swallowed it back up. Lepers and pregnant mothers cannot be cremated, nor can those too poor to pay. Through the city, loved ones haul their bodies towards the detritus shore, exposing them to the elements. They lay them in the river, where the sadhus are taking off their saffron sheets to bathe beneath the waning sun.
Carrie Monahan ’18 is the Essays editor of West Magazine.
Photo by Courtney “Coco” Mault