COVINA — Some came to see cadavers and coffins. They went away disappointed. Some came to sip coffee and chat. A few wanted to talk about death, others wanted only a few quiet moments away from the freeway.
But everyone who visited Forest Lawn Mortuary in Covina Hills on New Year's Eve received the same warm greeting: a friendly handshake, a seat in a large, quiet room and the full attention of host Carl Smith.
For 17 years, this Forest Lawn and its three Los Angeles-area sister mortuaries have offered free coffee on New Year's Eve as a grim reminder to motorists of the danger in driving drunk. And every year the mortuaries draw a crowd--75 visitors overall this year, with 30 at the Covina site leading the way.
A few visitors, like Kitt and Lee Boots of El Monte, were surprised to find what looks like a Southern mansion decorated in rich but subdued tones.
"It's beautiful!" Kitt Boots said, apparently captivated by a winding staircase that leads to seven second-floor "slumber rooms"--Smith's term for viewing rooms, where the dead lie in state.
"They ought to take this place and turn it into a house," said her husband as he lighted a cigarette and paced around the lower floor.
The two were among the mortuary's earlier guests. They had left a party about 1 a.m. and driven straight to Forest Lawn to see if the radio advertisements about free coffee were true.
Smith gave the couple a quick tour of the lower level, including a room crowded with floral arrangements and two large boiler pots, one containing hot water for instant tea and the other coffee.
During the course of the conversation, the topic turned to a subject that came up often throughout the night: death.
"I'm an organ donor," Lee Boots said. "I'm a walking cadaver."
"I told my kids if they put flowers on my grave when I'm dead, I'll sit up and throw it in their face," Kitt Boots said. "I mean, what the hell. If you're not going to live, you're just going to die. Live until you die; what the heck."
When the couple left, Smith returned to his seat by the window, across a green expanse of carpet from a grandfather clock with a pendulum that he admitted sounded disturbingly like a muffled heartbeat.
It was the third time the 63-year-old retired mail carrier had done the "coffee thing" for Forest Lawn, but he said he was used to the immense quiet of the place and has even come to enjoy it.
Feast or Famine
Smith, whose normal job is to greet visitors and handle minor administrative duties, said he works part time. "Sometimes they don't have enough hours for full-time work. In this business it's either feast or famine.
"People ask me, 'Oh, aren't you scared out there?' But there's nothing to be scared of; just flowers and trees. Working here, you're bound to come in contact with the bodies; you have to move caskets around. It's not much different than vacuuming the floor."
Five members of a Walnut family, all wearing party hats, came in and told Smith they had been looking forward to the trip to the mortuary all evening. "I feel sober already," Pat Patti of Walnut said. "It has a sobering effect."
His daughter-in-law, Jeanette Feldhaus, also of Walnut, said others at the party they had attended didn't have the nerve to accompany them. "Two people left when they realized we were serious," she said, snickering.
They asked Smith about his job. "You work all day and come home dead tired," Smith replied.
He told them he usually didn't have much company, except for an occasional highway patrolman or tow-truck driver responding to a prank call. "Every once in a while people call them and say, 'We have a dead battery at Forest Lawn,' " he said.
The last guests, two couples ranging from 19 to 22, arrived about 2 a.m. "Good evening," Smith said. "We've been waiting for you."
They said they had just left a party in Claremont and had come to play hide-and-seek in the graveyard.
"I think it should be open," one young woman told Smith when she discovered that the graveyard and mausoleum were closed. "So you could have a cup of tea and walk through the mausoleum. I think it would be a lot more interesting instead of just standing here and looking at you."
When Smith remarked that the relatives of the deceased might be offended by nighttime tours through the crypts, the four were incredulous. "Why?" the young woman asked. "It's a beautiful place. Every cemetery I've ever been to is just a cemetery. But Forest Lawn is like a showroom or something. You're an important person if you're buried here."
She regretfully observed that she hadn't seen any "dead bodies."
Smith wished them a good night, and chuckled when the door closed behind them. "They needed the coffee," he said.