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Most Area Cemeteries Not Near Capacity

April 05, 1987|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Marilyn Monroe is still sleeping, but the noise near her crypt has been loud enough at times during the past year that it might seem to wake the dead.

The noise, routine for high-rise construction, has accompanied development by Held Properties of a $45-million, 15-story office building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, directly adjacent to Pierce Brothers Cemetery, where the sexy blond actress was entombed after her death at age 36.

For 20 years after she died in 1962, her ex-husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, sent roses every Tuesday through Saturday to the cemetery. The roses were put in a vase next to Marilyn's name on a wall that was, appropriately enough, behind Perpetual Savings.

Then the roses stopped coming. The Perpetual building was torn down in preparation for new construction. And the cemetery? Mourners might have felt like wearing hard hats as they entered it off Glendon Avenue, right next to steel girders that were being put in place, but the cemetery, and Marilyn, remain intact.

200 Graves Available

What's more, despite its small size--just under 2.8 acres--the cemetery still has room for new interments.

"We have in the neighborhood of 200 graves available," said Bill Pierce, cemetery manager, "and we also have niches and graves for cremated remains."

This, despite the fact that the cemetery has 13,000 interments. It was dedicated in 1904.

Sure, some cemeteries have filled up. Some, like Forest Lawn in Glendale, are reaching their capacities. Some, like the 144-acre veterans cemetery in Westwood, known officially as the Los Angeles National Cemetery, are now taking only cremated remains, because there is no longer enough room, with more than 77,000 interments, for traditional casket burials.

In general, though, there appears to be little if any concern about running out of cemetery space, even in highly populated areas, in the immediate future.

About 90% of the space has been used at Forest Lawn, Glendale, but Forest Lawn has five other locations in the Los Angeles area with plenty of room, a spokesman said.

There are 109 national cemeteries throughout the United States, and of those, only 50 have any traditional grave space left. Of those 50, only one is in California, although there are five national cemeteries in the state. Even so, Theresa Bush, director of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, said, "There is no shortage of land (for traditional burials) generally, and as land becomes available, new national cemeteries are created." A new one is being considered right now in Merced County, she added.

Perhaps the industry is kidding itself, but nobody from the American Cemetery Assn. in Falls Church, Va., to such state organizations as the California Interment Assn., California Assn. of Public Cemeteries and California Cemetery Board voiced even the slightest worry about cemeteries in general becoming short of land.

Nor did they express concern about such alternatives as scattering cremated remains at sea or launching them into space, the latter an idea that is still waiting approval from the Florida comptroller. Another alternative called cryonics, the controversial idea of freezing bodies in the hope of later reviving them, received a setback when a company behind the 1970s movement became defunct and was ordered to pay nearly $1 million in damages to families whose loved ones' remains thawed .

Pierce agreed that there is no widespread fear of running out of cemetery space in the next few years but warned, "Maybe it will be hard to find a place for graves 50 to 75 years from now, unless they change the law so a grave is leased for a number of years, say five, and then, if nobody is maintaining it, the body is removed and the bones are put in an urn or pulverized and put in the fields.

"That's what happens now in parts of Mexico, South America and Europe."

Mission Cemetery

Only the wealthy, who can afford to pay for many years of maintenance, can truly rest in peace there, he added.

Here, it's a different matter, although some variations of the approaches Pierce described have been used in the United States.

The tiny old cemetery at the Santa Barbara Mission holds the remains of 4,000 Chumash Indians. Yet, there was still room last year for a burial in a crypt. How? The crypt was purchased years ago, "before need," as they say, and the Indians' bones were unearthed even earlier--as the cemetery began to fill up--and were stored together for awhile in a small building, then buried together in a pit.

In New Orleans, which is just a few feet higher than the swamps, vaults in a tomb are designed with a hole in the floor and a space below, like the ash pit of a stove. When another family member dies, remains of the predecessor are put into the pit to make room in the vault for the newcomer.

Nothing like that is being proposed in California, where Phyllis Thames of the state's Cemetery Board says "there is definitely no danger of running out of land."

20 Vacant Acres

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