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Westwood Fears Dead Could Lie Too Close

Cemetery: The owner of the resting place for Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon wants to build at property lines.

April 15, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're heeeeere!

That's the cry being raised in Westwood, where life threatens to imitate art in a "Poltergeist"-like dispute between homes and graves.

This time it is a cemetery that is being criticized for wanting to put graves almost on top of nearby homes, however. Not the other way around, as in the Steven Spielberg-produced 1982 horror movie.

Operators of the Westwood Village Memorial Park plan to triple its capacity by building nearly 2,100 above-ground crypts along the cemetery's south side.

Angry neighbors say the project would result in bodies towering 20 feet over their backyards.

The cemetery at 1218 Glendon Ave. is tucked between Wilshire Boulevard high-rise office buildings and a 75-year-old neighborhood of single-family homes. Although it covers less than three acres, it is world-famous as the final resting place for such Hollywood celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood.

Actresses Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke, stars of "Poltergeist" who met untimely deaths, are also interred there.

The movie depicted spirits taking revenge for a housing tract built over a graveyard. O'Rourke, who died at age 12 from congenital stenosis of the intestine, portrayed the pint-size character Carol Anne who announced the arrival of ghosts by uttering the film's most notable line: "They're heeeeere!"

Los Angeles laws call for a fenced-in and landscaped 300-foot buffer between cemetery structures and residential property. But the Texas company that owns the Westwood cemetery wants a waiver that would allow some mausoleum walls to be built right up to the property line. Other areas would have a 10-foot setback between the walls and the property line.

Houston-based Service Corp. International, which bills itself as "the world's largest provider of funeral and cemetery services," is asking the city to classify the expansion as a "public benefit project."

Neighbors scoff at that. They say the cemetery company stands to make as much as $70 million by boosting the capacity from its current 1,126 casket spaces to 3,089.

"This is big-box architecture. It's a warehouse of corpses. It's that obscene to us," said resident Lila Rioth. "That's packing a lot of bodies in what has been a beautiful cemetery."

Rioth, herself an architect who lives on Wellworth Avenue, directly south of the cemetery, said homeowners should not be forced to look out their kitchen windows at mausoleums.

"And out of respect for the dead, people who are visiting the cemetery shouldn't hear people playing in their backyard pools or smell chicken on the barbecue grill when they are visiting their loved ones."

Neighbor Tamar Hoffs, a screenwriter, agreed. "They want to make the back wall of the mausoleum the back wall of the property. Can you imagine children batting tennis balls off of it? I think it will be a sacrilege of huge proportion for those bodies not to have serenity."

Residents Elliot Lewis and Lili Young are among those who have also condemned the expansion for its potential effect on traffic and parking in the congested Westwood area.

Homeowners protested the project last week at a Planning Department hearing. City hearing officer Jon Foreman said he will rule on the application after a public comment period ends today.

Initially called the Sunset Cemetery, Pierce Bros. Westwood Village Memorial Park was surrounded by fields when it was created in 1888, according to Westwood historian Greg Fischer. It was owned by the Pierce family--which for a time lived on Wellworth Avenue--before Service Corp. International bought it about 10 years ago.

The cemetery has had a high profile since 1962, when Marilyn Monroe was laid to rest there after dying of a drug overdose. For more than 20 years her ex-husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, had fresh flowers delivered regularly to her crypt. The space next to Monroe's crypt was later acquired by Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner.

Celebrities buried there include actors Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin and Carroll O'Connor; writers Truman Capote and Will and Ariel Durant; and musicians Frank Zappa, Mel Torme and the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson.

Until the late 1990s, nearby homeowners were shielded from the burial area by cemetery offices and chapel buildings and open space. But a new interment area that contains the remains of figures such as Walter Matthau and George C. Scott has been developed near the chapel.

Cemetery manager Kathy Boyett declined to comment on the expansion plan. But a spokesman for Service Corp. International said the new mausoleum space would resemble crypt structures currently in use there.

Reading from a statement, spokesman Greg Bolton said his company "has been in contact with local residents and the Westwood Homeowners Assn. to assure them this construction will have no adverse impact on the surrounding area."

The homeowners association has come out in opposition to the expansion plan, however. And City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the Westwood area, said he is "very concerned" about the project.

"The issues raised by the residents are legitimate and must be addressed," Weiss said.

City planning officials said Foreman's recommendation will be forwarded to the Planning Commission. A City Council committee will review the application and the commission's recommendation before Weiss and his colleagues are asked to consider any "public benefit" designation.

For their part, Westwood residents said they are prepared to go to court if necessary to fight the project. Theirs is one neighborhood, they pledge, that isn't about to roll over and die.

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