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Cemetery's Expansion Plans OKd

Landmark: Vocal opposition fails to derail project at famed Westwood burial site.

July 26, 2002|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With residents decrying a "condominium of corpses" in their backyards, city planners Thursday approved an expansion of famed Westwood Village Memorial Park.

Opponents won a concession, however, as planners ordered the cemetery owner to put in landscaping and to build an 8-foot masonry wall between houses and graves, a wall that the neighborhood was promised 50 years ago.

Residents, however, lost their bid to require a setback for the new buildings, which the owner intends to build at the property line.

The expansion plan approved by the Planning Commission will allow 463 new casket spaces in an 18-foot-high mausoleum about 65 feet from several homes on Wellworth Avenue. There also will be a private 12-casket "family mausoleum" 8 feet from one Wellworth Avenue property.

The city code calls for a 300-foot setback between cemetery structures and residential properties, but the cemetery owner won approval by arguing successfully that the expansion fulfills a community need.

The prospect of such an increase in the number of crypts, next to an existing multitiered mausoleum, has riled survivors of the rich and famous who paid dearly to lay their relatives to rest in the urban oasis at 1218 Glendon Ave., near Westwood's corridor of high-rise condominiums along Wilshire Boulevard.

"How dare you turn this beautiful and sacred place into Disneyland for the dead!" Audrey Wilder, widow of director Billy Wilder, said to commissioners. Noting that she had paid $200,000 for his site, she said, "If that doesn't entitle him to some peace, I want my money back, and I'll take him somewhere else."

Also at the meeting were Tita Cahn, whose late husband, lyricist Sammy Cahn, is buried there, and Margo Winkler, who is married to producer Irwin Winkler.

Opponents of the project paraded to the microphone to raise concerns about privacy, parking, fire protection and preserving the cemetery's scale. One opponent, Shelley Taylor, read from letters by celebrities and their relatives. Author Dominick Dunne, whose daughter Dominique is buried there, in his letter decried the plans as vulgar and intrusive, and vowed to write about them in Vanity Fair magazine.

In his letter, Charles Matthau, son of the late Walter Matthau, said, "At best this is a vulgar display of raw greed; at worst it is sacrilegious."

A popular site for tour vans and celebrity seekers, the site also houses the remains of Truman Capote, Carroll O'Connor, Jack Lemmon, Roy Orbison and Marilyn Monroe, whose burial there 40 years ago put the compact site on the map.

The cemetery has space for 1,126 caskets on nearly three acres and is nearly full. The Houston-based owner, Service Corp. International, had originally proposed to erect another building behind homes on Wellworth for 1,488 crypts. But planners rejected that idea in May.

"We're anxious to work with the neighbors," said Allan Abshez, a lawyer representing Service Corp.

But Planning Commission President Mitchell B. Menzer noted that "from what I'm hearing, there's a tremendous amount of animosity toward your client."

The new mausoleum will be 18 feet high and will have the same roof line as an existing mausoleum. But there will be differences. It will have a basement level reached by an elevator and, for the first time, some crypts will face south, toward homes on Wellworth.

Service Corp., which bought the property in 1996, bills itself as the world's largest provider of funeral and burial services. In fiscal 2001 it had revenues of more than $2.5 billion.

The company and its affiliates operate 2,507 funeral homes, 467 cemeteries and 154 crematoriums.

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