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L.A. THEN AND NOW

History Exhumed Via Computer Chip

Embedded electronic devices allow a cemetery's visitors to connect with some of the dead and learn their stories.

June 05, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

In Altadena, from 6 feet under, the dead speak.

Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum was founded in 1882, the year downtown Los Angeles first glowed with electric lights. Now the graveyard is illuminating Los Angeles' past: A high-tech headstone "library" tells the stories of the dearly departed.

Jae Carmichael, whose family founded the cemetery, hopes that a little technology can help visitors who want to know more about the dead than is told by two dates separated by a dash. The cemetery plans to embed a Memory Medallion, a coin-sized, stainless steel-encased computer chip, in 50 of its tombstones. About a dozen are in place so far.

The medallions illuminate the lives of the famous and the ordinary among the more than 110,000 people buried in of the 60-acre graveyard. They include a Nobel Prize winner, Civil War heroes, a former governor, a former Black Panther and television's first Superman.

The devices coax stories out of stones, offering text and images about the dead in four- to five-minute silent minimovies. Visitors can take laptop computers among the giant oaks and Himalayan deodar cedar trees or use a hand-held computer with assistance from the cemetery office. The medallions are activated when connected to a "touch wand," allowing visitors to download photos and a narrative. Although the medallions are wired for sound, audible stories are not yet available.

The project is a partnership with the Pasadena Museum of History, which is in the process of completing the research and writing the histories of the deceased for the prototypes. The company that manufactures the chip hopes it will become a popular way of memorializing loved ones.

Computerized grave markers eventually could be able to simulate the deceased's image in a hologram, allowing visitors to carry on virtual-reality conversations with the dead. But dubious observers worry that such technology could be used to rewrite history.

"While this offers an exciting chance to hear voices from our past, at the same time, it provides descendants a tempting opportunity to beef up Grandpa's resume," said Michele Zack, Altadena historian and author of the recently published book "Altadena: Between Wilderness and City."

As an example, Zack criticizes the Memory Medallion's history of pioneer Fred Twombly. "Although his work in Pasadena development was important, he did not establish Pasadena's first water system" as the medallion says, Zack said. "That honor belongs to pioneer Benjamin Eaton, who was the first to tap water from the Arroyo Seco in the 1860s and built the first iron-pipe pressure system in Southern California, in 1874."

Mountain View Cemetery's roots stem from the time of Carmichael's ancestors, the Giddings clan, who sliced off a small chunk of their ranch for what eventually would become a graveyard in a subdivision north of Pasadena on Fair Oaks Avenue.

Among the dozen or so graves and crypts that have a medallion is that of television's first Superman, George Reeves, who grew up in the area and attended Pasadena schools. He starred in the syndicated TV series "The Adventures of Superman," which aired from 1952 to 1957. He died in 1959 of a gunshot wound to the head, a demise that is officially listed as suicide. He was said to have been depressed at being typecast as the "Man of Steel."

But as the medallion points out, private investigations have disputed the official findings, claiming Reeves was killed by a hit man over a personal matter. A 1996 book called "Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, the Lady and the Death of Superman," by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, endorsed that scenario.

The peculiar immortality of Caltech's Nobel physicist and bongo drum player, Richard Feynman, is stored in his granite tombstone. Feynman devoted almost as much energy to maintaining his image as a skirt-chaser and a devil-may-care genius as he did to his theory of quantum electrodynamics, which won the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics. In 1986, with a flair for showmanship, Feynman plopped a rubber O-ring seal into a glass of ice water during televised hearings into the cause of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. The result demonstrated what an army of NASA experts was looking for: proof that cold made the seal brittle, leading to the leak and explosion that killed all seven astronauts aboard.

Another electronic biography and photograph features a twice-wounded Civil War veteran and former California governor, Henry H. Markham. In the 1870s, Markham moved his family from Wisconsin to Pasadena, where he practiced law and served as a Republican congressman.

In his 1890 campaign for California governor, he vowed to keep the Chinese out of the state. He used a red rose as his campaign symbol. Republicans also adopted the rose as their emblem, calling it the Markham rose.

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