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Visiting Marilyn Monroe's grave: Resting places of the rich and famous

A few weeks ago, while I was attending the TV critics' summer press tour, a friend and I decided we were tired of being surrounded by today's stars. So we headed off just a few miles from our hotel to visit the final resting places of some of yesterday's stars.

While the Forest Lawn cemeteries get all the attention, I recommend visiting the Westwood Village Memorial Park, just off the UCLA campus in Westwood. It's weirdly located -- you need to cut between a soaring skyscraper and its parking garage, and there you'll see the black gates of the cemetery standing open. It's a small, park, so very walkable, the staff are courteous (I've heard that at some celebrity cemeteries they're not thrilled with tourists) and you're sure to have heard of most of the famous folks who are buried here.

Before we left the hotel, we printed out this very useful guide and map. We ran into a couple other visitor groups who had come without a map, and they were wandering somewhat lost. We ended up gifting one of them with our map before we left and they were quite thankful.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Marilyn Monroe's elegant grave marker.

The most famous Westwood Village resident has to be Marilyn Monroe. I was braced for a zoo-like atmosphere around her grave (thinking of Jim Morrison's graffiti-covered marker in Paris). But it was as elegant and lovely as Marilyn on her best day. She's buried in an above-ground crypt, indicated with a simple marker on the wall and a white bench bearing her name. Also in the above-ground crypts: Truman Capote, Dean Martin, drummer Buddy Rich, Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith of "Lost in Space") and Elizabeth Taylor's parents.

One of the more elaborate celebrity graves belongs to Bob Crane, Colonel Hogan of "Hogan's Heroes," whose murder has been the subject of various books and movies. His marker is one of the few celebrity graves that features photographs. (Numerous non-celebrities are also buried at Westwood, many of them native-born Iranians who had left their native country for L.A. It seems to be a tradition among many of the Iranian families to feature photographs on their markers.)

Even with the map, we had to do some hunting for Natalie Wood's grave. We finally wised up and started looking not for trees and landmarks, but for the more flower-decked graves. Natalie Wood's simple marker, decorated with a rose and the words "More than love," is one of the most honored and visited graves at the park. When we were there, flowers, balloons, and numerous coins decked the stone.

Another reason we were glad we had our Internet map: Some celebrities are buried here in unmarked graves, musicians Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa among them. Our Internet map carefully detailed how to locate the plain patches of grass where both men are buried. (Zappa's blank spot is especially easy to find since he's right next to actor Lew Ayres, who does have a simple marker.)

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
A musical staff marks Ray Conniff's grave.

I especially liked the gravestones for musicians. Ray Conniff's stone is carved with a musical staff showing the famous first notes of "Somewhere My Love." Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys and his mother, Audree, are both buried here. Wilson's stone is simply carved with two shiny hearts and calls him "The heart and voice of an angel." His mother's marker, which is not next to his, labels her "the original Surfer Girl." Minnie Riperton is buried here also, and her stone, now long faded, carries the first line of "Loving You."

Some stars have markers as simple and straightforward as possible. I skipped right over Sebastian Cabot's marker at first.  It's just one of many similar, small markers in a large patch of them. "Family Affair's" Mr. French is not too far from his co-star on that show, Brian "Uncle Bill" Keith. Keith is buried in a garden-like part of the park, along with his daughter, Daisy. She was just 27 when she committed suicide in 1997, an ailing and saddened Keith followed with his own suicide 10 weeks later. His story is just one of many heartbreaking tales that the markers here cannot even begin to share.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Carroll O'Connor and his son rest together.

Also in the garden-like area is one of my favorite actors, Carroll O'Connor, a.k.a. Archie Bunker. O'Connor is buried with his beloved son, Hugh, who committed suicide after being unable to free himself from drug addiction. O'Connor made news after Hugh's death by helping to pass California's Drug Dealers Civil Liability Act. He was later sued for slander and invasion of privacy by the man he said dealt drugs to his son. O'Connor won the lawsuit.

Two famous murder victims also lie in Westwood Village. Playmate Dorothy Stratten's grave has a long and touching quote from "Farewell to Arms" that haunts me still. It reads: "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good, and the very gentle, and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry."

Dominique Dunne, star of "Poltergeist" and daughter of writer Dominick Dunne, is also buried in the park. Her stone is simple, has no long quote, and no indication of the details surrounding her murder. The boyfriend who strangled her was convicted only of manslaughter and was released after serving less than four years. Young Heather O'Rourke, another "Poltergeist" star, is also buried in Westwood Village -- she was just 12 when she died after emergency surgery.

On the lighter side of things, some gravestones actually bring a smile to a viewer's face. Rodney Dangerfield famously claimed that he got no respect while alive, and his marker carries on with that same self-deprecating attitude. It features only his name, and the words "There goes the neighborhood."

Director Billy Wilder has some fun final words, too. His stone reads "I'm a writer, but nobody's perfect."  And Jack Lemmon's stone may look incomplete at first, but it's funny, too. It simply reads: "Jack Lemmon in."

Some famous people aren't in Westwood Village yet, but they will be. We discovered a marker carved for Ray Bradbury, author of "Fahrenheit 451," but it was kind of leaning up against a stone wall and apparently not permanently placed yet. Which makes sense, since the famed science-fiction author is still living.

Los Angeles whizzes with activity, from Disneyland's rides to the crashing waves of the Pacific to the latest hot restaurant. But I'll always treasure our quiet, sunny Saturday at Westwood Village. I've had people tell me they think visiting cemeteries is ghoulish or makes them uncomfortable, but as long as visitors are respectful, I don't see it that way. It's a reminder that all of us, even the most famous, only have a short time on this earth, and no one, not even the richest, can buy one extra day.