Hollywood Forever’s event is the biggest Day of the Dead festival at a cemetery in the United States.
The only Dia de los Muertos festivities held in a functioning cemetery arose after an event of which current residents of Los Angeles are well aware, the 1997 El Nino that is widely expected to return to Southern California this winter. The 1997 El Nino flooded the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, after which its owners sold it in bankruptcy to Tyler Cassity, its current owner.
“I purchased it for breadcrumbs in 1998,” he says. “We were coming to a Latino neighborhood that I had no connection to, so I said that we should let our neighbors know that they are welcome by starting this event.”
Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday that celebrates the communion of the living with the dead, seen as the mystical night when the veil between the living and the dead is lifted. The holiday was so integral to the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico that even after Spain conquered the region, the holiday remained and still thrives even five centuries after the Spanish conquest. Despite its enduring strength as an event in Mexican culture, it seems an unlikely fit for Cassity, who started in the funeral business through his family in Missouri and came to Los Angeles from New York.
Cassity took a trip to Oaxaca in order to learn about Dia de los Muertos.
“I really got the heart of the event, and spending all night in a cemetery with families young and old and the dead all together. Bringing that back to Los Angeles, it was taking from the branch of this old tree and planting it in L.A., where you have Latino culture combined with Hollywood culture, and all the creativity that those two forces together can mean.”
He and his team, which includes Jay Boileau, executive vice president/director of cultural events at Hollywood Forever, eventually developed the Dia de los Muertos festival at the cemetery into a massive event.
“It’s the biggest Day of the Dead festival at a cemetery in the United States. We were the first cemetery to do it in Southern California,” Boileau mentions. “It’s really spectacular, and there’s no way to adequately describe it. There are well over 100 altars that are created. Some are very modern, some are traditional. There are hundreds of dancers in costume. We have incredible stages, arts and crafts and food. It’s really a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever features both traditional elements of the festival as well as those that provide a fusion of cultures; this may be the only Day of the Dead event that features a performance by a Mariachi band that does a tribute to Morrissey and the Smiths. This year’s Main Stage musical lineup includes Lila Downs, Huichol Musical, La Misa Negra, El Mariachi Manchester and Edna Vasquez.
What Boileau stresses, however, is that it is not a celebration of the other major autumn cultural event.
“We always do it the last Saturday before the Day of the Dead,” he says, but this year that date falls on Oct. 31. “We wanted to make sure that it’s clear that it’s not a Halloween event, so that’s why it’s on Oct. 24.”
For Cassity and Boileau, Hollywood Forever Cemetery provides an opportunity for cultural events such as this. The Cinespia film series every summer offers the L.A. community the chance to see classic films at an outdoor location at night, and the cemetery also hosts a concert series meant to appeal to diverse audiences.
Boileau stresses the importance of maintaining a level of dignity at the location: “We’re a fully functioning cemetery, period. Anything we do, we do in mind with the fact that we have to show respect for this important landmark. It’s definitely a labor of love. We keep our ticket prices low, and our value to the attendee high.”
The Cinespia series and the Hollywood Forever concerts are still the progeny of Cassity’s original event at the cemetery.
“The Day of the Dead gave birth to our events program,” he says. “Miguel just performed to a sold-out audience two months ago. This event inspired all of that, if you can imagine. We have a certain duty to interpret and expose.”
Cassity sees the event as one inspired not only by traditional Mexican culture, but by Los Angeles itself.
“We’re a city of creativity. We value that more than anything. That’s what I love about Los Angeles.”
Dia de los Metros festival is Oct. 24 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles). For tickets and more information, visit ladayofthedead.com.
Marvin Vasquez contributed to this story.