LA Underground: Pierce Brothers / Valhalla Cemetery

I like cemeteries. Always have. Is that weird? Morbid? Maybe so, but there it is. I like them best when the weather is gray and threatening rain, when the trees are down to their last red and brown leaves and the windblown bouquets left behind for the dead are the only spots of bright color anywhere in sight.

Verdant and becalmed, cemeteries feel like slow-swirling eddies in the torrent of day-to-day time. To step through cemetery gates is to step into another world—or at least up to the border between this one and the next. The increments of time that matter here are those that measure the passing of generations or the gradual erosion of marble and limestone. Decades shading into centuries, not the minutes and hours that organize our living world.

Busy LA bustles around its cemeteries in a time-lapse blur of growth and change, rarely pausing to reflect or look back. And yet the past remains, buried in these quiet corners.

The Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park sits just to the south of Burbank Airport, and departing jets blast across its patch of sky every twenty minutes or so. Far from being an intrusion, the roaring planes seem to compliment the shrine to aviation located at the eastern end of the property. Originally built as the cemetery’s entrance in the early 1920s, the impressive rotunda remained the tallest structure in Burbank through the 1930s, and was said to be used as a point of reference by pilots landing at the nearby airfield. It was named The Portal of the Folded Wings in 1953 and dedicated to pioneers of flight. The Wright brothers’ mechanic Charlie Taylor is interred there today, amongst others, and former North Hollywood resident Amelia Earhart is memorialized with a cenotaph.

In its earliest days Valhalla was a local attraction, used for picnics, concerts, radio broadcasts, and other public events. In 1925 its founders John R. Osborne and C.C. Fitzpatrick were both convicted of fraud, accused of selling the same burial plots multiple times. The state of California took over operation of the cemetery until Pierce Brothers Mortuaries acquired it in 1950. Although the Pierce Brothers name remains on the sign, it’s been a part of the Dignity Memorial Network, a nationwide chain, since the early 1990s.

If flight is the cemetery’s official theme, entertainment is its subtext. Valhalla is the final resting place for scores of early Hollywood’s performers and technicians, including legendary comedian Oliver Hardy (although Stan Laurel is buried a few miles south, at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills). The film and aviation industries have each left indelible marks on southern California, and at Valhalla some of that history is carved in stone.

The Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park is located at 10621 Victory Boulevard, North Hollywood CA 91606.

Photography by Tamara Traver