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Fame! I Wanna Live Forever: How Narcissism Conquered Reality

Our celebrity-centered culture plunges us into a moral void. It offers the illusion of immortality and promotes self-love over the common good.

I visited the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles a few days ago. It is advertised as "the final resting place to more of Hollywood's founders and stars than anywhere else on Earth." The 60-acre cemetery holds the remains of 135 Hollywood luminaries, including Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Nelson Eddy, Peter Lorre, Mel Blanc and John Huston.

We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones. And in American society, our gods are often celebrities. Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities. Our celebrity culture builds reliquaries and shrines to celebrities the way Romans built them for divine emperors, ancestors and household gods. We are a de facto polytheistic society. We engage in shamanism. Relics of celebrities, like relics of the dead among ancestor cults in Africa, Asia or the medieval Catholic Church, are coveted as magical talismans. 

Hollywood Forever is next to Paramount Studios. The massive white HOLLYWOOD letters on the hillside tower above the tombs and Italian Renaissance-inspired marble buildings that hold rows of crypts. Maps with the locations of stars' graves, along with a glossy booklet of brief star biographies, are handed out at the gate. Tourists are promised visits with dead stars, who are referred to as "residents." The cemetery, which has huge marble monuments to the wealthy and the powerful, is divided into sections with names like "Garden of Eternal Love" and "Garden of Legends." It has two massive marble mausoleums, including the Cathedral Mausoleum, with 6,000 crypts -- the largest mausoleum in the world when it was built in the 1930s. Most of the celebrities, however, have simple bronze plaques that seem to indicate a yearning for the anonymity denied to them in life.

The cemetery, established in 1899 and called Hollywood Memorial Park, fell into disrepair and neglect some eight or nine decades after it was opened. By the 1990s, some families, including relatives of the makeup artist Max Factor, paid to have their loved ones removed from the grounds. By April 1996, the property was bankrupt. The cemetery was months away from being condemned. It was bought by Tyler Cassidy and his brother Brent, who renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery and began a marketing campaign around its celebrity "residents." The brothers established the "Forever Network," in which the noncelebrity departed could, at least in death, be the stars of their own home movies. The cemetery Web site archives the video tributes. "Families, young and old, are starting their LifeStories now, and adding to them as the years pass," the cemetery's brochure states. "What this means -- having our images, voices, and videos available for future generations -- has deep importance, both sociologically and for fully celebrating life." At funerals these specially produced tributes, which often include highlights from home videos, are shown on screens next to the caskets of the deceased. The cemetery's business is booming.

It costs a lot to be buried near a celebrity. Hugh Hefner reportedly paid $85,000 to reserve the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe at Los Angeles' Westwood Village Memorial Park Ceremony. The "prestige service" offered by Hollywood Forever runs $5,400. Jay Boileau, the executive vice president of the cemetery, conceded that getting a crypt near Valentino costs even more, although he said he did not have the price list with him. "We have sold most of them," he said of the crypts near Valentino. "Visits to his crypt are unique. Every year we hold a memorial service for him on the day he passed away. He was the first true sex symbol. Ten thousand people came to his funeral. He was the first Brad Pitt. He was the first true superstar in film and the greatest screen lover." 

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