This past weekend, Hollywood Gothique went Beyond the Grave; now, we have returned to tell the tale. Read on…if you dare!
Despite the spooky title, the Beyond the Grave Tour at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry is a non-scary event, one of several examples in Los Angeles of museums and historical society’s taking advantage of the Halloween season to generate in interest in the customs and lore of the past. In this case, the concept is to illustrate the change in attitude toward death, dying, funerals, and spiritualism from the 19th to the 20th century, as illustrated by some historical landmarks from those periods. The result is both educational and entertaining: history buffs should be well pleased; and even Halloween fans will find a few moments of tongue-in-cheek spookery.
The Beyond the Grave Tour is a variation on the Homestead Museum’s year-round tours, which examine local history by focusing on the occupants of two adjacent houses and a nearby family mausoleum and cemetery. The Workman House was built in the mid 1800s; the Temple House was built in the early 1900s. Though the surnames differ, the families were connected through a maternal line of descent; successful entrepreneurs, they had a considerable impact in the area, with cities and streets named after them (e.g., nearby Temple City).
Much of this information is retained in the Beyond the Grave Tour, but the emphasis is less on living than dying. In the 19th century, when the Workman family occupied their house, death was much more a family matter; funerals took place in the family parlor, and bodies were buried nearby. By the 20th century, the funeral industry was taking over, and families were much more likely to entrust the dearly departed to professionals, who provided funeral parlors where the deceased could like in state until final services were rendered.
The Beyond the Grave Tour is roughly divided into three parts: first in the Workman House; then the Temple House; finally in the Walter P. Temple mausoleum and the Campo Santo Cemetery. In the Workman House, there is a slide show explaining general details about 19th century funeral customs, along with specifics related to the Workman family (who were so well known that their funerals merited write-ups in local papers). The Temple House (much more beautiful and elaborately decorated than the Workman House) features a few period Halloween decorations and a display of magazines related to the funeral industry (e.g. “Embalmer’s Monthly,” which sounds like a joke but isn’t). The mausoleum and cemetery portion of the tour is less formal – basically a walk around the premises, during which you can ask questions of the tour guide.
The historical aspect of the tour is quite interesting, especially as it details the manner in which the growth of Los Angeles County was paralleled by the growth in cemeteries, because the burgeoning population resulted in more bodies that needed to be buried. However, in the 1800s, when a ride from the City of Industry to downtown Los Angeles would take a day, it was a good idea for well-to-do families to have their own private cemetery, hence the existence of El Campo Santo. In the 1900s, with the innovation of embalming, bodies no longer needed to be interred immediately, so it was possible to send loved ones to distant cemeteries (as long as they were packed in a new, durable metal coffin).
The highlight of this year’s Beyond the Grave Tour was a presentation-performance focusing on Victorian era attitudes toward death and dying. First, an Undertaker (Walter Nelson) regaled the audience with tales of how the new funeral industry made a financial killing – not only on services for the dead but also mourning attire for widows (who were expected to wear black for a year). As if this were not bad enough, there was money to be made in post-mortem photography, posing the deceased as if alive (often with a living relative in the photo).
Next, a Medium (Sheila Murphy-Nelson) performed a séance. The joke here was that, although the séance was an accurate recreation of the real thing, it was performed with the lights on, so that the trickery was clearly visible. As the Medium spoke to those holding hands around the table and invoked the spirits to appear, the Undertaker furtively flicked the hair of “unsuspecting” participants, stomped on the floor in response to questions (once for yes, twice for no), and thrust a flimsy paper ghost-on-a-stick over the table. Presumably, at night, illuminated only by a single, dim candle on the table, the brief flash of white would have been quite alarming; by daylight, the effect was enjoyably laughable.
So, you will never be scared while going Beyond the Grave at the Homestead Museum, but you will see a few “spooks,” while learning some interesting historical facts. This Halloween season, the tour was offered only on Sunday, October 25, but the Homestead Museum gives historical tours year-round, covering some of the same material. Those interested in Los Angeles history are advised to take one of those tours, and save a spot on their calendars for next October.
Beyond the Grave Tours take place one weekend every October, usually just before Halloween, starting at 1pm. The Homestead Museum is located at 15415 East Don Julian Road in the City of Industry, California. Their website is: www.homesteadmuseum.org.
Click any image below to open a slide show of the Beyond the Grave Tour, along with additional shots of the grounds of the Homestead Museum. Photographs by Alisa C. Twombly and Steve Biodrowski.