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Intersections: Mysteries are buried beside the cremains

In 2010, two women cleaning the basement of a MacArthur Park area apartment building found a 1930s steamer trunk. In it, two leather doctor's bags were discovered, each containing the mummified remains of an infant wrapped in newspaper.

A police investigation was launched and soon the trunk along with its human remains were identified as belonging to Janet M. Barrie, a Scottish-born nurse who cared for Mary Knapp, the wife of dentist George Knapp. After Mary died from breast cancer, Barrie married him. Four years later, George passed away, too.

And so Barrie lived in the apartment for decades, ultimately leaving L.A and the trunk behind for Canada.

After DNA testing confirmed that both infants belonged to Barrie, the investigation closed, but a slew of questions remained. The need for answers becomes urgent, especially if you're standing next to the urn that holds the remains of Barrie, George and his first wife Mary in the Great Mausoleum, an area of Glendale's Forest Lawn that is off limits to the public and houses remains of the rich and famous.

Theirs is just one box of cremains among thousands of others. Some urns are ordinary, others are shaped like acorns or rockets and adorned with meaningful symbols of status and fraternity. We walk along the halls, and another urn of note appears, this one belonging to Marion Parker, a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped by William Edward Hickman in 1927 for ransom.

Hickman ultimately strangled her, dismembered and disemboweled her, stuffing her with rags. After the ransom money was exchanged, he pushed Marion’s body out of his car. Her eyes were wired open to make her look alive.

Hearing these stories, told by grave hunters Jayne Obsorne and Mark Masek, while standing next to the cremains of the central characters, is like witnessing history, or at least its tangible aftermath.

As we move quickly, notable graves like that of the Mulhollands and Golden Gate Bridge builder Joseph Strauss appear, but another marker catches my eye. “Russell Frederick and Ila Dixon Buntz. World travelers, met in Paris, France as students, were married there,” it reads, their actual wedding rings molded next to each other.

At one point, Osborne shows me the narrow, dark tunnel hidden in the “gentlemen's” bathroom that maintenance workers have to slowly walk through to change stained glass window lights — which is why they don't get changed too often, she says. I don't blame them.

Finally, we come to a fitting grand finale. Flanked by tall stained glass windows — a recreation of Nicola D'Ascenzo's “The Ascension” — is the magnificent tomb of Michael Jackson.

Perhaps more interesting, however, are those who seek it out. Across his final resting place, devoted fans, affectionately known as “window lickers,” according to Osborne, gather outside the doors to pay tribute, leaving flowers and cards outside, hoping desperately to somehow find their way inside.

Joanna Ramos is one of them.

She visits around four times a week, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

An early childhood teacher who was recently laid off, Ramos was making monthly payments toward securing a plot in the Mausoleum, which can cost up to the five figure range, even though she's only 29 years old. Tattoos of Jackson's face adorn her arm.

“I'll be here forever,” she says when asked how long she'll be coming to see him. “To us, he's part of our family, and you visit the people in your family.”

It's a fitting quote for the day.

When Hubert Eaton built the Great Mausoleum, he aimed to honor its residents equally in death as they had been in life. Considering the rich history, fascinating stories and the extraordinary lives of ordinary people housed within its sturdy marble halls, my only regret is that it remains perpetually hidden from most of the world.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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