Burbank resident Lisa Burks grew up in White Lake, Mich. with such a fascination for cemeteries that as a girl, if she remained cavity-free after a dentist visit, her mother rewarded her with trips to the neighborhood graveyard.
What interested her most were the tombstones and what they had to say, Burks said.
That inquisitive nature continues to serve her well as she writes a book on the history of Glendale’s Grand View Memorial Park, a cemetery whose well-being she has a stake in.
Burks regards Grand View as a gem among final resting places, although it’s in the shadow of other Los Angeles cemeteries. Her passionate contribution to the site, along with the contributions of dozens of other volunteers, is leading Grand View to a major comeback.
In 2005, when state officials discovered the remains of 4,000 people that were not properly interred, families of the deceased filed a class-action lawsuit. In 2006, Grand View was closed to the public.
Burks initially posted her disgruntled opinion about the closure online.
“I was mad that anybody would disrespect a cemetery and let it go,” she said.
Amid the turmoil, she was recruited as a citizen journalist, providing answers to why the grass was brown, when the next court date was and how best to clean a headstone. She still posts updates at GrandViewMemorialPark.info.
In May, Grand View reopened to visitors every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. as it waits for a buyer.
Volunteers have added markers to curbs, remade the map detailing where everyone is buried and created digital records. They donated computers for the office and toilet paper for the bathrooms. They greet families of loved ones and guide them to graves. They take weed whackers to crab grass infringing on head stones.
“I think people need that from volunteers. They want to know somebody cares,” Burks said. “My experience here is, I always want to contribute something positive.”
As she improves Grand View, Burks explores the past. When a name on a headstone catches her eye, she’ll delve into archives to learn what she can.
Her blog sharing these discoveries, “Adventures in Grave Hunting,” features the tagline, “Exploring History from the Ground Up.”
At Grand View, she’s learned the stories of civic leaders, baseball players, fireman, crime victims, entertainers, and military veterans.
Not long after tidying a grave marked “Tosca,” who died in 1933 at age 23, Burks learned that Tosca Izabel Querze Roulien was an actress from Brazil. She died in Hollywood after being struck by a car driven by now-famed director John Huston.
When Burks posted the findings on her website, a reader offered Burks photos of Tosca on her wedding day. Tosca’s nephew in Brazil independently contacted Burks after researching his aunt online, and Burks mailed him the wedding photos, which he had never seen.
“Cemeteries are not for everybody, I understand,” Burks said. “I don’t think that spirits hang out in cemeteries, but I think spirits generate energy. I think maybe there’s an energy that people don’t want to be forgotten.”
To volunteer at Grand View, contact David Baum at (310) 990-3660.