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100 things every WNY-er should do: Visit Forest Lawn

If there is proof that Buffalo really is one big room, surely it lies in Forest Lawn. Everywhere you look, you see someone you know.

While my friends crossed a path toward Rick James’ grave, I hesitated.

“Look,” I said. “There’s Adam E. Cornelius.”

I had seen that name on one of the freighters that pass by The Buffalo News. He co-founded the American Steamship Co. Now here the shipping magnate was, at his final port.

Forgive my sentimentality. Forest Lawn was new to me – and overwhelming.

It took me forever just to move past the gates, so transfixing was the huge statue of an angry Red Jacket and his stark words about the avarice of the white man. It seemed a divisive introduction to this peaceful place. Maybe they want to shock you.

Deeper into the cemetery, all was still.

On a moody, overcast weekday, few people were there. A school group was sketching. A few women from a shelter turned up on a scavenger hunt, looking for Rick James. Aside from these visitors, the only sound was the rustling of the creek. Lakes lay like mirrors.

You can love Forest Lawn simply for its beauty, for the leaves in the fall and the blossoms in the spring. I can’t do that. I am too preoccupied by the people I pass. Cicero J. Hamlin – I had just had lunch at his house, the Hamlin House. The Butlers owned The Buffalo Evening News. Dorothy Goetz, wife of songwriter Irving Berlin, died at 20, and though he remarried happily, he left a white rose on her grave every other day. What a faithful, romantic man.

Catholics are more likely to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. Seeking former mayors, you won’t find Francis X. Schwab, who is in Mount Calvary, or Jimmy Griffin, who is in Holy Cross. Forest Lawn is remarkably diverse. Many monuments are secular. Departed Schoellkopfs rest around a wishing well. A giant elk commemorates departed Elks. The statue of a graceful woman with a raised hand is titled “Aspiration.”

Lives swirled around me. Statues made me weepy. Larry Griffis’ “The Sisters” is so innocent. A sweet statue of a child sculpted by Grace Rumsey Goodyear is dedicated to all children. The Blocher Memorial, a vivid deathbed scene complete with hovering angel, seemed so cathartic I had to look away.

A few graves caught me off guard.

Millard Fillmore’s was one. Born dirt poor, he grew up to be one of the most glamorous men of his era. They hold a ceremony on his birthday, Jan. 7, that is on our 100 Things list.

Rick James’ grave, when I finally saw it, seemed sweet and humble. The epitaph concluded: “It’s all about love – God is love.”

Then there was Darwin Martin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s patron. Martin figured before in the 100 Things, when we visited his summer home, Graycliff. There we learned that the brilliant businessman had lost his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. At Forest Lawn, his saga continued. Martin had hoped to spend eternity in a Wright house and so in 1928 he commissioned the now famous Blue Sky Mausoleum. But he is not in it. He lies a distance away, beneath a donated monument. His family could not afford a headstone.

So many stories. Over the next few days it shadowed me, this hidden world I had seen in the midst of the city, behind the gates. I will have to pay another visit.

Jan. 7 sounds good. Meet you at Millard Fillmore’s grave.