Picking Jackson's Burial Place: Security Was Key

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Freeman / Empics / Abaca

Holly Terrace at Forest Lawn in Glendale, Calif., the mausoleum where Michael Jackson will be buried on Sept. 3, 2009

The private invitation is understated considering the life it is commemorating: a beige cover, with two corded strands, one black, one brown, each ending in sashes, framing the words "Michael Jackson: August 29, 1958 - June 25, 2009." It opens to a portrait of the artist in vivid color, holding flowers. Other portraits — a young Michael and an older Michael, in what is presumably a carnival ground on his Neverland estate — decorate other pages in the thin brochure, along with lyrics and words by the deceased. It asks the recipient to be at The Great Mausoleum of Forest Lawn Memorial Park by 7 p.m. on Sept. 3 for a private service over his "final resting place."

Many aspects of the Great Mausoleum in Glendale, Calif., would have delighted Michael Jackson. It is, in its way, a kind of necrological version of his Neverland, filled with Hollywood pomp, kitsch and idiosyncrasy: rolling hills; art so classic, it's almost camp; and an impressive collection of the relics of the famous dead. But above all, Michael Joseph Jackson's family will take comfort in knowing that their often reclusive son will probably be undisturbed by prying fans and press. "Security was highly critical in the final decision," a source close to the family tells TIME. "[Michael's brother] Randy Jackson was tasked with checking out all of these places, and he worked with the family to make sure Michael will be protected all the time. That was a high priority."

At one point, members of the family actually debated whether to inter the deceased King of Pop in his Neverland estate. Indeed, his brother Jermaine told Larry King that Neverland would have been ideal. "I'm just concerned about security and being secure in a peaceful setting," he said. But Neverland was not popular with all the Jackson family members. There were too many negative associations with Michael's once beloved home: police raided the place in 2005 looking for evidence to be presented in his molestation trial. "That destroyed the magic for him, it really did," his nephew Taj Jackson tells TIME. "Neverland was never an option for me. When I heard it was being considered, I immediately called [Michael's mother Katherine]. She was thinking the same way as well. Michael felt that Neverland was tainted."

Forest Lawn offered a clean slate surrounded by a who's who of Old Hollywood. The 300-acre hillside sanctuary is the final resting place of Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracey, Sammy Davis Jr., Errol Flynn and George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen. Humphrey Bogart and "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford are yards away from each other in the same walled (and locked) garden. Around the grounds are chapels — replicas of famous European churches — such as the "Wee Kirk o' the Heather" (Ronald Reagan tied the knot with Jane Wyman there in 1940). In other locations there are replicas of Michelangelo's David and La Pieta. A massive stained-glass version of one of Jackson's favorite works of Renaissance art, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, is the artistic highlight of the Great Mausoleum. (Jackson had a version of the painting at Neverland, with Christ replaced by himself and the disciples by the likes of Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein.)

The Great Mausoleum takes its architectural inspiration from the Campo Santo in Genoa, Italy, and features 11 terraces, each named for a flower and filled with its own set of luminaries. Jackson will lie in the Holly Terrace, sharing proximity with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. And Jackson will not be far from the comic Red Skelton, whom he once befriended. "Red was very fond of Michael and would no doubt find humor in the fact that they will be spending eternity together," says a Skelton friend.

Another neighbor will be the classic comedian from an even earlier era: W.C. Fields. "They have only the moon in common," says grandson Ronald Fields. "Michael Jackson did the moonwalk, and W.C. Fields loved moonshine. Besides that, I think he'd be just fine with it." Ronald points out that while some find the gothic setting inspiring, it can be a bit morose. "I don't think [W.C.] would have liked it in there," says Ronald, who has written three books about his grandfather. "He didn't like gloomy places. It can be scary there, for God's sake. You expect to hear organ music much of the time."

If the stained-glass lighting within the arched-ceiling architecture is not enough to put the fear of God into trespassers, the not-so-subtle security will keep them away. That has been a feature of the mausoleum long before its latest celebrity client. Family members and plot holders must pass through guards or security camera–manned doors in order to visit loved ones in the structure. Curious wandering is forbidden. Roger Sinclair, 77, a historian of cemeteries who has bought a plot for himself in the Great Mausoleum, was not made to feel welcome, even as a future occupant. Says Sinclair: "I was looking at Travis Banton, a costume designer located near W.C. Fields. And the guards came right up and stood there, two guys in suits. They walked me away, and I was escorted out." Explains Sinclair: "I'm a property owner, and I wasn't at my [exact] property. It's not a place to go wander around."

Sinclair remembers a time when the area was relatively open. Security guards recall an incident decades ago when a vandal-prankster removed a brass letter from one of the celebrity plaques. Since then, sections have been either locked off or carefully monitored. Sinclair adds, "There are cameras and sound devices."

Lisa Burks, a friend of Sinclair's and a self-described "grave hunter" (her website is called Adventures in Grave Hunting), says she was once escorted from the Great Mausoleum by security after leaving flowers at Jean Harlow's grave. "If the Jackson family wants privacy, they could not have picked a better place than this," says Burks. "This place is the cream of the crop for protecting celebrities."