For sale: a double plot by Marilyn, Swifty and Burt

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"BURIAL CRYPT. Join Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Burt Lancaster, Swifty Lazar, Darryl Zanuck. Two side-by-side spaces for sale at Westwood Village Memorial Park. Private Party." So went the advert that appeared recently in Variety, the best known trade paper to "the industry".

The "private party" who answers the phone is Dr Betty Berzon, a Los Angeles psychotherapist, author and long-time gay activist. The price tag on her double lot, rubbing shoulders with celebrities in undoubtedly the most exclusive cemetery in Los Angeles: $70,000 (pounds 43,750). So far there have been no takers. Her father, whom she buried in the cemetery earlier this year, bought the space in 1981, she said. Now she and her lesbian partner have decided on another spot.

"Frankly, I am shocked at how expensive they are," she said. "But it's a small cemetery, and there is not much space left. They sell those crypts for much more than we are asking ... it buys you practically nothing except the real estate."

The death styles of the rich and famous, satirised by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One, are a source of frequent fascination for visitors to Los Angeles. No travel guide or witty expose of real life in the City of Angels comes without a visit to Forest Lawn, the self-parodying Disneyland of cemeteries, where the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Walt Disney are interned in a theme park of morbidity. But a tour of cemeteries in Los Angeles is more than freakishly fascinating. A place that exalts the young and the beautiful betrays much of its values, cultures and remarkably short history in the placement of its dead.

There are 70 cemeteries in LA, with roughly three million buried; but the oldest functioning cemetery dates back just 120 years. Real estate agents trying to sell you a home in Los Angeles inevitably let drop the name of which celebrity lived a few doors down. It is the local marker of quality, and the same apparently goes for graves. "It's a kick, because famous people are buried there," says Dr Berzon, "and after a funeral everybody walks around and takes a look."

You can be buried cheaply in the city, but you're measured by the company you keep. At the Odd Fellows Cemetery in what is now largely Hispanic east Los Angeles, a grave site goes for as little as $3,000 (pounds 1,800). It's a quiet spot, but the closest celebrities are the actor who played Pancho in The Cisco Kid, and another who was the voice of one of the seven dwarfs in Snow White.

In Permanent Californians, a tourists' guide to California cemeteries, Odd Fellows is overlooked. Not so the Home of Peace, the grand Jewish cemetery down the road where the Warner brothers are buried, or the Catholic cemetery, Calvary, that sits opposite it. Further on are Chinese and even Serbian graveyards.

The Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, in the heart of old Hollywood, is littered with famous names from the early epics, from Rudolph Valentino to Cecil B De Mille. But its owners were declared bankrupt last year, unable even to finance repairs after the 1994 earthquake. Its charm derives from the weeds and cracks, an unfinished mausoleum, a sense that time stopped here 30 or even 50 years ago.

The dilapidated 98-year-old cemetery, the size of several city blocks, changed hands recently for a mere $375,000 (pounds 234, 375). The new graves are Russian, the dead of the large refugee community settled in the grungy surrounding neighbourhoods. The studios long ago abandoned Hollywood proper for the suburbs; the movie stars have moved to Beverly Hills or smart west Los Angeles.

Forest Lawn is the grand-daddy of LA cemeteries, but Westwood, where Dr Berzon's crypts were for sale, is a place that rings of real class. Barely bigger than a country churchyard, the three-acre cemetery is tucked away in a side road off Wilshire Boulevard, surrounded by high-rise offices in a wealthy business district. You don't stumble across it easily. There's a smallish mausoleum and a new crematorium, and a rose garden over which to scatter ashes. Staff hand out a list of 100 buried celebrities, but decline to guide you to them.

Most of the names on the list do not ring even the faintest bell. Only a few, it seems, survive being dated and dead. Natalie Wood's gravestone is sprinkled with one-cent coins, a Russian Orthodox symbol of good luck for the actress born Natasha Gurdin, drowned off the Los Angeles coast in 1981. Below Dean Martin's crypt someone has placed a single flower in an empty rum bottle.

At Monroe's crypt, plainly inscribed with her name and dates, loyal fans still stop by every week, along with a steady stream of tourists, to leave flowers or simply place their fingers on the crypt door - never mind what's on the other side of it. Services to mark her life and death still draw big crowds.

"Marilyn is probably more approachable in death than in life," says Nancy Fenderson, the cemetery manager. "When you have a public life, in death that's going to follow you. That's part of the deal."