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Fans Mourn, Remember Chris Cornell at Public Memorial Service

The memorial service for singer Chris Cornell drew a solemn crowd of family, friends and tearful admirers to Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Friday. Cornell’s musical comrades in Soundgarden and Audioslave, with whom he’d created lasting, explosive songs, joined comics, classic rockers, movie stars and grunge contemporaries in remembering the singer-guitarist. But when the service was over, and the park opened to to the public, it was Cornell’s most hardcore fans who spent the day singing and weeping around the gleaming headstone, which read: “Voice of our generation and an artist for all time.”

The headstone fittingly laid beside the memorial statue of the late Johnny Ramone, an epic sculpture of the punk rock guitar hero leaning into a riff. In recent years, Cornell had been a VIP guest at Hollywood Forever’s annual birthday celebration for the late Ramones guitarist. (The cemetery is also where bassist Dee Dee Ramone is buried.) A mountain of flowers, scattered guitar picks, prayer beads, beer bottles, votive candles, drawings and personal notes – “Thank you, Chris” and “Rock in Peace,” among them – quickly covered Cornell’s headstone.

“Is it weird to love someone you didn’t know? I think all these people here loved him in their own way,” Rita Neyter Skiles, a Cornell fan since she was a teenager in the early 1990s, tells Rolling Stone. Neyter was now mourning in a long black dress and tall laced boots. Coming to see and touch the headstone was “therapeutic,” she adds.

She met Cornell decades earlier at a Soundgarden autograph signing at a Hollywood record store and saw him perform at least 15 times in his bands’ and solo tours. The last time was his 2015 solo acoustic tour behind his Higher Truth album. Coming to the memorial made the shock of his death real, she says.

“There’s a sense of camaraderie here. Everyone is trying to connect in the same way.”

During a career of more than three decades, Cornell rose from the alternative underground to become a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling artist and one of the most powerful and distinctive singers in hard rock. At 52, he died by suicide in his hotel room in the early morning of May 18th, just hours after performing a Soundgarden concert in Detroit.

“I’ve been in denial since I heard the news,” Skiles, 42, explains as fans nearby gently sang Soundgarden’s “Outshined.” “It’s very surreal. I’ve had moments of release and hurt. There’s a sense of camaraderie here. Everyone is trying to connect in the same way.”

On the narrow asphalt road beside the gravesite, Angel Morales, 40, set up a microphone and plugged an electric guitar into a small P.A. to perform two Audioslave songs. He began with “I Am the Highway” and followed with the soaring “Like A Stone” before cemetery staff interrupted him. Other fans continued singing the song as Morales packed up.

“I just wanted to say goodbye his way,” says Morales, clad in jeans and a black dress shirt. “Chris Cornell was one of my inspirations for music. I got into music because of him.”

Friends Lyndsey Palumbo, 30, and Jaclyn Cramden, 29, arrived in matching silver lavender hair. Both were longtime Cornell fans: Soundgarden was the first concert Palumbo ever attended, and Cramden discovered Cornell through Audioslave. Watching fans mourning – some paused to touch the grave marker, while others quietly snapped a selfie with the mound of flowers and messages for the singer – was “overwhelming” for Palumbo. “I went silent, kind of like shock – just looking at all the flowers and everyone’s writing things on it,” she says. “He left an impression on so many people. His voice touched people’s souls.”

Cramden wore her boyfriend’s Soundgarden T-shirt reading “Screaming Live 88,” commemorating a tour from the year she was born. Cramden got to see Cornell perform just once, during last year’s Temple of the Dog reunion tour. “You think back – and that was such an experience,” she says, voice cracking, “that you were lucky enough to see him, and you didn’t think it was going to mean so much.”

Later in the afternoon, someone brought out an acoustic guitar, which was passed around as fans took turns playing songs connected to Cornell. Some found the right chords easily, with others struggling to remember. Nearby was Eric Deez, 32, in black leather motorcycle jacket with lapels covered in pins with band names, skulls and the face of Charles Manson. “Soundgarden wasn’t a flash in the pan. It was a major movement,” says Deez, who learned of Cornell’s death after waking up to the news on his cell phone. “He went down as the best vocalist of all time – at least in hard rock. The legacy there is going to last forever.”

“He’s my best friend – though I never met him”

One of the fans who sat the longest beside the gravestone Friday was Celeste Barrella, 28, who arrived that morning from Argentina. She planned to fly home the next morning. A few days earlier, she got a fresh tattoo on her left forearm, partially echoing both an early Soundgarden song and Audioslave lyric from “Shadow of the Sun”: “LOUD LOVE – In memory of one who resides inside my skin.”

“He’s my best friend – though I never met him,” Barrella said of Cornell, in long black hair and red plaid shirt. Behind her right ear was an older tattoo, the flame insignia of Audioslave, a band she discovered at age 13 and which she said “changed my life.”

“Audioslave had the most powerful lyrics that Chris wrote,” she adds. “He was going though a really tough moment in his life … It represented what was happening to me too. I was going through my adolescence. You just don’t know what to do, who to talk with. And he had the words I needed at that moment.”

Just over a week before, news of Cornell’s death sent Barrella into overwhelming grief. She spent hours crying at her computer at work, and her boss sent her home. Now she was at the gravesite, observing Cornell’s name etched in stone. “It’s not a goodbye to me,” she says. “He lives with me. All the fans, we have to keep his memory alive. He needs us to do that.”

After spending the day at the cemetery, Barrella said she would eventually leave and continue with her life, and maybe find a welcome moment of escape during her remaining hours in Los Angeles. “I’m going to stick around for a while,” she said, “then I’m going to find something happier to do.” 

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