Even in the Land of the Dead, Things Change - Voice of San Diego

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Even in the Land of the Dead, Things Change

Sunday, April 5, 2009 | Thousands of the dead are spending eternity in anonymity at San Diego’s historic Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Some died destitute. Some were separated from their identities when their last moments came. Whatever the case, they were buried at taxpayer expense, their graves bereft of headstones or memorial plaques.

It’s been this way since the 1870s, when the county first began laying paupers to rest in a field that’s now part of Mt. Hope Cemetery. Perhaps 4,000 souls remain there today in a barren expanse of dirt and weeds.

More of the penniless lie under Mt. Hope’s lawns, sometimes buried three deep next to monuments honoring famous local citizens.

But even in the land of the dead, things change.

Just a few years ago, the city-owned cemetery stopped the practice of stacking the coffins of the destitute. Then it more than quintupled the rates for their burial thanks to a new interpretation of a land grant signed when Ulysses Grant was president.

The county, which is in charge of the indigent dead, balked at the higher prices and sought a better deal. It found one.

For now on, paupers will be buried on a windswept bluff in National City where individual markers will note their existence and, if they’re known, their names.

“They’re not forgotten,” said Luisa McCarthy, a volunteer who assists at La Vista Memorial Park. “Anyone who’s laid to rest here is treated like family.”

Back at Mt. Hope Cemetery, the indigent dead are getting recognition too, of a sort. An unusual statue created in honor of Mexican shoemakers is now watching over a section where dozens of undocumented immigrants may lie.

Meanwhile, there’s talk that Mt. Hope’s parched dirt-field graveyard, ironically known as Evergreen Cemetery, may take on new life as a place for the living.

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With a few notable exceptions, the nearly 79,000 people buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery spend their eternal rest amid eucalyptus and palm trees, winding roads and distinguished company.

Elaborate monuments, old-fashioned tombstones and flat memorial plaques honor luminaries like hard-boiled mystery author Raymond Chandler, city founding father Alonzo Horton and horticulturalist Kate Sessions.

Other permanent residents include a governor, the nation’s first female attorney, California’s first millionaire, who died broke, and a sprinkling of big names in San Diego’s history like the Jessops and the Marstons.

About 250-300 people are buried each year at Mt. Hope, which was reported in 1958 to be the only cemetery in the entire city that didn’t discriminate based on race or religion.

Until recently, the annual number of burials included about 50 indigents.

Some were discovered by the border, anonymous victims of heatstroke during treks to a promised land. Others were murdered, killed themselves or died of natural causes and left no money to pay for their burials.

Since 1875, they’ve have been buried with little or no ceremony. Unless families come to claim them, their names are only recorded at the cemetery office.

An estimated 4,000 paupers don’t even have the luxury of resting under grassy lawns and trees. They are buried in a section of Mt. Hope called Evergreen Cemetery, a weed-strewn, 10-acre dirt lot that’s home to just one memorial marker, possibly installed by a family that belatedly discovered where a relative was buried.

The poor were buried in this plot of land for decades, apparently until the 1960s. It is a “potter’s field,” the term for a pauper’s graveyard that dates to biblical stories about the death of Judas and a burying ground for strangers that once produced clay for pottery.

The city later began burying indigents in the main Mt. Hope Cemetery, and they might still be laid to rest there each year if it wasn’t for a new dispute over old property records.

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This much is clear: the city is in charge of the entire 120-acre Mt. Hope Cemetery, which sits south of Market Street between Interstates 805 and 15. It has owned much of the property since the 1870s, when the cemetery opened to serve the residents of a tiny town of 2,300 called San Diego.

But there was an exception. For decades, the county owned the adjoining potter’s field, called Evergreen Cemetery. Or so it thought.

In the 1940s, the county turned Evergreen Cemetery over to the city in return for a discount on indigent burials, said Clay Bingham, a deputy director with the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the cemetery operations.

The deal saved the county a bundle over the decades. Most recently, the county paid $776 each for burials of indigent adults, much less than the usual burial rate of more than $4,000.

But the city did research in recent years and discovered something surprising. “It turned out the property that was turned over didn’t belong to the county in the first place,” Bingham said. “It belonged to the city.”

The problem lay in 1875 paperwork. The state Legislature never approved a land transfer of the land to the county, Bingham said. If true, that means the county never legally got its hands on the Evergreen Cemetery property and couldn’t give it away decades later.

In that case, there was now “no quid pro quo,” Bingham said. In other words, the city doesn’t owe the county any special treatment.

So the prices for county-funded indigent burials went up. Way up. All the way to $4,400 for people who didn’t live in San Diego proper.

County officials decided to look for a cheaper rate elsewhere. And the city, which will operate the cemetery at a loss of about $300,000 this year, didn’t stop them.

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Thanks to greater acceptance of cremation, the county doesn’t pay to bury as many indigent people as it used to. But officials still must deal with plenty of people who die with no one to pay for the disposal of their remains.

“It’s a necessity, unfortunately,” said Lori Bays, the county’s public administrator/public guardian, who oversees what’s now known as the Indigent Burial and Cremation Program.

These days, most of the 90-120 indigents who die in San Diego County each year are cremated, their ashes scattered at sea by companies that contract with local mortuaries.

But some people are still buried, perhaps 50 a year, including homicide victims, unidentified people and the penniless whose religions frown on cremation.

Until late 2007, the burials took place at Mt. Hope. But then the county looked elsewhere, temporarily burying the dead at National City’s La Vista Memorial Park during a bidding process.

This year, the county finalized its deal with La Vista.

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Just as in the world of the living, location is everything in the land of the dead. So it’s no surprise that local pioneers created a cemetery on a hilltop overlooking the ocean.

Their graves are still here at La Vista Memorial Park, their rickety underground coffins posing a risk to the living if they happen to collapse as people walk above them.

La Vista owner Micaela Polansco is trying to restore the cemetery, which had fallen on hard times. She’s planting new landscaping, and workers are digging a new section to meet the special needs of Muslims who avoid traditional coffins.

Polansco agreed to bury the penniless dead at the cost of $2,500. She also offered to provide individual markers with names, if they’re known, and memorials noting that indigents are buried at the cemetery.

The county said that would be just fine.

Some indigent burials have already taken place, and there’s a temporary memorial adorned by three small American flags that says: “In loving memory/To the unknown but never forgotten/May you rest in peace.”

The dead will be remembered in another way. Former National City Councilman Luis Natividad holds annual Day of the Dead celebrations for the paupers buried at Mt. Hope, and he’ll now hold them at La Vista too.

Many of the indigent dead in San Diego are Latino, and some appear to have been undocumented immigrants.

“If your loved one came to the United States and tried to look for jobs and you never heard from them, you would assume they passed away,” Natividad said. “You don’t know if they are buried here, but it will make you feel better if someone comes over every year with flowers and incense, fruits and bread and water.”

When Natividad and others visit Mt. Hope later this year, there will be something new: a Mexican statue overlooking a cemetery section thought to hold hundreds of bodies of the penniless.

The statue, called “Our Lady of Shoes,” was a 1999 gift from the mayor of León, Mexico to San Diego Mayor Susan Golding. The city is known as the shoe capital of Mexico.

The lady, possibly intended to be the Virgin Mary, holds several shoes in her hands, including a pair of cowboy boots. Her hair features the pattern of a shoe tread.

Cemetery manager David Lugo said he thought the statue would be a “point of reference” for people who come to honor the indigent dead, pray and lay flowers. He hopes it will become the first artwork in an ongoing public art program at the cemetery.

Lugo, who stopped the practice of burying the destitute dead on top of each other, has other plans. He wants to turn the dirt-field Evergreen Cemetery into a city park, an option that the state allows for abandoned burial grounds.

Now, a hedge hides the field from the view of Mt. Hope visitors, and the cemetery uses the vacant land to store the large concrete vaults that will encase coffins under ground.

It’s not clear who, if anyone, is responsible for maintaining the graves and planting grass above them. For now, they are neglected.

But someday, if the cemetery manager’s wishes are realized, the dead may slumber under lush lawns amid the laughter of children and the crack of baseball bats.

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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