Wait, the City Owns a Cemetery?! - Voice of San Diego

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Wait, the City Owns a Cemetery?!

Earlier this week, I took a spin around local cemeteries for my story about what happens to destitute dead people in San Diego County.

Here are a few questions and answers about everything from the shoe lady statue to the one grave in 4,000 that has a name.

Q: San Diego owns the Mt. Hope Cemetery, where some 69,000 people are laid to rest. How unusual is it for a city to own a cemetery?

A: Very unusual. City-owned cemeteries are rare in California, although they used to be more common in the first half of the 20th century.

Empty concrete vaults are stored at Mt. Hope Cemetery’s potter’s field and await coffins. Judd’s grave, not visible, is at the right rear of the field in this view. Photo: Randy Dotinga

Around the 1940s, cities began converting their cemeteries to something called a cemetery district. That’s a government agency that runs a cemetery and has the power to tax people to pay for things.

The North County Cemetery District, for example, runs cemeteries in San Marcos and Escondido.

But San Diego didn’t go the cemetery district route and kept Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Q: Couldn’t the city sell the 120-acre cemetery and make a bundle from one of those giant funeral conglomerates?

A: It might be possible for San Diego to sell Mt. Hope, but it would require a public vote to change the city charter, said Clay Bingham, a deputy director with the city Park and Recreation Department, which oversees Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Voters might not be thrilled by the idea. Mt. Hope now operates at a loss — the city subsidizes it — and a for-profit company would most likely raise the rates for burial.

Q: What’s with the shoe lady statue who now watches over the indigent dead at Mt. Hope? Who’s she supposed to be, the Virgin Mary?

A: The statue is called “Our Lady of Shoes,” and “Our Lady” typically refers to the Virgin Mary. I contacted the city arts commission to try to get more information about the statue, but there doesn’t seem to be much available.

In case you’re wondering, the statue doesn’t depict the patron saint of shoemaking. That is St. Crispin, and he’s a man. (He’s also considered the patron saint of the leather community, at least according to Wikipedia.)

A full view of Mt. Hope Cemetery’s “Our Lady of Shoes” statue, which sits in a section that is home to hundreds of indigent burials, as the San Diego Trolley rumbles by. Photo: Randy Dotinga

Here’s a full-length photo of the statue. And yes, that’s the San Diego Trolley rolling by on a route that goes through Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Q: How do other places take care of their indigent dead?

A: Here, indigents are either buried or cremated and their ashes spread at sea. Not so elsewhere.

In San Joaquin County, ashes of the destitute dead end up in a “community inurnment site,” whatever that is.

In Oregon, at least as of 2007, the unclaimed dead often ended up as medical research subjects, according to the Portland newspaper.

Q: An empty dirt field at Mt. Hope is home to about 4,000 bodies, but only one of them has a marker, a man who died way back in 1943. What’s his story?

A: I’m trying to find that out. Why did he get recognized by a memorial marker when thousands of others did not? Did he die in anonymity and later get discovered by his family? Or was there some sort of mixup?

Only one grave in 4,000 is marked in the potter’s field at Mt. Hope Cemetery. It belongs to a man named William P. Judd who died in 1943. Photo: Randy Dotinga

I’ve done a little online research and found a surprising amount of information about William P. Judd, the 72-year-old man in the grave. (Here’s a closeup of his memorial marker.)

Thanks to a database, I now know his Social Security number and the state where it was issued (Kansas).

Census records I dug up on ancestry.com suggest that he was a shipworker and lived in Oklahoma, Portland, Ore., and Long Beach before coming to San Diego.

What did he die of? Was he murdered? Stay tuned. If I discover any more interesting tidbits about the mysterious Mr. Judd, I’ll report back in this space.

— RANDY DOTINGA
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