Monday, January 28, 2013

Long Beach, CA. cemeteries

(An excerpt from my book Died in Long Beach - Cemetery Tales)

Long Beach Municipal Cemetery

     No one knows for sure how old the cemetery on the northwest corner of Orange and Willow is.  The oldest marked grave is that of a Milton F. Neece who was buried in 1878 at the age of 17, but old timers back in the 1950s remembered a man who used to visit the cemetery in the 1930s who told the sexton that his father had been buried there years ago when the man was just a boy.  Since the man appeared to be in his 80s, it could push the date of the cemetery as far back as the 1850s.
     Even the old record books aren't of any help, they were kept so poorly that there is even doubt about who is buried in the graves.  When the city took over the cemetery in 1906 from the Long Beach Cemetery Association, they found that the record books were a mess.  The early caretakers thought that all they were responsible for was appointing a sexton to look after the property, but many of the sextons could not read or write and their attempt at bookkeeping and posting records was amusing, at best.  Many lots had been sold, but there was no record of the owners.  When the Department of the City Clerk took over the record keeping in 1906, they discovered one instance where five bodies had been buried in one grave and several lots sold three or four times.
     In his spare time Deputy City Clerk Paine would get out the old map of the cemetery and devote a few hours to untangling the bookkeeping nightmare.  At one time, according to the records, one man was buried in eight different lots!  Paine swore that he would not rest until he finally allotted each corpse to its proper grave.  So all we really have to go on is Deputy City Clerk Paine, and hope that the work he did is correct.
     By 1906 the old municipal cemetery (also called the Signal Hill Cemetery since it was on Signal Hill) was a blot on the landscape.  The 5 acre graveyard was owned by the City, but administered by the Long Beach Cemetery Association, which had passed into oblivion sometime between 1893, when they incorporated, and 1906.  The municipal authorities had not given the graveyard any attention, despite constant petitions filed with the City Trustees, asking them to spend a few hundred dollars on cleaning it up.  Finally, in 1906, Long Beach's latest city fathers considered the matter and appointed a cemetery commission, who hired someone to tend the grounds and clean it up.  But the size of the cemetery was limited, in fact there was hardly enough space left to care for the average dead in Long Beach for one year.  Besides improving the present grounds, something needed to be done to secure more land for the "City of the Dead."

Sunnyside (Willow Street)

     A company of businessmen purchased 15 acres adjoining the municipal cemetery in May 1906, resurrecting the name "Long Beach Cemetery Association." They planned to organize the cemetery association on the land north of Willow and offer "perpetual" care.  It would be a private concern and offer the best in landscaping, parking and care.
     By June 1907, Long Beach had a new cemetery---Sunnyside.  There were 3,500 lots in the new burying grounds with ample room for five graves a lot, giving the Silent City (as they referred to it in early newspapers) a capacity of housing 17,500 persons.  The drives in the grounds were called Myrtle, Fern, Magnolia, Ivy and Lotus.  On both sides of these drives date palms were planted along with flowers and greenery.  The association guaranteed that they had a first class water system available throughout the grounds so survivors would not have to worry about dead shrubbery and grass disgracing the graves of the departed.
      In 1915, it was decided that a mausoleum was needed.  Sidney Lovell, architect of the famous Rose Hill mausoleum in Chicago, was hired to design the Sunnyside Cemetery Memorial Mausoleum, which was to be of Grecian-Doric design, approximately 50 by 175 feet.  A "view to die for"--- a stunning panorama of Long Beach and the Pacific---was to grace the front portico. In addition, only granite, re-enforced concrete, marble and bronze would be used in the construction of the building.  The inside was to be finished entirely in marble, bronze and art glass with ceiling decorations tinted to match.
     The cost of single crypts was to be about the same as earth burial, but because of the number of individual crypts and the large amount of money needed to build the mausoleum, all of the crypts had to be sold in advance of construction, and only those who purchased them ahead of time could be "accommodated."
     On May 23, 1921, oil was discovered at Temple and Hill on Signal Hill.  By 1922, with producing oil wells on three sides, Sunnyside and the Municipal cemetery were perhaps the most valuable burial grounds in the world.  The hallowed earth was beginning to attract the covetous glances of prospective oil promoters.  Soon the Long Beach Cemetery Wars (described in "Died in Long Beach  - Cemetery Tales") began!
     Though a compromise on where to build a mausoleum was reached in 1923, the Long Beach Cemetery Association continued to run the original Sunnyside until 1989 when it was sold to an individual who neglected the site and embezzled more than a half million dollars from the endowment fund.  The state Department of Consumer Affairs took the property into conservatorship and a group of volunteers made arrangement to keep the cemetery open and continue burials.  The volunteer group formed a not-for-profit corporation to own and operate the facility.  On December 29, 1998, the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Los Angeles Superior Court ended the conservatorship and turned the title and deed over to Sunnyside Cemetery, inc.  The State Department of Consumer Affairs has publicly stated the reorganization and management by the non-profit group is a classic example of what can be done when the community works together.

Sunnyside Mausoleum & Memorial Garden (Forest Lawn)
     In 1923, amid all the fighting over oil and a place for a mausoleum, a new "model" cemetery was established with an entrance off Cherry Avenue at 1500 E. San Antonio Drive.  It really wasn't a "new" cemetery, since it incorporated the earlier Palm Cemetery, donated by Jotham Bixby.  Long Beach, rich with oil money, was the largest city in California without a mausoleum.  Now, in order to "cool down" tempers, building of the mausoleum continued.  A new design, drawn up by Cecil E. Bryan inc., Chicago engineers, was selected to build and design the structure which would contain 3000 crypts, with family rooms priced as high as  $50,000.

     Constructed with a Spanish theme, the roof of the mausoleum was of red Spanish tile, while the chapel itself was decorated with imported art glass.  Heavy bronze doors and Italian marble for the interior trim was designed to make this a virtual "Palace of the Dead."  In 1935, gardens were added to the grounds, in 1945 two decorative pools, and in 1980 the mosaic of Raphael's fresco "Paradise," composed of 2.8 million pieces of Venetian glass and standing 45 feet high by 32 feet across, was constructed.

    Three small chapels (the chapel of the Palms, Wilton St. and Grand Avenue) as well as a crematory and mortuary were purchased by the Forest Lawn company in August 1960.  The mortuary was renamed Forest Lawn Mortuary - Long Beach.  The rest of the 38-acre cemetery was purchased by the Glendale based funeral giant in 1979.  In 1987, after eight years and 200,000 man-hours of renovation, the former Sunnyside Memorial Garden took on a new look as well as a new name---Forest Lawn Memorial Park - Sunnyside.  The renovation included transforming the smallest of the three chapels into an expanded reception area, relocating the mortuary entrance, adding dozens of statues, and consolidating two narrow drives into one wide road leading to the grounds.

Today people from around the world are drawn to the Mausoleum to not only the impressive architecture, but to see the Foucault Pendulum.  It is one of the largest of its kind in existence. It keeps accurate time as it makes one complete revolution every 42 hours and 48 minutes.

     If you want to find any relatives buried in the mausoleum, best to check at the Administrative office and ask for a guide.  It's easy to get lost in the cavern of passages, and some of the names etched in marble are hard to make out.  All in all, it's a beautiful, marvelous place,  this "City of the Dead." 

All Souls Cemetery
     There's one more Long Beach cemetery I haven't mentioned: All Souls Catholic Cemetery at  4400 Cherry Avenue, almost across from Forest Lawn - Sunnyside.  It opened in June 1950.  They advertise:
  • Over 19,000 square feet of enclosed space
  • Three (3) large visitation rooms
  • A chapel with seating for 220 people with vestibule to accommodate larger gatherings
  • Seven (7) private arrangement rooms
  • After-service reception area with kitchen amenities to accommodate 80 people
  • Large parking lot
  • Full-service flower shop
  • Mortuary and cemetery administrative offices in one convenient location
  • Fully handicapped-accessible amenities
  • Several large public areas, including a comfortable visitor lounge and a large, private family meditation room
  • Two (2) courtyards with lush greenery
More about All Souls and the other cemeteries will be found in  Died in Long Beach - Cemetery Tales  (published July 2016).  The book is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.