The last volunteer walks over the dead with the nonchalance of an undertaker. It's almost noon on Saturday and the thermometer's already topped 90 degrees at San Diego's Mt. Hope Cemetery. Luciano Lopez, owner of Lopez Landscape Contractors, languidly sprays 3,600 square feet of newly planted sod. He appears content. Two days of volunteer toil-which cost far more than the $3,000 he's paid out-of-pocket-are nearly complete.
Newly planted sod needs water-lots of water-and Lopez has nothing better to do until his son returns with the company truck. There's work left to do-surplus sod to be put back on the rig and a thorough wash-down of the cemetery's one-lane road-but for now it's just the watering.
He steps gingerly on jade squares of turf. The caution is for the sake of the delicate grass, not the approximately 122 nameless, faceless dead lying two-deep beneath him.
"They say a lot of them are Mexicans," he says matter-of-factly. "The ones who die trying to cross the border."
National City City Councilman Luis Natividad organized the two-day volunteer effort, through his Latina/o Unity Coalition, when he discovered the county's indigent and unidentified dead were being buried in an abject and dilapidated section of the yard.
"It's a shame," Natividad says. "Everybody deserves a decent burial." He quickly notes that Lopez has gone above the call of duty, fronting a large chunk of capital for the operation. Lopez seems unconcerned with the problematic funding.
Natividad's attention has been divided between the cleanup and his hospitalized wife. A week earlier, pneumonia filled her lungs with fluid that hardened into a substance doctors have been forced to remove with a suction tube.
"I saw her last night," Natividad says with a smile. "I said "I'll be back to see you in the morning' and she said, "No, you've got work to do.'"
After 40 years of marriage, her response wasn't a surprise to Natividad, a large man with a bushy white mustache. Draped in gardener's overalls and sporting his prescription sunglasses, he makes a believable landscaper as he jokes with Lopez and a small cadre of his volunteer staff in the post-effort shade of a large tree.
County Public Guardian administrator Judith Evans says the section contains the remains of people of all creeds. Most are cremated, she says, a process that costs the county only $500. Those for whom the county coroner requests burial-namely homicide victims and those who may require later DNA evidence-have been coming to Mt. Hope for decades.
Until recently they were scattered throughout the cemetery in unmarked graves. Cemetery manager Ray Snyder, who took the job in 1999, dedicated the desolate area, adjacent to the trolley tracks, to the county's unidentified and indigent in 2000.
The city offers land for paupers' graves, free of charge, as part of a deal struck in 1964 when the county gave adjacent land to San Diego. The county charges the city $754.92 to open and close the graves, provide internment services and perpetual care-the cemetery's services usually start at $1,700.
Though perpetual care is a suspect term given the previous condition of the lot, Snyder says the area has been difficult to schedule for beautification.
"We planned to do that area next," he says. "The area to the west of it was already [landscaped], and we recently seeded the area to the east. It's tough getting to that area because we have to go in there [to bury people] a lot."
A rotating group of mortuaries provides caskets and delivery of the bodies to the cemetery, as well as the fulfillment of Department of Health documentation requirements, Evans says. They're paid $726.54.
Though the cumulative $1481.46 price tag is a steal in the current mortuary market, Natividad wonders aloud whether the cemetery and the city could have done more with the area, given the equipment and manpower at their disposal.
Volunteer Bevelen Bravo is happy just to see the area brought up to the standards of the rest of the grounds. She brought her three kids, a niece and her friend, for two reasons. The group put in several hours of hard labor on Saturday, spreading dirt and hauling sod squares.
"I brought them so they could learn to appreciate and see they have a lot of freedom here; they can go to school," she says. "That could have been my mom [in] there-their grandma. We were lucky to have been born over here. My mom was born in Mexico, [as well as] my other two sisters. I hear the stories of how they had to cross and struggle and I want my kids to understand that."
Nearly the entire volunteer crew has dispersed when donated food arrives-the group's finished the project five hours ahead of time. Natividad talks of projects the Latina/o Unity Coalition plans to tackle in coming months, between bites of a McDonald's hamburger. It's evident he's satisfied with the outcome of the effort. "[Volunteer] Veronica Serrano came to me with tears in her eyes today," he says. "She said this is the best thing she's ever done."
As Lopez washes down the final section of asphalt, Natividad finishes his burger with a smile and talks about his return to the hospital-it's time to check in with the boss.