Pioneer Park is a scenic spot, nestled between two canyons in Mission Hills. You'd never know it had once been a cemetery if not for three bronze plaques at the park's east end that overlook an odd assemblage of headstones grounded in cement.
Those headstones account for roughly 140 individuals-fewer than 5 percent of the cemetery's population when it closed 40 year ago. And those headstones ain't anywhere near the bodies they were meant to mark. Indeed, everyone who was buried at Calvary Cemetery-Pioneer Park's former name-has remained at Calvary Cemetery; only their headstones have been moved. It was the easiest, quickest way for the city to turn the cemetery into a park back in 1968.
This information's probably got you thinking about that scene at the end of Poltergeist when Craig T. Nelson yells at his boss while his house sinks into the abyss: 'You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones?'Difference is, there was nothing nefarious about Calvary Cemetery's conversion-it was done openly and legally with no significant public outcry until someone discovered the city had dumped thousands of headstones in a ravine a few miles away.
Pioneer Park's buried past amuses San Diego State University archeology professor Seth Mallios. 'Most of the people who are playing Frisbee with their dog and having a picnic have no idea that they're sitting on top of dead people,'he says. And, as Mallios has found, Pioneer Park's not the only incidence of a buried cemetery in San Diego.
For the past five years, with the help of his students at SDSU, Mallios has been studying the city's 23 cemeteries as part of the San Diego Gravestone Project. The product of that research is a recently published book, Cemeteries of San Diego, part of Arcadia Publishing's photo-driven 'Images of America'series. (Mallios and research partner David Caterino are currently working on a similar book with a countywide focus.)
What Mallios and his team found is that of San Diego's nearly two-dozen cemeteries (there are roughly 150 in the county), less than half still exist 'above ground.'The rest have been paved or planted over. Of the half-million known buried dead within city limits (a very conservative estimate, Mallios said), thousands do not lie where they were originally laid or have a headstone to mark their final resting spot. Some bodies were moved around when cemeteries were closed while others, like those resting beneath Pioneer Park, were not moved at all.
Calvary Cemetery opened in the late 1870s and by the 1960s held between 1,600 and 3,400 people, possibly up to 4,000 people-no one's quite sure of the number because most of the cemetery's records were destroyed in a fire. The five acres it encompassed was city-owned land under the stewardship of the Catholic Church.
By 1968, it had been seven years since the last burial at Calvary Cemetery, and the place had become a mess-bikers raced their motorcycles between the graves at night and kids threw eggs at the headstones, believing the myth that doing so would wake the dead. Under a 1957 California law, a cemetery could be declared 'abandoned'if no one had been buried there for five years. And so, in 1968, the San Diego City Council, at the urging of Mission Hills residents who found the place unsightly, declared Calvary Cemetery closed. The Hillcrest-Mission Hills Improvement Association took photographs of roughly 700 headstones-the photos are now part of the San Diego Historical Society collection-and the headstones were moved out. Mallios hasn't found record of any bodies being moved.
It's not that the gravestones were removed and the bodies left behind that Mallios and other historians find troubling, but rather what the city did with the gravestones after they'd been removed.
'I can't emphasize how weird this is,'Mallios said. 'They throw the headstones in a ravine.'
In the late '80s, when the trolley's orange line started running, folks riding the train noticed the discarded headstones in a ravine behind Mount Hope cemetery in Southeast San Diego.
'They were outraged by this,'Mallios said. 'That's when the story really breaks. That's when so many of the stones get moved back.'
That's when the monument at the far end of Pioneer Park was built, and a second, smaller monument went up at Mount Hope, near the ravine. The rest of the headstones were buried.
'They have a mass grave for gravestones,'Mallios said. 'I've traveled all over the world looking at gravestones and I've asked people, ‘Have you ever heard of a mass grave for gravestones?' and they always burst out with laughter because they've never heard anything like that.
'What's particularly frustrating for me is they just kept the big stones of the rich and famous'he said. 'History is already biased that way, and so here's just another example-when you look through the stones you see the white, rich males of the time period whose stones were saved.'
While the issue of preservation isn't the book's main focus, it's a recurring theme. Even Mallios' favorite local gravestone is one that no longer exists-a tall wood slab at Scripps Cemetery with the word 'Unknown'on it. He knows about it only because of a 1965 photograph in the San Diego Union. Scripps Cemetery is now under the Interstate 15 in Mira Mesa.
I met up with Mallios on a recent Thursday morning at El Campo Santo-he's doing some excavation work down the street at the Whaley House. Founded in 1849, El Campo Santo ('The Holy Field') is one of the city's oldest cemeteries, with a diverse collection of headstones-some original, some facsimiles of originals. The oldest grave marker is a tall, bone-white tablet belonging to 21-year-old Rosa Serrano de Cassidy, the wife of a San Diego politician, who died in 1869. Several gravesites at El Campo Santo are surrounded by white picket fences, a European tradition brought over by Spanish missionaries. Just inside the front gate is the resting spot of Antonio Garra, a Cupeño Indian who was executed after organizing a revolt to stop the county from taxing its Indian tribes.
For all this history, El Campo Santo's a shrunken version of what it once was, squeezed smaller by Old Town's rapid turn-of-the-century development. Mallios guesses that the cemetery's original boundaries were pushed in roughly 20 feet, leaving bodies buried outside the new cemetery walls, set in place in the 1930s. If you walk just outside El Campo Santo's front gate, there are small brass circles that say 'Grave Site'embedded in the concrete sidewalk. Just above the sidewalk is a plaque: 'Remembering the more than 20 men, women and children who lie buried beneath San Diego Ave.'Only one guy, a state Assembly member, was exhumed and re-buried within the cemetery's new boundaries. The other graves are known to exist thanks to ground-penetrating radar.
Mallios points to another plaque that sits just inside the cemetery, marking it as a historic site.
'You have the very deep quote about protecting the graves of your loved ones: ‘Do not disturb the peace and tranquility of those who repose from earthly cares.' Very beautiful sentiment, and I think it's something a lot of people agree with philosophically. There are 477 people buried here and only about, say, 100 grave markers,'he points out. 'Most of the graves are unmarked here. And literally dozens are under the road and under the sidewalk.'
So what gives? Mallios is still trying to figure that out. He's studied cemeteries on the East Coast, the Midwest and Southwest, and he's never come across any place quite like San Diego when it comes to a city's relationship with its dead.
'There's a lot of attention paid to history around here but just not the deceased,'he said. 'A real subtle distinction that we don't have a grasp on is how we can talk about history so much but then pave over cemeteries.'
In the case of El Campo Santo, a portion of the cemetery was in the way of a much-needed main street, San Diego Avenue. Scripps Cemetery? Same thing. As for Calvary Cemetery, it's upkeep was proving too costly, folks were choosing to be buried elsewhere, and a public park seemed a more fitting use for the land.
But what about San Diego's first cemeteries established by Spanish missionaries, none of which remain? Part of the disconnect with the dead might have to do with the fact that the region lacked governmental stability until the mid-19th century as it moved from Indian land, to Spanish territory, to Mexican territory before finally ending up in U.S. hands. What better way to lay claim to land than erase evidence of the past?
There's also the transient nature of the Southern California population-unlike the East Coast, not too many people have multi-generational family ties to this area.
'I think so many people move to San Diego and so many people leave San Diego with such frequency that you don't have that ‘I'm a fifth generation or a sixth generation San Diegan and this is where my ancestors are buried,''Mallios said.
And even if someone wanted to establish that history, there are thousands of families who've lost their literal touchstones-if one sees that sort of value in a grave marker.
'It's a total loss of continuity with the past,'Mallios said. 'It's like they never existed, and no family members can track them down.
The mystery of the shrinking headstone
As much as the San Diego Gravestone Project tracks what's been lost to time and history, SDSU professor Seth Mallios and his research team also catalog the tens of thousands of grave markers that remain, looking for patterns and analyzing how San Diego gravestones fit in (or don't fit in) with larger historical trends. Mallios said he's still looking for that one thing that's distinctly San Diegan-he's found anecdotal examples, but nothing that's a distinct San Diego trend. It could just be a matter of coding the data differently, he said.
As for larger trends, one thing that's interested me is how gravestones have slowly shrunk over time, getting lower to the ground. I asked Mallios why that is. He answered that and other questions in an interview:
CityBeat: Older cemeteries have lots of big, fancy gravestones. These days, all you see are stones that are flush to the ground. Why's that?
Seth Mallios: If you talk to a lot of the landscaping people, they tell you it was a practical decision and it started in the late '30s during the Great Depression. People wanted cheaper, smaller gravestones and the cemetery managers liked it because you could just mow over.
The problem is that when you look at the trend, it starts in the 19-teens. Before [then], you're looking at a fairly excited, young and arrogant population-no major wars, all sorts of technological innovations. Darwin's ideas on evolution are gaining acceptance, so people are feeling very independent, very brash and so that's where, in other cemeteries, we see people making monuments to themselves. Nothing is more brash than building a pyramid to yourself and pretending you're a pharaoh. There's an old Arabic expression: Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.... No better way to say you're going to live forever than to build yourself a pyramid. This is when embalming starts-you're not going to even let your body erode away. And then the 19-teens hit-World War I, the war to end all wars, huge casualties for Western Europe and the U.S.
Then the second thing is the influenza pandemic in 1918. People have estimated 1,500 million deaths worldwide.... It hit people between [ages] 20 and 40.... A lot of historians said it was like two people died for each person because this was young men and women in the prime of their life. So that's when we see this shift from big gravestones. I don't think anyone's going to build a monument to themselves when bodies are stacking up, when you go through this huge pandemic. It happens in 1918, right when the war ends. Even though the roaring '20s was a good time, I don't think there was nearly the arrogance that there was before the 19-teens. That's my interpretation, and there's support when you see some of the things that are written on the stones. Once you get past the 19-teens, people are very humble, and it continues. [Headstones] are smaller and smaller and there aren't as many brash proclamations about invincibility, being able to fight death and so forth.
We started this gravestone project right after 9/11 and I wondered if 9/11 would have the same impact on the next generation. During the 1980s and 1990s, we see some large gravestones popping up again, people putting Darth Vader on their gravestones, Harley Davidson, unicorns. Now they embed computer chips. What I was wondering, are we seeing another cycle of the U.S., of Western Europe getting very brash, very arrogant? We have all these technological advances. We haven't seen a war since Vietnam-during the '80s and '90s, yes, there were these little skirmishes-but in terms of a draft, in terms of talk of war all the time. And so I wondered, after 9/11 and with the war in Iraq, are we going to see a return towards people being more humble because there's so many heavy issues on people's minds.
These are always very gradual trends. Even during the '20s and '30s, every so often someone would build themselves a giant gravestone, but the other 99 around them are all small.
One exception is the Jewish cemetery at Home of Peace, the only exclusively Jewish cemetery in San Diego. They're all tablets. I've talked to a few different rabbis about this and they've explained to me that Jewish people have a different conception of time. Partly because the Torah has such a long history-you're dealing with many thousands of years-and partly because Jews have been forced out of so many areas. The wandering Jew's a very meaningful story in the Bible. And so Jews hold on to time because they don't have the same ties to space, and that's why they don't follow the same fickle trends. Jews have large tablets wherever they are. That's the only exception we see in San Diego.
Why are cemeteries often segregated? Is it a religious thing, or something else?
There's so many kinds of segregation in the cemetery. There is exclusive membership to certain cemeteries. There are Masonic areas, the Fraternal Order of Eagles. There are entire cemeteries in San Diego County-there's one in Olivenhain [in Encinitas] that is for descendents of the original German settlers in that area. With segregation, there are always issues of self-segregation and then imposed segregation, and it's really tough after the fact to know the difference. There's economic segregation, as well. There are wealthier areas of the cemetery.... In terms of different ethnic traditions, some have a stronger sense of family and will be buried next to each other.
Most cemeteries in modern times have children's areas [with] lots of images of lambs, baby animals, children sleeping. Most of the time the children are not buried with their families.
There's definitely ethnic segregation at Mount Hope. There's a Japanese area, a Chinese area, an Islamic area. When you look through the original records, some of the cemeteries had discriminating polices. There was one that was just for white people. That's different from segregating within the cemeteries-it was established by someone enforcing a policy. It's such a touchy issue because this is eternal rest here and allegedly this is where the generations will come to visit that person.
What do people say when you tell them your research focuses on cemeteries?
People always want to talk about the spooky stuff or the creepy stuff, and they often ask if I have a real morbid sense of humor. I don't think so. It does make me think a lot not only about death but about legacy. Today the whole mortuary ritual has really diminished. Funerals used to be these big social events. A lot of people don't even have funerals for their loved ones anymore. Cemeteries used to be the center of activity. People keep contacting me and telling me their parents got married out at Glen Abbey. I don't know too many people who are saying, “Honey, let's get married in the cemetery-wouldn't that be great.” And so the landscape has really transformed and it makes me think, for descendants and for commemoration, are people going to visit cemeteries? Is there going to be that tie? Or are cemeteries obsolete? There's this huge trend towards cremation; there's this huge trend toward people not talking about death; cemeteries being developed over, So part of me wonders, is it a one-way trend or is this going to be cyclical? Is there going to be sort of a revival of cemetery life?Write to firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.