The Saturday before Memorial Day, temperatures bordered on sweltering inside the gates of Mount Hope Cemetery, a city-owned necropolis located several miles due east of downtown, off Market Street. Under the limpid sky, a humid breeze animated hundreds of small American flags, scattered like fluttering wildflowers across wide expanses of solid, green turf.
Amid the beach-barbecue-beer hoopla that distinguishes the unofficial start of summer, many San Diego revelers had put out of their minds that going to the cemetery-an activity primarily associated these days with grieving, a popular HBO series, genealogists and the morbidly curious-is a major component of the holiday's original intent: to pay homage to all U.S. military killed in the line of duty.
The cemetery, established in 1869, currently hosts the mortal remains of more than 76,000 individuals from all walks-the famous and average, forgotten or completely unknown can all be found there, but not always easily.
Cemetery manager Ray Snider predicted 3,000 to 4,000 visitors would pass through Mount Hope's front gates over the three-day weekend, the memorial park's busiest time of the year. Snider said recent budget cuts had curtailed his ability to conduct public tours, but offered a quick SUV overview through the 110-acre facility's maze of single-lane streets.
Passing undulating lawns and towering trees, we drove by countless engraved headstones, marble statuary (lambs, angels) and a dirt-filled ravine (the remnants of an antiquated potter's field).
First stop: the grave of author Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), whose turbulent existence ended at a La Jolla hospital in 1959. Forging into the middle of a wide field, Snider inadvertently demonstrated how difficult it can be-even when equipped with a stack of complex, detailed maps-to scope out a single flat marker among hundreds of others.
A man identified as "the supervisor of interment" ("He's actually called a "gravedigger,'" Snider chuckled) hopped down from a bulldozer and immediately led the way to Chandler's extremely simple marker.
The cemetery has "neighborhoods" of sorts-burial areas devoted to San Diego's Chinese, Japanese and Muslim communities. Such organizations as Masonic Lodge and International Order of Woodmen ("Here Lies a Woodman of the World") are also represented.
One area exclusively holds American veterans and their spouses. But some of the oldest military graves are found in two separate fields: one for soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic and one for their Confederate counterparts. "We have small Confederate flags," Snider said. "We don't put them out until Monday [Memorial Day], and we have to take them up Monday night. Otherwise, somebody steals them."
Along a fence near the trolley tracks that cut through the grounds is a flat area devoid of markers-the location of the County of San Diego Indigent Burial Program, where roughly 112 "Jane and John Does" (or, what Snider termed "public administrator cases") have been buried since 2001.
Nineteenth-century movers-and-shakers are located in an older section across the tracks. Massive obelisks mark the family plots of Alonzo Horton (who has been called "the father of modern San Diego") and George Marston (a businessman influential in the establishment of Balboa Park and the San Diego Public Library System). The monument for Elisha Babcock, builder of the Hotel del Coronado, incorporates a massive, roughly hewn granite cross. The resting place of renowned horticulturist Kate Sessions is located at the base of an intensely fragrant juniper.
In the "Russian Hill" area, Snider located a small, weeping-angel statue above the white marble marker of one Kate Morgan. In 1888, Morgan, 24, committed suicide at the Hotel Del, inspiring the legend of a ghost said to haunt one of the hotel's rooms.
About some seashells placed near Morgan's grave, Snider said, "We find all sorts of things all over. You never know." He added that "some guy" makes monthly visits to Morgan's grave and "looks at her angel."
Two separate sections have been staked out by the Mongol and Hell's Angels motorcycle clubs. Snider described a recent biker funeral where club devotees roared into the cemetery on hundreds of choppers and posted radio-equipped security throughout the premises.
"They don't give us any problems. They're just scary to the rest of the public," said Snider, who recalled with amusement "a little meeting" he once had with some biker-memorial attendees: "A lady that was visiting complained to me, "Men are down here urinating!' I went [over to them], and they're all standing around, drinking beer and toasting their comrade-wetting his grave down. I said, "Guys, have a little respect.'"The tour over, I wandered alone a bit to read epitaphs: "King of the Fiddle"; "Supreme black woman"; "Glad Did I Live." But trying to decipher a person's essence from a few words carved in stone was frustrating. I came to a disturbing yet energizing realization: the cemetery wasn't just a field covering the lifeless, but a repository for the combined humanity of thousands who'd learned, before me, what death was all about.