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Secrets of San Diego Graves Revealed

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Centuries-old cemeteries hold fascinating history. But too often, they are not treated with reverence. Filmmakers Richard Rivera and Chris Pyle take a haunting look at San Diego’s cemeteries, and reveal that a final resting place can prove to be anything but final.

There is nothing more inevitable in life than death. Death haunts us, worries us, chills us. And it’s always our final destiny. Each culture, every community has had to face the prospect of how to best deal with its dead. How the dead are memorialized in San Diego, ranges anywhere from grand monuments to a bucket with cement and two initials scratched on the top.

And sometimes graves that were once carefully tended now lie forgotten. The first European graveyard in San Diego was inside the royal Spanish fort, called the Presidio, built on a hill above Old Town that is now known as Presidio Park.

Dr. Seth Mallios, Anthropology Professor, San Diego State University: Being the first European settlement, it was an area that was both home to where the individuals lived and it was also a protected settlement where they could go on with their daily rituals.

One of San Diego’s grave secrets is that the dead who are buried on Presidio Hill are, to this day, unknown and unremembered. The original Mexican settlers of Old Town did try to commemorate their dead by opening El Campo Santo, San Diego’s oldest recognized cemetery, in 1849, eighty years after the founding of the presidio.

Dr. Seth Mallios: El Campo Santo means “holy field,” so it was the Catholic cemetery where individuals were buried and this was their final resting-place.

By the time the cemetery at Old Town had opened for business, San Diego had become a part of the United States. Pioneer families trekked westward for their share of the fabulous future that waited for them in California. All too often, that future ended in a lonely grave left at the side of a trail. Even when they reached San Diego, many settlers couldn’t afford the luxury of a burial in town, so these pioneers began their own cemeteries.

David Lewis, Historian, Julian Cemetery Association: A pioneer cemetery would be a frontier cemetery like Julian was, it was a mining town that just suddenly evolved because they discovered gold here and the place just grew quickly. The cemetery in Julian began as far as I can tell, in 1875, when they buried a boy up here and intended to take him back out after the winter, and it never happened.

Pioneers also established their own cemeteries because in the 19 th century, almost every burial site in San Diego County was Catholic. But many of the newly arrived settlers were not.

Dr. Seth Mallios: San Luis Rey Pioneer Cemetery is, in fact, that alternative to the Catholic cemetery. It’s right across the street from the Mission Cemetery and this is where mainly Protestants were buried.

In cemeteries, there are always secret stories about life and about death. The founder of Oceanside is buried at San Luis Rey. And a murderer, and young farmer who was just about to be married. As San Diego grew, there was a need for a large, central cemetery. In 1869, Mt. Hope Cemetery was established at the far-east end of what would become downtown’s market street.

Dr. Seth Mallios: Some of San Diego’s most famous individuals are buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery. These include the city fathers, people like Alonzo Horton, who not only developed the downtown area, but set aside the land for Mt. Hope Cemetery itself. You have Nate Harrison, a freed black slave from the south who moved up to Palomar Mountain in the 1870s, and you even have Raymond Chandler, the author of the Philip Marlowe detective series.

By the time Alonzo Horton died in 1909, funerals had become a big industry in San Diego. The Featheringill family has been in San Diego’s funeral business for over 90 years.

Teri Featheringill, General Manager, Featheringill Mortuary: In 1912, my grandfather became involved in the mortuary business, and was involved as an embalmer and director all that time. My grandfather drove the hearse for the funeral home and it was a big, ornate glass sided one and it was drawn by horses. Well, back in 1912, I believe that things were much more traditional, formal, when they had the processions, it was a big deal because the procession was usually done by a horse and hearse, and go all the way through town.

Dr. Seth Mallios: The 1880s and 1890s were a very brash time. It was a very arrogant, yet naïve country. And suddenly people, they want obelisks to themselves, they want monuments to themselves.

But for all their monuments and elaborate tombs, San Diego’s cemeteries have a checkered past.

Dr. Seth Mallios: Some of the cemeteries have been cared for from their inception until now. Other cemeteries have been demolished, have been developed, and have been entirely forgotten.

That happened to Calvary Cemetery, established in 1870, in the Mission Hills area, above Old Town.

Dr. Seth Mallios: In 1957, the city enacted a law that said you could in fact, raze a cemetery, you could turn it from a cemetery into a park.

In 1970, exactly 100 years after it was established, the residents of Mission Hills enacted the law that allowed them to desecrate the graves of Calvary Cemetery.

Dr. Seth Mallios: They wanted a park. And they had individuals actually yank the stones out of the ground. These stones were then transported over to Mt. Hope, where they were thrown into a ravine.

Some attempt has been made to preserve the more historic gravestones from Calvary. These markers are now displayed at Mt. Hope and in Mission Hills, at what is now called Pioneer Park. But while some selected gravestones are on display, the hundreds of dead who are buried beneath the park no longer have markers to identify where they are resting.

Dr. Seth Mallios: The dead bodies never moved at Calvary Cemetery. Those burials were never disturbed. Whether it’s Calvary Cemetery or today’s pioneer park, those dead have always been in the identical place.

Many San Diegans who enjoy the park have no idea just who lies beneath those lush grounds.

Dr. Seth Mallios: When they’re playing with their dog, they are, in fact, making a playground of an area that has hundreds of deceased individuals below them.

The concept of death and burial continues to evolve in San Diego. The towering graveyard monuments of the early 20 th century are no longer in fashion.

T eri Featheringill: There’s been quite a few changes since 1912. The rate of cremation is, you know, tremendous now and it’s about 60 percent here in San Diego.

As funeral practices change and San Diego continues to develop, is there any future at all for preserving cemeteries that only remember the past?

Dr. Seth Mallios: We can follow along with the development boom and continue to wipe out cemeteries, or we can acknowledge the importance of San Diego’s pioneers, and their ultimate resting places and incorporate the San Diego we not only project to tourists but the San Diego that we embody ourselves.

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