By Sheli DeNola
The location was hidden in the most obvious way, not proclaiming its presence but demanding a quiet dignity. If it weren’t for the nearby Costco, it would have gone unnoticed — who was to say one would notice it anyway? A wrought iron archway, painted a bold red, yellow and green marked the entrance to a place of solemn reverence. The musty smell of history stood thick in the air, and even the rain could not wash away the feeling of solemnity. The path through the gravestones curved like the roots of a tree, spreading in every direction without regard for aesthetics. The trees stood at guard, ready to protect all who dwelled there. But this place, with its quiet gravity needed no artifice to enhance its aesthetic, as the granite carvings were more than enough: The words stood ready to awe all who entered. Evergreen Cemetery was open for visitors.
Evergreen, which was built in 1850 was one of the first Protestant cemeteries in California. Waves of immigration had brought people from all nationalities, ethnicities and walks of life to Santa Cruz. The years have taken their toll on the cemetery. Like the senior it is, it bears the mark of time. But time has not deprived Evergreen of its dignity. With its ornate architecture and sculpture it was once categorized as a garden, and it stands with a quiet grace.
Cemeteries like Evergreen are endangered by the nature of their message. Their history is undermined by the allusion they convey: death.
Amy Dunning, archivist and research librarian at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz, works closely with the preservation.
“[The cemetery] is original source material,” Dunning said, “meaning that it is not something that is interpreted, but an original. It is how it was. Conserving our primary sources are so important. Time moves forward and all that remains are others’ interpretations. This physical landmark allows us to understand history for ourselves. The cemetery is symbolic of who we are as a town.”
In the Bay Area, land is especially scarce. Economic factors have lead to the decided convenience of the modern lawn cemetery. Now a new issue emerges: not preservation, but the lack of a future legacy.
“Cemeteries are for the living, not for the dead,” said photographer and writer Douglas Keister, whose focus is cemeteries. “The dead could care less. Cemeteries are a place for the living to gather to remember the dead. People are becoming become more and more disposable. Cremation is another way of avoiding the final parting. When you see someone at a funeral, you’ve known someone your whole life as a body. Sometimes it’s important to say goodbye to that body, and later on to have a place to go where that body was.”
History is steeped in the dead. It is the responsibility of the living to resurrect it, but without a medium to convey a path, history is lost.
The majority of grave markers bear the location of their owner’s hometown. Immigrants from other states and around the world founded Evergreen. The early pioneers of the West suffered great hardship in hopes of establishing themselves in this largely foreign territory. Like signposts, cemeteries mark the landscape of history.
Sue Silver, California state coordinator of Saving Graves, has done extensive research and preservation of the California cemeteries.
“Thousands of little mining camps and villages have been abandoned, but the graveyards still remain as a marker,” she said. “As a historian, sometimes this is your only source of information.”
When Silver took California state librarian Kevin Starr to one of the better preserved cemeteries, Starr commented: “These people carved an existence out of the virtual wilderness.
Whether the story of the Grand Army of the Republic who vigilantly campaigned for veteran rights or the story of Santa Cruz’s Chinatown, or maybe even the story of the pioneers who braved a harsh desert to reach a better life, Evergreen is a testament to not only the ideals of the West but also to ideals of the past. The Victorian era of Evergreen cemetery stood on the cusp of our modern society. Time wreaks havoc on memory and history — too much has been forgotten from that age. Evergreen Cemetery is the connective thread between the living and the dead, a portal to the past.
Early cemeteries were primarily church cemeteries, where members of the congregation could bury their departed. The 19th century ushered in an age of Victorian affectation, romantic notions of the supernatural and moral evolution that capitalized on the unknown quality of death. Garden cemeteries became a place of great cultural confluence. In later years prominent garden cemeteries would be converted into public parks. Among the country’s most prominent examples is Central Park in New York City.
“There was a certain Victorian sentimentality towards death: very death obsessed,” said Daniel E. Krieger, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly State University. “They lived through an age of great material progress, but not an extension of human life. The average death of men was under 50 — women late 20s, because of death in childbirth. Death was constantly there, staring people in the face.”
In search of income, many Chinese families congregated in Santa Cruz. In the 1850s, at the height of the California Gold Rush, Santa Cruz benefited from the economic explosion. The small Chinese community was composed mostly of men forced to work in the most dangerous jobs to support their families back home. The last local Chinatown, in downtown Santa Cruz, was destroyed by a flood in 1855. The Chinese burial ground at Evergreen stands as a testament to the Chinese community of Santa Cruz.
Joan Nelson, chairwoman of the Evergreen Cemetery Committee, described a typical Chinese burial ceremony.
“When one of the Chinese died, they would have a beautiful funeral march,” Nelson said. “Once they reached the cemetery they would put all of a person’s possessions in the oven so that he would have them in heaven. Food would be brought, so that the person would not be hungry in heaven.”
In later years a small group would come down from San Francisco and exhume the bodies, later returning them to their homeland of China. A handful of their graves remain at Evergreen, as well as the ceremonial oven.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization born from the reconstruction efforts of the Civil War. The end of the Civil War marked an age of reconstruction, but reform was slow to come. Veterans who survived the Civil War were forced to face life after America’s bloodiest war. As a result, Santa Cruz became a haven of sorts.
“There was then, as there is now, a tremendous migration to Santa Cruz,” Santa Cruz historian Bob Nelson said. “Their tenure in Santa Cruz was dictated by the economy. The whole concept of ‘Go west, young man’ was prevalent in that age.
Joan Nelson explain that many veterans of the Civil War wandered into Santa Cruz because they couldn’t fit into society.
“When they died, they were given a lovely funeral by Grand Army of the Republic,” she said.
The Civil War claimed over 620,000 lives and the sheer brutality of the war left a lasting imprint.
“The Civil War was a turning point in how Americans perceived death,” said Tamara Venit, a PhD candidate in U.S. history at Stanford University. “The experience of death became very public. This ushered in a new relationship with death. Developments in photography made it easier to chronicle the war. The rise of funerals and hospitals further contributed to the disassociation with death.”
Now, Venit said, death is “no longer something that happens in the home.”
The disassociation from death meant that cemeteries were removed to make way for the world of the living.
Every Halloween, Krieger leads his students to the Old Mission Catholic cemetery and the Oddfellows Cemetery. There, on a day known for its invocation of fear, Krieger passes on wisdom he has learned about life and death.
“I teach the students not be afraid of what is an extension of life, a historical document that can be read like a history book,” Krieger said. “There’s a tragedy in human history. Through death and dying we learn a lot about the real meaning of life. It’s only in the 20th century that the sentimentality is lost but the grief remains.”
Krieger sees the value in the thinking of past centuries.
“In a way I think the sentimentality should have remained,” Krieger said. “It allowed you to look death in the eye and see that it’s a very real thing.”