Tue, May

Celebrating Ourselves: Isn’t That What Cemeteries Are For


THE VIEW FROM HERE-How nice it is to celebrate ourselves.  We do it on our birthdays and anniversaries and graduation days.  We do it on the Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day and New Year’s.  We also do it in other ways: 

We mourn, pay tribute to, and honor our loved ones when we visit the cemeteries where our relatives and friends lay at rest, but have you ever considered what else can be derived from a brief sojourn at a cemetery?  I remember a history professor of mine who moved to Brown University to study the demographic migrations of the early families who settled new territories.  He explored the words on grave markers by which he could determine how, why, and where those families branched out over the generations.  He learned that their movements could be linked to epidemics, famines, crop failures, offering of free land, and so forth--very intriguing. 

 The cemeteries in New Orleans present fabulous studies in culture as well.  Some of the monuments remind me of the tombs described in Romeo and Juliet—doors that open to shelves on which draped bodies were in repose.  In TheBig Easy there are centuries-old monuments with the surname of the family boldly emblazoned on the exterior.  Some of these splendid structures similarly have two doors concealing shelved compartments.  When there was a death in the family, the body would be laid to rest on one shelf.  If a second family member passed away within a year, it would be interred behind the adjoining door.  If, however, a third relative died within that same year, it would be placed in a “holding” sepulcher, waiting for the first relative to turn to “dust”—the remains of which would be pushed to the rear to make room for the more newly deceased.  

Each person’s first name is engraved on the exterior, row-by-row, until the family died out or relocated.  Then, sometimes, a new family would take over the tomb.  Many of those gravesites were adorned with meaningful sculptures, such as religious figures or angels.  (That reminds me of yet another story--Thomas Wolfe’s book, Look Homeward, Angel, whose protagonist’s father carved such stone tributes.)

Incidentally, because New Orleans is below sea level, it often witnessed bodies (which had been buried in “common” graves) rise right up out of the ground during flooding.  What a nightmare that must have been! 

Similarly, we here in Los Angeles have our own historic cemetery in Sylmar.  Pioneer Cemetery (originally named Morningside) was established for settlers in 1889 and was actively used until 1939.  It has since been designated an historic landmark.  It often goes by both names and is the oldest non-sectarian cemetery in the San Fernando Valley.  

Though there are markers (only 13) for some graves, many bodies are “hidden” underground (whose marker designations have been lost or misplaced or even stolen).  The directors are presently using ground-penetrating radar devices to ascertain where the buried are precisely located while also trying to determine who the deceased are.

“(M)embers of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society’s Pioneer Cemetery Committee know where many of the more than 200 plots are located [but need] a few volunteers to peruse through county and church records, seek out family Bibles, find photographs, and pore over old newspaper clippings … to match the gravesites with a list of names of the dead.” 

What a fascinating project for students and a challenging pastime for others who seek rewarding activities in which to engage! 

Co-Chair of the Committee, Jackie Walker, was quite inspiring when she stated that educational tourism would promote an excellent use of this relatively small plot of land.  Such activities could serve as a good course of study for local students and could also provide a peaceful park for public use.  Not too long ago, Sylmar High School students under the leadership of horticulture teacher, Steve List, planted young trees there which will eventually grow to provide wonderful sources of shade for visitors. 

As a way of raising funds for the discovery efforts, memorial bricks (which can be engraved with the donors’ names or others of their choosing) were sold and are placed at the entrance to the park for all to view.  There may still be more available for purchase. 

In keeping with the concept of preservation, another group of people decided it was time to give the San Fernando Valley the recognition it deserves by establishing a museum to remember its history!  Though it is looking for a permanent place to showcase the many artifacts that have already been collected, it has, in the meantime, utilized various sites for temporary displays. 

Such a museum, on the other hand, is far more than just a building.  The San Fernando Museum promotes a broad spectrum of interests.  

There are monthly walking tours touting the histories of a variety of communities from North Hollywood to Van Nuys to Pacoima. 

The Noho tour is outstanding—people  “learn about real cowboys; pioneer families; movie, television, and recording stars; the Spanish conquest; Mexican ranchos; great steam trains and the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot of 1886 [I still love to listen to the “choo-choos” as they sound off in the distance]; vast ranches and orchards [there used to be the grand Porter statue on Devonshire and Tampa and the nearby orange groves once owned by Lucy and Desi themselves); land barons; wars; architecture.” 

The Pacoima Tour includes 15 murals along Van Nuys Boulevard.  Visitors are treated to interaction with some of the actual artists.  You can walk along the breath-taking new mural at the Pacoima City Hall where Councilmember Felipe Fuentes (LACC 7) also has a district office. 

For the equestrians out there, there is the Horses across the Valley Arts Program.  The Spaniard, Gaspar de Portola (a middle school has been named in his honor) introduced horses into the Valley, resulting in horse ranches dotting the area (Sylmar is still highly protective of its ranches and horse trails).  The Hollywood Film Industry later “discovered” the Valley and utilized its landscape for the Westerns we all love. 

The museum foundation offers a Speakers Series.  It is also eagerly seeking people to record oral histories of their lives and those of their San Fernando ancestors.  There is an active program for collecting artifacts, letters, books, manuscripts, art, etc. for current and future display.  These programs provide wonderful ways for involvement by which we can learn, help maintain, and “create” history. 

The San Fernando Valley is often given short-shrift, being considered the step-child of Greater Los Angeles, offering little that is worth our while.  It is unfortunate that it has been unrecognized for its rich history and cultural value.  I hope this article proves quite the contrary.  Without question, if we look more deeply, we shall find that each district of our Angelic City also offers an exciting history of its own—well worth and rewarded by our own investigations. 

For further information and details, please contact the following:           

●The San Fernando Valley Museum and Programs:  818-347-9665;                       

● Its blog, found at TheMuseumSFV.org, discusses San Fernando history and upcoming events.           

● The Pioneer Cemetery:  818-970-1286.


(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Coalition. Jenkins has written Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems, A Quick-and-Easy Reference to Correct Grammar and Composition and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch.)







Vol 12 Issue 1

Pub: Jan 3, 2014




Get The News In Your Email Inbox Mondays & Thursdays