MARIPOSA -- It's an eerie sight, especially the closer you get. Gaping holes, some two feet in diameter, have opened above the graves. Where rodents' tunnels underneath have collapsed and dirt was washed away by rain, you can actually see into the sarcophagus.
Native bushes and trees have grown right through some plots, dislodging headstones and concrete borders, and in many cases completely obliterating burial sites. Gravestones lie askew. Some are broken and some have sunk into the ground partway. Others are just missing. Looking more like a scene from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Mariposa's cemetery is in sad shape.
"Due to oversight and years of neglect, the integrity of this graveyard has been severely compromised," says Ron Loya, member of the Historic Sites and Records Preservation Commission, and board president of the Mariposa Museum and History Center.
For close to three years, Loya has spoken with various county officials within the Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments, but has yet to convince anyone of the cemetery's urgent need for restoration. Budget woes, lack of manpower and liability issues are the recurring theme. Liability meaning that volunteers could get hurt, or next of kin might be offended by strangers coming to maintain the graves.
Meantime, the situation grows worse.
The cemetery has been there for 150 years. Some of Mariposa's original settlers are buried within its boundaries, including Angevine Reynolds and his family, originally from New York. Reynolds was one of the first white settlers in Mariposa. William Costello, the famous voice of Popeye, is also buried there.
"When family members move out of the area or remaining relatives pass away, there's no one left to care for the graves," Loya says.
He believes it's a community's obligation to accept the responsibility of maintaining such a sacred ground.
A disheveled mass of prickly pear cactus sits at one grave site, next to the dried weeds that cover the rest of the plot. Mistletoe has strangled the life out of a few trees, causing branches to fall, which then damage bordering fences, grave markers and whatever else is in the way. More than a dozen head stones were removed by vandals, and without a map, returning the markers to their rightful place is impossible. Early monuments lean sideways, due to erosion factors, and are in danger of toppling. Rodent and weather damage includes pieces of caskets and burial clothing surfacing. A few graves owning the misfortune of being located too close to driveways within the cemetery, get walked on, driven on and even parked on.
Only when erosion began exposing coffins on the hillside next to the road on the southwest side of the property, did the county send workers out to build a rock wall.
As a result of long-term deterioration of the cemetery, Loya has written a proposal in which is listed the five main areas of concern:
Landscape maintenance and erosion control, grave site repairs, foot and vehicle traffic boundaries, mapping and site survey and long-term maintenance, preferably done by committed volunteers.
Loya has garnered support from a few notable sources. Tom Phillips, a local historian and museum board member, authored a book which details the Mariposa cemetery historic walking tour. Kevin Cann, one of Mariposa's county supervisors, is working closely with Loya on the project. And Dr. Bob LaPerriere, chairman of the California Historical Cemetery Alliance, gave Loya a letter of reference, along with valuable advice for the implementation of a suitable plan, and is available to lend future direction, as well. LaPerriere was instrumental in restoring Sacramento's city cemetery.
"The cemetery in Sacramento used to look like a dump," Loya says, "but now it looks like a botanical garden. Poetry recitations are held there in the park-like setting."
Necessary steps toward a solution are detailed in Loya's proposal. It's his desire to institute an "Adopt a Plot" program, which has been used successfully in many communities in North America and Europe. Comprised of volunteers who are trained and informed, and working closely with community-based organizations, churches, educational institutions and civic-minded individuals, Loya believes his restoration plan will bring lasting beauty and integrity to what has become an eyesore and a disgrace. After presenting his plan to the county Board of Supervisors, and hopefully gaining their approval, he'd like to begin recruiting volunteers by next spring.
Loya has visited dozens of cemeteries in the Mother Lode region. The bumper sticker on his truck reads, "I brake for graveyards." None are as unkempt as the graveyard in Mariposa.
Loya hopes that his efforts will help rekindle the flame of reverence for those who lived before us and to provide for the future of those who will someday be laid to rest. Those interested in learning more may call (209) 966-3692.
In the words of William Gladstone, from the Historic Cemeteries website of Brookhaven and South Haven Hamlets in Long Island, N.Y.: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high deeds."
Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at her Sun-Star blog: City Girl, Country Life.