Cemeteries are as much a part of the American culture as apple pie and baseball. Because they are so driven by social mores and shared expectations, they change only slowly. Through changes in cemeteries, we can see changes in ourselves as a people. There have been big ones as we made the transition from church members to families and then to individuals; as we moved from matter-of-fact to highly expressive to understated, to circumstances now that remove memorialization from cemeteries and scatter them, as it were, at sea. And a continuous undertow of small changes.
The Santa Barbara Cemetery is unique in that it has not only gone through most of the major transitions, but it has both retained recognizable aspects of these earlier times, and has successfully merged them into a beautiful whole, making it The Best Last Place.
Over the Halloween weekend, two walking tours of the cemetery will be open to the public with historian and Noozhawk contributing writer David Petry, author of The Best Last Place, a history of the cemetery. Both tours begin at the cemetery’s chapel at 901 Channel Drive in Santa Barbara. Tour times are 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, and 1 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, and both begin at the cemetery’s chapel at 901 Channel Drive in Santa Barbara.
The tour begins in the George Washington Smith-designed chapel with its world-renowned Alfredo Ramos Martinez murals. It stops at the Sanctuary of Life Eternal inspired by the famous Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.
Then it moves to the grounds, starting in the original and oldest section of the cemetery. We move through the military section, past the earliest mausoleums, and visit the graves of famous Santa Barbarans and some who gained their fame elsewhere and were buried here. They include Sam Battistone, Charles Boldt, Ronald Colman, Charles Fernald, David Gray Jr., Fess Parker and Thomas More Storke. We look over the wall for a beautiful view of the embattled Clark estate, and end at the site where President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, had once planned to be buried.
The 2½-hour tours cost $15 per person, payable at the door. Reservations are not required but guests are encouraged to bring water, hats and cameras. The tours cover approximately 1 mile.
— Noozhawk contributing writer David Petry is a local historian, photographer and author of The Best Last Place: A History of Santa Barbara Cemetery. Follow him on Twitter: @david_petry.
With a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean, it’s a neighborhood home to actors, industrialists, authors, musicians, sports stars and many of Santa Barbara’s founders and leaders. On Sunday morning, you can walk among them on a special tour led by historian and Noozhawk contributor David Petry.
Petry, author of The Best Last Place, a history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, will conduct a one-mile walking tour of the cemetery, 901 Channel Drive, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
The cemetery is unique in more ways than one. Owned and operated by a nonprofit board whose bylaws were drafted in 1867, the cemetery is not affiliated with a church, a corporation or a government. The cemetery includes a chapel that is the only sacred structure designed by renowned architect George Washington Smith; inside, are the only completed murals of Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez. Until the completion of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, the cemetery was the chosen site of President Ronald Reagan’s burial plot.
According to Petry, the Santa Barbara Cemetery has transcended five separate incarnations: as a dusty and geometric town cemetery, as a rudely conceived rural cemetery, as a fitful lawn park cemetery, as an over-achieving memorial park, and as a local columbarium.
“The Santa Barbara Cemetery has embraced each of these phases and has built upon them, becoming in the end, a modern cemetery that is better than any of the models it followed,” he said.
The tour provides a brief history of the cemetery and an easy walk to some of the most interesting gravesites, including those of civic leaders Charles Fernald and Thomas More Storke; actors Ronald Colman, Laurence Harvey, and his daughter, Domino; murderer Cyrus Barnard; gold magnate Augustus Sahlberg; and business leaders Sam Battistone, George Oscar Mayer, David Nancarrow and Jheri Redding, among others.
The cost of the tour is $25 per person, or $15 for those who sign up on Facebook. Click here for the discount. Copies of The Best Last Place are available for a discounted $15, with payment in cash or personal check accepted.