Santa Barbara Cemetery was founded in July 1867 and opened in 1868. That date carries meaning for both the cemetery and Santa Barbara.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, America entered a period of mourning. The mourning was not just for the 500,000 dead, but was more acutely, and more simply, for the sake of mourning itself. In part, the United States had so little past compared to Europe, and to counter that fact, we took ourselves very seriously. To be fair, Europe, and especially England, were deeply imbued with Victorian seriousness themselves, and so maybe we were just copying.
Nevertheless, American journals topped up with articles on what was proper, tasteful, meaningful and righteous. And death did not escape this attention. The procedures and meaning of death were rapidly and deeply transformed. Between 1865 and 1900 the number of individual graves (as opposed to family plots) exploded, embalming was introduced and became popular, funeral parlors sprang up, sprawling but well-tended cemeteries on the outskirts took the place of small five-acre rectangles near town, and along with this sea change came highly formalized rites of mourning.
The influences that brought about the Santa Barbara Cemetery, 901 Channel Drive, included a sudden influx of Protestants following the war, the sad condition of the existing Protestant cemetery, the organization and memorial focus of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the rising influence of fraternal organizations such as the Masons, the Odd Fellows and, soon after, the Woodmen of the World — all of whom had central policies around funerals, grave markers and cemeteries.
This is all covered in my book, The Best Last Place: The History of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, but I missed something in the research. One of the more important influences, especially if you "read" the fabric of cemetery events as they unfolded, was the shift in the value we accorded to individuals as a result of the Civil War. More precisely, as a result of the end of the Civil War.
In his superlative book, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, Robert Poole describes the series of events that took place. During the war, there was an often implicit assumption on the parts of military and political leaders, and on the part of families of soldiers, that those who died in the war would be disinterred from their battlefield graveyards and sent home to be buried in family plots. But after the war, sheer pragmatic logistics and cost brought this idea to a standstill.
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
In this single moment, the American definition of the individual was transformed.
The transformation of the individual was then hewn literally in stone by an act of the War Department. The department designed markers for the thousands of veterans’ battlefield graves. First there were wood markers, then, when the first expensive round of replacements was needed just five years later, marble. And then in 1899, painfully late but wholly welcomed all the same, similar markers for the Confederate dead and veterans. These markers were identical, and are still identical, regardless of rank, service, race or sex. America, in this sudden, vivid and concrete example discovered a functional model for democracy.
From this moment on, family plots began to fill with uniform markers, and many people who previously might have received burial in pauper’s graves, were now accorded a burial plot and marker.
The Grand Army of the Republic was an early and important promoter of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. As early as 1871, the GAR held Decoration Day parades that left De la Guerra Plaza and proceeded all the way down State Street to Cabrillo Boulevard, and then along the boulevard to the cemetery, a march of more than three miles in full uniform with their heavy Springfield rifles at "the slope."
These events, as well as the Masonic and Odd Fellows funerals held at the cemetery, were magnets for attention and plot purchases by the larger community. The Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows both purchased large plots early on (both in 1877) where their members could be buried if they wished, or if they could not afford a family plot somewhere else in the cemetery. These were the institutional, respected exemplars of cemetery use.
But another thread in this telling, only alluded to in my book, was the growth of the death, cemetery and funeral industries in Santa Barbara. This was directly in line with the Victorian-edged, intense focus on death and mourning, that at the same time distanced us from the moments leading up to death, time with and care for the deceased, and the toil of grave and cemetery care.
It was during this era that Santa Barbara saw the creation of hospitals, first the County Hospital (1876), then Cottage (opened 1891), where the ill could be taken to sometimes get well, but more often to experience their final days. Funeral homes cropped up, and stone cutters, previously focused on buildings and the beautiful walls on the Upper Eastside, began to market themselves as grave marker and curb cutters.
At the Santa Barbara Cemetery, in short order, a stone cutter, Samuel Moore, set up shop across the Ventura-Los Angeles Stage Road (now Channel Drive) and soon became the official sexton at the cemetery (1881). Parcels were added to the original five-acre plot, quickly growing the cemetery to its 59-acre size well ahead of need. Maps were drawn of an envisioned elysian field with winding avenues, prominent plantings and a pond. A veterans' section was created. And new rules were drafted.
The cemetery’s board added Rule No. 17 to the rules and regulations in 1889, stating that lot enclosures — fences, iron gates or posts, stone curbs or low stone walls, etc. — “having ceased to be used in nearly all new cemeteries as they are thought alike useless and devoid of taste, and as they destroy all unity of design” were prohibited in the new sections of the cemetery, such as the veterans', or Mountain View, section. These rules soon spilled into older sections with the board asking the sexton to remove “what wants to come out,” and specifically requesting the removal of “objectionable enclosures and broken markers.” They came out by the ton.
The cemetery, the community, the local businesses all converged on a stable, standard means of conducting death.
The Many to the One
The transition from church and family members to individuals within the cemetery took more time. But locally this was largely because the cemetery board resisted this change.
At first, following the Civil War, families made the choice to erect identical markers within their family plots. Some families that might have been expected to build mausoleums due to their wealth and influence instead used markers. The rise in individually marked graves within family plots occurred soon after the Civil War. One man who seemed destined to have a mausoleum was George Owen Knapp, founder of Union Carbide. His family chose individual markers.
The other locations in the cemetery where individual graves were used predominantly were the Potter’s Field, the Chinese Section and in Mountain View, or the veterans' section. The first two of these used individual graves because the graves were purchased and dug at the time of need, and the deceased were often itinerant, without local family. In fact, because only family plots were available elsewhere in the cemetery, and the Potter’s Field was poorly kept and sadly marked, the cemetery left respectable families little choice in the matter.
The Chinese had contracts with disinterment services in Los Angeles to remove the bodies and ship them back to China for burial. They were intentionally itinerant.
But as new sections opened up — notably, Ocean View in 1891 and the Ridge Section in 1893 — a few individual graves were included in the plat maps. But these, like the Potter’s Field graves, were in the least desirable portion of the plat, often hard against the perimeter line of the cemetery. They went unadvertised and staff encouraged the purchase of family plots. Few individual grave sites were sold. It was not until later in the decade that the first individual graves were sold, the first going to Doyle Sarapta, Ocean View grave 375, on Jan. 25, 1898.
The Mountain View section, however, was different. Open in 1884, the plat filed with Santa Barbara County was solely for single graves. Veterans were considered an important enough population to provide solo burial locations.
By 1920, the cemetery was replatting sections to allow for single graves. This was in response to the success of Forest Lawn, opened as the first memorial park-style cemetery in Glendale in 1917. The Ridge Section, the Island Section, the Summit Section and many others, that started out as all, or primarily, family plots were converted to large swaths of individual graves.
Sales in these sections increased, and today, the impact is evident. The vast majority of graves sold after 1920 were individual graves. The individual had won out over the family.
Today, the cemeteries of Santa Barbara remain highly formalized, shaped by policy and tradition, expectation and practice. All cemeteries now are driven by the individual interment. And, in Santa Barbara, the cemeteries reflect the predominantly Protestant culture of the community, even including the old Mission Cemetery at the Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St., and Calvary Cemetery, 199 N. Hope Ave., or the Goleta District Cemetery, 44 S. San Antonio Road.
Contrasting these cemeteries with Catholic cemeteries where the Spanish and Mexican influences are more significant, you find the mown grass, the standardizing policies of appearance and practice, and an explicit managing organization. Travel far enough south or east and you’ll soon encounter cemeteries where the landscaping is dirt, the markers and the mementoes upon them are celebrations of individuality, and entire sections are left to local use without any intervention.
The cemetery model adopted in Santa Barbara makes for beautiful cemeteries — majestic, peaceful places of respect and contemplation. The Santa Barbara Cemetery has been called the most beautiful cemetery on the West Coast, and competes well with any cemetery in the United States.
But what it is, is a direct result of the surrender signed at Appomattox on April 7, 1865.
— Noozhawk contributing writer David Petry is the author of The Best Last Place: A History of Santa Barbara Cemetery and The Puritan Ice Companies: The Ice Empire of California’s Central Coast. He has conducted walking tours of the Santa Barbara Cemetery for the last 15 years. This month, tours are scheduled for Oct. 26 and 27. Click here for details. Follow him on Twitter: @david_petry.