“People are moving,” explained Randy Thwing, manager of the Santa Barbara Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “The kids move on and no one feels like a particular place is home.”
Cemeteries are, for the most part, figments of our past. They are from a time when a family name anchored not only a plot at the cemetery, but generations in the community. The patchwork of plots at a cemetery were once reflected in a patchwork of businesses, residences and lives. But such families are now rare. On average, Americans move between cities or towns 12 times in our lives. Our links to towns and therefore cemeteries are becoming all but vapor.
Open since 1868, and founded in 1867, the Santa Barbara Cemetery at 901 Channel Drive is 146 years old this year. I wrote a history of the cemetery, The Best Last Place: The History of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, which was published in 2006, and have given as many as 10 tours a year there since 1997. It's time for an update.
Santa Barbara Cemetery reached a high of more than 600 interments annually in 1969. This occurred on an upward trend that started on opening day — 100 years of steady growth. But last year, in 2012, the cemetery interred just 349. The trend since 1969 has been a fairly steady fall. It has bobbled between 480 and 305 over the last 20 years, with the low spots coming a year or two after economic downturns, but 480 was 1983 and 305 was 2010.
The other significant trend has been toward the interment of cremated remains. This trend, as a percentage of total cemetery business, has been steady and upward. In 1913, picking a date 100 years ago, cremated remains (cremains) accounted for less than 1 percent of burials. In 1926, when the cemetery opened its own crematorium and the first in Santa Barbara, that climbed to about 3 percent.
The number and percentage climbed very slowly for many years after this, until in 1963 when Jessica Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, hit The New York Times Bestseller List. In the book, Mitford argued against the costly practices of embalming and expensive caskets, and recommended cremation. Cremations at Santa Barbara Cemetery were still below 5 percent of all interments.
From 1965 onward, preference for cremation has increased more rapidly. As though taking note of the changing of the century, cremains passed casket burials as a percentage in 2000. In 2012, they were 58 percent of all interments at the cemetery. There is not necessarily an end in sight. While the United States has reached 34 percent in annual cremations, Singapore, Switzerland, and Britain have rates over 75 percent. Japan has effectively reached 100 percent.
In the history, I wrote fairly extensively about the water situation. The cemetery sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean. This means the aquifer beneath it is often alkaline and filled with salts. Wells were drilled in the late 1800s, and every 20 years or so they are uncapped, redrilled and tested just to reveal more alkalines and more salts.
This year was no different. Two wells were tested, and a third, on cemetery property across Channel Drive, will be tested in the next few months. The reason for the endless and fairly futile hope at the bottom of the wells being that water — and if you look at the grounds not nearly enough water — is costing the cemetery $120,000 annually.
This trend is an ugly one for a 59-acre plot of grass such as the cemetery. In 1992, the cemetery used roughly 26,000 units of water (a unit is 748 gallons) at a cost of $77,000 for the year (or $2.96/unit). Twenty years later, using about half that much water, the cemetery pays 35 percent more.
Cemeteries to the south of Santa Barbara, and to the east in the hills and desert, are often dirt. But Santa Barbara’s roots are New England Protestant, and grass comes with the turf. so to speak.
“Sure, there are dirt cemeteries,” Thwing said. “But that’s the end of sales (at the Santa Barbara Cemetery). People don’t want to buy cemetery property in Santa Barbara in the dirt.”
One possible solution in the future, according to Tom Mosby of the Montecito Water District, will be to add tertiary treatment at the waste disposal and water treatment plant housed just across the fence from the cemetery along Highway 101. The cemetery would be one of the users of that source. But that may be a decade or more in the offing.
When I started working on the history of the cemetery in 1996, the best guess was the cemetery would have space available for another 50 years. With the shift to cremated remains and the slow-down in interments, the estimate now stretches at least 100 years, and likely many more.
In the last couple of years, the cemetery has extended its offerings with completion of a new section of double-depth crypts in Linda Vista (2010), a remodeled interior space for cremains niches — the Cypress Room — downstairs from the 1951 Sanctuary of Life Eternal (2010), and an extension of the exterior public mausoleum (2012).
Future plans are queued up as available space fills. Plans were submitted and approved by Santa Barbara County for a full build-out of the cemetery in the early 1950s. Modifications to these plans are submitted for approval as the need to build out a new section arises, each modification working its way through the current county processes, policies and regulations.
One problem the cemetery now faces is that most future areas available for development are on steeper slopes. The best solution, from the cemetery’s point of view — a point of view that hopes to avoid full-sized backhoes on sloping, rain-soaked earth — is to dig out the area and install concrete crypts. This means just a couple of feet of topsoil over the crypt lids, easy enough to remove with men and shovels.
This year also saw the first gravestone QR (Quick Response) code. The code enables visitors to point their smart phone at the code and automatically link to a website with photos and stories of the deceased (if they are permitted on the website it links to). Technology is allowing us to keep our memories longer, in spaces that don’t require a physical locale. But it’s an amazing thing to have that place where your family can come, set out a blanket and remember — a place where the sun rises and sets, and the seasons instruct and invade.
Cottage Maker: Rodney Lamb
Every year, nearly every day, another story is laid to rest in the cemetery. This year a Santa Barbara leader, Rodney Lamb, passed away and came to rest at the Santa Barbara Cemetery. I have a special affinity for Lamb. I recently completed a history of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and Cottage Health System, and Lamb played a huge role in bringing the hospital out of a long dark sleep.
Lamb arrived at Cottage as an intern in hospital administration in 1953. He was a tall man, and in pictures of the time, he was lank and serious. In his dark suit, he stood out among the medical interns. He completed his internship, gaining a Master's in Public Health from UC Berkeley, but he’d made a deep impression at Cottage.
Cottage was awakening from literally decades of slumber. In 1930 and 1931, as the economy shriveled during the Great Depression, the Cottage board, just coming off a 25-plus-year building spree spurred by rising demand and full wards, desperately sought funds from the community, but with little success. Up to this moment, Cottage had either been current with or ahead of critical trends in research and operational procedures. In some cases, like creating and honing quality measures, it was a true innovator. But by 1933, the hospital had ceased issuing annual reports, the board minutes are nearly mute, and 20 years would pass with little change at the hospital.
Following the Depression, World War II created a significant distraction. Hoff General Hospital opened at the current site of MacKenzie Park at Las Positas Road and Hollister Avenue (now State Street), and was a huge drain on Cottage administrators, nurses, technicians and physicians. But even the end of the war did not enable Cottage to awaken. A million-volt X-ray machine was acquired. But in large part, the board attempted small changes, such as a new dining room, but could not muster the will to vote them through because of the cost.
In 1954, top administrator John Paplow reported sarcastically, “Probably the most notable accomplishment (of the year) was the completion of the redecorating of the business office."
Paplow never gelled with the flaccid Cottage board of the day. Rodney Lamb was hired as assistant administrator to Paplow in mid-1956. This was a request of the board rather than Paplow’s idea. Two months later, Paplow left. A hospital innovator and visionary himself, Cottage was the wrong place for him; he needed a strong board behind him. Paplow moved on to Lima Memorial Hospital in Ohio, where he brought several innovative and successful programs into play.
At Cottage, Lamb took the bull by the horns. From his first communication with the board, he directed its members in very specific terms. Within weeks, plans were being laid to launch a capital campaign and begin rebuilding much of the 40-year-old plant. Lamb fueled the hospital’s stability and growth for the next 30 years.
In the years following the campus overhaul, Lamb oversaw the introduction of patient-oriented services, a huge investment in medical technology, and a focused effort to draw top-notch physicians to the community. He was at the helm as Medicare, HMOs and radical changes in medical care delivery arrived. During his tenure, average patient days at the hospital went from just under 10 to fewer than five. As a result, Lamb also provided leadership as the County Hospital closed, and when Cottage acquired Pinecrest Rehabilitation Hospital.
Lamb served as chairman of the California Hospital Association and of the Association of Western Hospitals, president of the Hospital Council of Southern California, and chaired the California Health Care Forum. He received the California Hospital Association Walker-Sullivan Fellowship Award for "outstanding contribution and leadership to hospitals and the health-care community" in 1978.
He retired from Cottage in 1989.
Lamb died in March of this year, and is interred in the Summit Section at the Santa Barbara Cemetery, just down the hill from Santa Barbara leaders such as Charles Fernald and Isaac Sparks, and recent cemetery club member Fess Parker.
This year was also the advent of news about the cemetery’s neighbors. To the east, billionaire hotelier Ty Warner had his moment in the news for his tax troubles. But to the west, the death of Huguette Clark at age 104, brought the Clark estate back into the realm of questions and change.
The question of what would be done with the property has lingered for many, many years. On at least three occasions, starting in the late 1960s, the cemetery board approached Clark through her local attorneys to ask about the possibility of buying the estate and expanding the cemetery in that direction. But those requests were never seriously entertained by Clark or her attorneys, and ended in 1985 when the Clark estate gained a permit to install a boulder-stacked seawall. As a requirement to obtain the permit, Clark relinquished beach easements to the State of California and registered the home as a historic landmark, limiting future uses.
Following Clark’s death in 2011, and an untangling of her wills in court, a decision was made that the estate will be a museum and that some portion of her fantastic collections of art, dolls and cars will be displayed there.
Every tour, I take people down to where the view of the estate’s main house is unobstructed. The place is stunning, and beautifully kept.
It always arises for people involved in the work of our endings — cemetery employees, undertakers and cemetery researchers — the question of why. Why do this work?
It used to be that the headstones themselves would tell you — keep your eye on the big picture:
Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me
And more recently, as with the epitaph George Carlin suggested for himself ... (Carlin was cremated and his remains scattered, leaving his taph epi-less):
Jeez, he was just here a minute ago.
These reminders that life is brief and death often a surprise are one aspect of why. We live our lives under a cascade of people and things and events, seldom acknowledging that just past the perimeter of this activity lies the sea of the unknown. It is there while we live. And we suppose that it is to there we go when we are dead.
Meditation is an effort to bring us to its shore. The cemetery, with its rows of hard evidence, the etched and chiseled dates that fill with rain and finality, the soft but persistent sweep of weather and seasons, people, flowers, balloons and lawn mowers is another way to reach this shore and ponder, what is it about life?
The shingle over the superintendent’s door at the Santa Barbara Cemetery back in the 1940s and '50s offered the simplest perspective.
Any day above ground is a good one.
— 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.