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Halloween With The Not-Yet-Dead
updated: Nov 08, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Halloween With The Not-Yet-Dead
by Billy Goodnick

I've had zombies on my mind a lot lately. Between Woody Harrelson's recent movie, the Left For Dead video game I've seen advertised and the growing acceptance of inter-creature marriages, it's clear that the Zombie Advisory Board is earning their consulting fees.

So when I heard that David Petry, author of The Best Last Place (Olympus Press), was leading a tour of the Santa Barbara Cemetery on Halloween day, I thought, "Maybe I'll finally meet a real live (or is it undead) flesh eater."

Didn't happen. But I did have a fabulous time along with a few dozen of the not-yet-dead attendees. David's talking walking tour, like his 206-page robustly illustrated book, was fascinating, untangling the evolution of the Santa Barbara cemetery within a sociological and historical framework of America's attitudes toward the deceased.

A Most Beautiful Location

From the earliest churchyard and backyard graves, to town, then rural cemeteries that also served as the first public parks, to the lawn-style memorial parks we know today, burial sites kept pace with the psychology of their times. Of course fear of disease, plagues and rampant zombie attacks might have had something to do with these changes, too (except the zombie part-I'm not ready to let go of that just yet).

Assembled inside the simple, elegant chapel designed by architect George Washington Smith, with morning light softly filling the room, David regaled us with the early fiscal intrigues and heated political feuds that brought the simple small town cemetery to its current grandeur. We heard about the history of the subtly beautiful Alfredo Ramos Martinez murals that grace the upper walls.

I especially enjoyed learning about the now-retired roaring cremation furnaces-called retorts-that bellowed from a chamber deep in the bowels of the chapel. An elevator would eerily lower the casket to its appointment with the fires of wherever this particular soul was heading. Too bad David didn't modulate his voice to a convincing Vincent Price imitation.

Tiptoeing Through Time

After an hour in the chapel and touring the columbarium I was chomping at the bit to get outside and traverse around a few tombs. I had toured the grounds once before as part of a horticultural foray and was eager to get some dirt on the individual graves as well as the grand and curious mausoleums that dot the grounds. Pyramids, Greek temples, and crumbling sandstone crypts, some costing as much as twelve million dollars, all of which will someday succumb to the inexorable retreat of ocean bluffs.

David's book is a great read and I suggest you drop by Chaucer's for your own copy. He has visited hundreds of cemeteries throughout the country and spins a very readable (dare I say lively?) discourse on a topic most of us rarely think about.

But from this point on, I'll let the pictures tell the story. Some of these shots were taken on the day of the tour, others a few days later, just as the morning sun peeked over the horizon and dew sparkled on the ample swathes of turf.

David's encyclopedic knowledge about the history of the Santa Barbara cemetery, and tasty tidbits about evolving attitudes toward burial held everyone's attention and spurred lots of questions. We had a medium in our group who would occasionally catch the vibe of long-departed residents, sometimes sharing her perceptions with the rest of us.

The simple abstract style murals of Alfredo Ramos Martinez were quite controversial when they were painted in the late 1930s. Martinez's abstract style was seen as out of step with the typical classical style of ornamentation featured in most cemeteries.

Though much of the chapel's exterior is spare and understated, there are a number of exquisitely crafted details, such as the incised "eyebrows" along the colonnade connecting the chapel with the mid-20th century Sanctuary of Life Eternal. My only complaint was the stultifyingly pedestrian terracotta pots of impatiens that hung from the center of each arch. I have a low tolerance for plants that can be purchased at the local drug store distracting from this magnificent edifice.

Supporting the weighty arches are these beautifully carved stone capitals. Note the two hands, one with open palm, the other pointing earthward.

This mausoleum is the final resting place of Sam Battistone, who co-found the Sambo's restaurant chain with Floyd Bohnett. I was impressed by the simplicity of the sleek marble columns and classic Greek temple motif.

David Petry explained how America's fascination with all things Egyptian influenced modern day architecture and design. I like how the nearby date palms (Phoenix canariensis) add an authentic touch around the Sahlberg mausoleum, built in 1903.

Now we're having some fun! Some of the cemetery's Monterey cypress trees (Cupressus macrocarpa) have been there for over a hundred years. It's no surprise that if you placed a gravestone a few feet from a young cypress tree a century ago, eventually the tree wins out.

When I returned to the cemetery early Tuesday morning, I was drawn to an eerie sound, like the high-pitched hum of flying insects. I discovered this crew of gardeners moved swarmlike from grave to grave, monofilament weed-whippers lofting clouds of dirt and grass blades into the soft mist.

Where once roads crisscrossed the grounds, more burial space was eventually seized in broad swaths between older graves. This section of the cemetery gives the impression of gigantic tank tracks.

Woodmen of the World was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, as a fraternal organization and insurance company founded by Joseph Cullen Root. One of the benefits of membership included distinctive tombstones in the shape of tree stumps. The practice was abandoned in the 1920s, but not before a number of these unique monuments were placed in our local cemetery.

Predictably disappointed by the absence of zombies, my perverse lust for the bizarre was finally satisfied when I espied this truly epic example of nightmarish topiary. What better way to welcome Halloween? Happy boy!

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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