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Evergreen Cemetery: Snapshots of a Forever Changing Boyle Heights

It's fitting that we start our new monthly series, The Graveyard of L.A., with this mammoth graveyard in the heart of Boyle Heights. There is no other cemetery that so encompasses Los Angeles' rich multi-cultural past -- often violent, surpassingly unique, and now poignantly forgotten.

The Evergreen Cemetery of today is a grey, broken feeling place. Thousands of graves crowd into each other, markers lay broken under shady willows, and the downtown skyline looms in the silver beige distance. Victorian monuments, more akin to houses than tombs, sit oddly on the untended ground, which is mostly nothing more than reddish dirt and crabgrass. The only splashes of color come from the murals of the working class Boyle Heights neighborhood, of which the Evergreen Cemetery is the chain-link fenced centerpiece. On my first visit, a malnourished mutt ran through a row of low graves sniffing at a rotting piece of fruit. In the whole, huge place, he was my only visible companion, except for a man with dreads wearing a well-worn Lakers jersey, bouncing a basketball as he walked the cemetery's interior loop over and over again.

But on my next visit, when I looked a little closer, I did see signs of love and life. Blue and white metallic pinwheels dot the bright green grass where a young Dodgers fan rests eternally. He is surrounded by the well-kept graves of long forgotten folks from the 1890s and earlier. It seems obvious the young fan's family also maintains these grave sites. An elderly man and woman shuffled in and began tending to two separate graves in the immaculate, white and granite Japanese section. Bottles of water, private notes, and flowers in mason jars adorn the graves. As the morning progressed, joggers, women pushing strollers, and tech savvy looking men with backpacks appeared outside the chain-link fence on the rubberized Evergreen Jogging Track, a 2004 addition to the neighborhood.

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And then there are the pictures. On many of the stones there are small oval photos, in rich black and white, that tell the story of Los Angeles. African American, Japanese, Armenian, Mexican, Irish, French, Jewish, English, Scottish, Union, Confederate -- all are represented. Most are formal pictures of people dressed in their Sunday best. There is a fashionable couple on their wedding day, a small boy in a natty white hat, and a handsome old man with a carnation in his lapel. There is a pride and hope that shines in their eyes. But in the back of the yard is a ceremonial monument that tells a darker tale. It is dedicated to the countless unmarked graves of first generation Chinese laborers and indigent citizens. Further hidden in the southeast corner is a modern day potter's field. Each year the ashes of around 1,500 of the city's homeless or unclaimed are cremated in the County crematorium next door, and then buried in a single grave. The year of their death is the only clue as to who they once were.


Beginnings

Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1877 in rural Boyle Heights, a new neighborhood that had only been subdivided two years before. The first Los Angeles cemetery to be operated by a private company, it was agreed that five acres of the land at Evergreen would be allocated to the city as a potter's field. The rest of the acreage was put up for sale to different segments of the diverse and booming Los Angeles population.

Unlike most other L.A. cemeteries, African Americans were welcome, although segregated. Evergreen quickly became the "it-eternity spot" for many of the community's early prominent citizens, including the legendary nurse, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Biddy Mason, who was interred in 1891. Evergreen was popular with first generation Japanese, known as "Issei," and the white establishment, as well. Founding families, like the Van Nuys and Lankershims, built massive granite and marble cottage style tombs in the Anglo section by the neo-gothic chapel.

At the time Evergreen was opened, graveyards were not considered the mournful, lonely places they are now. In the first three years, Superintendent R. Cochran planted 2,000 trees and graded 18 "avenues," creating a leafy, ordered subdivision for the dead. It was almost as much a place for the living as the dead, in many ways akin to a public park -- an open green space with its own streetcar stop at Evergreen and Brooklyn Avenue (now Caesar Chavez). It was perfect for picnicking, canoodling, and remembering.

Every Memorial Day, Evergreen filled with hundreds of children, vets, and women's groups. On Memorial Day, 1897, celebrations started early in the morning. Veterans came in crowded streetcars. School children, many wearing red, white, and blue caps, clutched bouquets of flowers as they walked to the event. The Veterans Drum Corps announced their arrival as they processed into Evergreen, and ceremonies took place in various sections of the cemetery dedicated to military organizations. Songs were sung, such as "Sleep, Sacred Dust of Noble Dead," and the Gettysburg Address was read aloud. A similar scene was found in 1899, as soldiers' graves were buried "beneath a wilderness of blossoms." Forty-five little girls, one dressed as "Columbia," sang "Put Flowers on their Graves." And they did just that, from boxes filled with cheerfully colored petals.

The much maligned, predominately male, Chinese community was the only ethnic group banned from being buried in Evergreen proper. They were allowed space in the adjacent potter's field for the outrageous charge of $10 per burial, while their Anglo counterparts were buried in the city-owned section for free.

A ceremonial shrine, consisting of twin brick furnaces and a stone altar, which was called "Precious Burners," was erected in 1888 in the Chinese portion of the potter's field. The altar was used prominently during the Chinese ghost festival of late summer. In August of 1895, the altar was loaded with cut watermelons, grapes, rice, and wine, while fire burned in the furnaces. Newspapers were strewn at the head of graves and loaded down with roast pork, bowls of rice and egg, cigarettes and chopsticks for the departed. Candles were lit, and paper smudged with silver -- representing coins -- was burned as an offering to the spirits of friends and ancestors past. Illustrating the prejudice of the era, a reporter for the Times sneered: "The cement work was more or less smeared with food and it did not have an attractive appearance as it might, but according to the heathen idea, the spirit of the departed will doubtless partake of the repast without deigning to notice that the same is in musty condition."1

Another often dismissed community called Evergreen their eternal home. In 1922, the Pacific Coast Showmen's Association established "Showmen's Rest" at Evergreen. Here, over 400 indigent carnival workers, along with circus and sideshow performers, would be (and continue to be) buried near the association's lion topped memorial -- finally at peace after a long life on the road. In 1935, over 300 troupes from 15 shows stood before the graves, while legendary flamboyant preacher, Aimee Simple McPherson, led prayers for the dead.

And so this amalgam of cultures continued to celebrate and mourn their dead at Evergreen. In 1893, the L.A. Times' Harry Chandler buried his young wife, Magdalena, after she died from complications following the birth of their third child in as many years. Low Yow, a popular Chinese woman of "lax morals,"2 was buried in 1900. Food and native wines were laid atop her grave, her clothing and bedding burned in order to accompany her in the afterlife. Hundreds of police officers, in full dress uniform, attended the 1904 burial of the police force's long time "matron," the "brave little woman," Mrs. Lucy Gray.3 The city's intellectual elite gathered in 1916 to honor Masuji Miyakawa, the first Japanese lawyer admitted to practice in America. And the African American community mourned at the grave of daredevil James Herman Banning, the first African American to fly cross country, after his plane went down in 1933.

But, from almost the beginning of its founding, a parallel history ran through the wide expanses of Evergreen's lawn. Amid all this pomp and ritual was a great deal of mischief and mayhem, perpetrated mostly by the living, but occasionally, by the dead.

A row of freshly filled graves at Evergreen Cemetery | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Japanese American family at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, at gravestone of Ayame and Zenzo Iida, 1949 | Shades of L.A. Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Memorial Day services (Evergreen Cemetery) Nisei rites, 1952 | Courtesy of the USC Digital Library


Strange times on sacred ground

It seems that when superintendent R. Cochran wasn't carting water from a nearby mill to keep the finicky grass green, he was wetting his whistle, often during working hours. In 1885 mourners at the burial of a young man named John P. Varnum were shocked when the casket was lowered into the ground. The grave was only 2 ½ feet deep -- so shallow that the coffin was inches from the surface! Both the undertaker and officiating clergyman went to the superintendent to complain, but he was drunk and belligerent. The Times reported that this was not the first instance of ill-dug graves at Evergreen, and furthermore, that the keeper of the cemetery was a "habitual drunkard."4

But, it was one of Cochran's successors who took debauchery to a whole other level. During the early spring of 1926, at the height of prohibition, those passing by Evergreen at night began to hear "unearthly shrieks, laughter and weird scurrying" coming from the graveyard. 5Rumors of spirits spread, and reports soon reached Police Captain Bond. On a hunch, the Captain and his sheriffs waited until nightfall. Threading their way through the graves, they snuck upon Superintendent H.E. Zurenberg's small cottage in the middle of the cemetery.

Once they entered, their jaws dropped. For facing them from two walls were two bars, each equipped in the style fashionable in pre-Victorian days. Glasses were aranged in tiers over each bar, and at the end of each sat lemons and hardboiled eggs in containers. A barrel full of whisky supplied one bar and a barrel of wine the other.6

It was "the neatest little barroom" the Captain had ever seen. Further investigation uncovered 50 gallons of wine hidden in a weather-beaten hearse in a nearby barn. Zurenberg was arrested, fined, and summarily dismissed. The police promptly destroyed the booze, leading the Captain, who was clearly quite amused by the sequence of events, to joke, "There are no more spirits in Evergreen Cemetery. Though there may be a few ghosts for all I know."7

When one uncovers all the human drama that happened in the first 50 years at Evergreen, a begrudging sympathy for the tippling superintendents bubbles to the surface. There were the antics of Pearl Groover, who wailed as she threw herself on her lover Percy Calhoon's casket until his lawful wife, her eyes flashing fire, ordered her to be removed. Another family spat turned ugly when a Gardena ranchman, Thomas Thomagos, was driven so insane by his little girl's tiny headstone that he began shooting at his wife, who ran through the graves, escaping with only a flesh wound to the knee.

Or there was the familial tug of war after the death of Theodore Grates, "free thinker."8 Theo's ignored wish to be cremated so divided his family that his first funeral was halted. The second attempt was repeatedly interrupted by an unknown crazed woman yelling. "When you die he will stand beside you and point to the door of hell through which you will go. You will be cremated, but the devil will do it." And then there was the woman who thought she saw moisture on the lid of her aunt's coffin and convinced others at the funeral that she was still alive. Her aunt was transported to the cemetery's receiving vault for monitoring to appease the family, even though the deceased had been embalmed.

Evergreen was a magnet for the unbalanced and inebriated. In 1892, Amelia Pelka, a "pretty" woman distraught over a broken engagement, caused quite a stir when she was spotted running naked around Evergreen for several hours, wildly avoiding capture. Nine years earlier, two French funeral goers had become bored at a funeral, and had an impromptu buggy race across the cemetery, which ended in one colliding with a tree. Then, in 1902, there were the infamous "sporting ladies,"9 Birdie and Blanche, buggy racers who had been fined enough in the previous two years "to maintain several families." Tired of terrifying living pedestrians, they decided to race around the city of the dead. They eluded the police, but were later found dead drunk in a nearby Boyle Heights saloon.

Sometimes the police caught their women. The 1906 burial of "humble and straightforward" Joel Scheck brought hundreds of "pushing and shoving" spectators.10 They were there for a glimpse of Joel's murderer -- his wife, Arilla. A shrouded police carriage made its way through the crowd and stopped near the grave. A curtain was raised and Arilla gazed out the window. The burial began, and "not one sign of emotion passed over the face peering from the window of the carriage." When the service was over, a detective snapped the curtain back down, and the carriage drove out of the cemetery, the throng trailing along behind it.

Evergreen was briefly the eternal home of another notorious murderess. In 1907, a slatternly, destitute woman named "Olga Miller" died in a charity hospital and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery. It was soon discovered that the woman was not "Olga Miller," but Bertha Bielstein, of Pittsburg, PA. The infamous daughter of a well off family, Bertha had murdered her mother (and was suspected of murdering her father) years before. She had come to L.A. after escaping from a mental institution with the help of her brother and an orderly who had fallen for her. The body was disinterred and put in the Evergreen receiving vault under tight guard for days. There were rumors of a planned body snatching, as different family members warred over the real identity of "Olga Miller." Finally, the body was positively identified and shipped east, but not before countless, nosey women appeared at the cemetery in an attempt to view the body.


The Forgotten

As Boyle Heights descended from a solid, working class, multi-ethnic neighborhood into an area plagued by crime, Evergreen's popularity waned. The disrespected Chinese community had abandoned their burial ground in the 1920s for a new, more accommodating one in East L.A. The Anglo population headed to the new, shiny cemeteries of Forest Lawn and Hollywood Forever. The cemetery largely fell into disrepair, and over the years there have been many accusations of neglect against the current owners.

The Japanese community stayed with Evergreen, and many burials continue to this day. In 1949 there was a towering memorial dedicated to the 442 Regimental Combat Unit. This unit was comprised of Japanese-American soldiers who served with valor during World War II, despite the country's horrible internment camp program. The Garden of the Pines was dedicated in 1966 in memory of the Issei Pioneers. Every summer, as part of the Obon festivities, relatives of the deceased gather at the cemetery to clean ancestors' graves in preparation for the annual visit by their spirits, which is believed to fall on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. The celebration also includes the beautiful Bon Odori, a folk dance performed to welcome the spirits of the dead.

The extension of the MTA Gold Line in 2005 brought Evergreen's ugly past of racial discrimination into the spotlight. A crew digging under a large 1950s retaining wall that bordered the potter's field portion of the cemetery unearthed the remains of more than 100 people, most of them Asian males. Jade bracelets, rice bowls, opium pipes, and a few gravestones were also found. It seems that after the Chinese stopped their burials, the cemetery slowly erased almost all signs that the Chinese had ever been there at all. The remains were reburied with honor at Evergreen, and a Memorial Wall was erected in 2010 next to the restored 1888 ceremonial shrine.

And so this city of the dead, representing the best and worst of the melting pot that is Los Angeles, continues to mirror the values of the times. In past decades the Armenian and Latino communities have had an increased presence in Evergreen, reflecting the shifting demographics of the city and bringing some much needed patches of life to the place called Evergreen.

_____

1 "Feeding the Departed" Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1895
2 "Chinese Funeral: Low Yow Buried According to Native Custom" Los Angele Times, March 17, 1900
3 "Highest Honors for Mrs. Gray" Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1904
4 "Shocking Scene: A Body Interred at Evergreen Near Surface" Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1885
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 "Spirits Sezied in Cemetery: Unearthly Noises Lead Deputies to Barroom in Home of Superintendent Among Tombs and to Cache of Liquor Hidden Under Old Hearse" Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1926
8 "Hurls Abuse Across Grave" Los Angeles Times, December 31,1903
9 "Girls 'Bored' by the 'Sporting Life': Birde and Blanche Settle for their Wildest Spree" Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1902
10 "Murderess at Victim's Grave: Mrs. Scheck Gazes Coldly as Slain Spouse is Buried" Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1906


Photos: Hadley Meares unless otherwise noted.


About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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