One foot in the grave?

Long Beach’s historic Sunnyside Cemetery may close this summer unless city officials step in.

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One foot in the grave?

Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach (foreground)– which may close to the public this summer due to lack of funding for watering and maintenance– with the greener Long Beach Municipal Cemetery in the background

Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach (foreground)– which may close to the public this summer due to lack of funding for watering and maintenance– with the greener Long Beach Municipal Cemetery in the background

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach (foreground)– which may close to the public this summer due to lack of funding for watering and maintenance– with the greener Long Beach Municipal Cemetery in the background

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune

Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach (foreground)– which may close to the public this summer due to lack of funding for watering and maintenance– with the greener Long Beach Municipal Cemetery in the background

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What happens to a cemetery with only a few gravesites left to sell? Answer: It has to pay for its upkeep with little to no funeral income. And if there isn’t enough money for that upkeep? Abandonment, leading to gravestones slowly swallowed up by vegetation, soil, rodent activity and general decay.

Such is the grim plight facing the cheerily named Sunnyside Cemetery at 1095 E. Willow Street in Long Beach and its approximately 16,300 graveyard residents, which include Long Beach’s first fire chief, a police chief, a former California lieutenant governor and hundreds of Civil War veterans, according to Sunnyside’s social-media site.

Embezzlement of half of the cemetery’s million-dollar endowment fund between 1989 and 1994 left it with minimal monetary resources over the last 25 years, not enough to consistently water or maintain its gravesites without the help of assiduous volunteers.

However, there may be hope.

Linda Meador, one of Sunnyside’s four board members who has 17 family members buried at the cemetery, told the Signal Tribune Wednesday that recent publicity about the problem has led to a long-awaited meeting with the City of Long Beach to take over the cemetery’s management.

“I’m very anxious to have this meeting tomorrow,” she said. “For 19 years, we have been trying to get the City to take it over. Nothing has ever come to fruition, so I hope that this time they will do it because, otherwise, we’re going to be forced to close it.”

Meador was scheduled to speak with John Keisler, Long Beach’s director of economic and property development, at 4pm Thursday (after the Signal Tribune’s press time), with a list of conditions should the City agree to incorporate the 13-acre cemetery under its auspices.

The City already manages the smaller, four-acre Long Beach Municipal Cemetery at 1151 E. Willow St., directly adjacent to Sunnyside, maintaining it through its Parks, Recreation and Marine Department (PRM).

According to PRM’s webpage, that includes “manual watering of the grounds, tree maintenance, plant care, weeding, edging and mowing of the turf, raking of leaves, ‘righting’ of headstones (straightening them upright or raising them to grade) and debris removal.”

PRM’s maintenance-operations budget is currently $16.8 million, with 51 full-time employees to maintain 116 parks, facilities and open spaces, totaling 2,100 acres, according to the city’s budget documents.

Meador says she’d like the Sunnyside Cemetery to be harbored under that umbrella, but the City has been reluctant.
“For 25 years, it’s been an absolute uphill battle,” she said.

Until recently, the cemetery had been taking $2,500 per month in endowment-fund interest from the Farmers and Merchants Bank to pay for expenses and a groundskeeper.

“But at the beginning of this year, we were advised that we were getting close to the corpus of the fund,” she said, adding that the board has only drawn money twice so far this year and just requested another $2,500.

The board has instead been using proceeds from a brewfest fundraiser to pay expenses, plus labor from six to eight court-ordered community-service workers.

Meador said the current major groundskeeping project is replacing broken sprinkler heads so the cemetery can start watering again. After the rains this past winter, the grass had grown so tall that many of the sprinkler heads had gotten inadvertently mowed off.

“Then we have the issue that our equipment is very old,” she said. “It keeps breaking down. Right now, we only have one commercial mower running.”

Meador is thankful to the City of Signal Hill, which recently mowed the parkway along Willow Street before a funeral. Though the board had thought the parkway belonged to Signal Hill when in fact it belongs to Long Beach, Signal Hill offered to take care of the problem.

“They said, ‘We know if you called Long Beach it would take forever,’” Meador said. “That was awesome.”

While the board could host more fundraisers to try and stay afloat, age and physical impairment are becoming serious concerns for its members, Meador said. One of those, Mike Miner, resigned as the cemetery’s manager on Nov. 30, 2018, making it noncompliant with state law.

“We have advertised for a manager,” Meador said. “But they either want too much money or they don’t have the two years’ experience that the State requires.”

The cemetery has also held off performing a state-required annual audit that costs $7,500, the same as for larger cemeteries that do thousands of burials per year compared to one to five funerals at Sunnyside, Meador said.

Meador estimates the average cost to run the cemetery is between $60,000 and $70,000 per year. She said that she would let the City know at the meeting that the board has therefore saved it $1.5 million in expenses over the past 25 years, plus $300,000 in water.

“If the City takes over, then it becomes a municipal cemetery […] and they’re not under the direction of the state,” Meador said. “So, the money that’s in the endowment fund– which is about $541,000– that goes to the City as well.”

Road to ruin
Sunnyside’s current condition is a far cry from how it had started 113 years ago as a promising business venture, before its funds were decimated by one of its owners.

According to local historian Claudine Burnett in her 2016 book, Died in Long Beach: Cemetery Tales, an association of businessmen purchased 15 acres of land adjoining the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery in May 1906, creating the private Sunnyside Cemetery with an initial burial capacity of 17,500 bodies.

The association then sold the cemetery in 1989 to a man who neglected the site and embezzled more than half a million dollars from a $1.1-million endowment funded by those who had bought gravesites, Burnett describes.

Interest from such state-mandated endowment funds is supposed to cover maintenance costs after graveyards fill up, according to a 1996 L.A. Times article. That article reports that police arrested Sunnyside owner Dean Dempsey in January of that year for stealing from the fund.

Meador said she is the one who had reported Dempsey. After burying her mother at Sunnyside in 1994, plus moving three relatives’ remains to it from another cemetery, Meador noticed problems.

“A month later, I went in to take flowers, and there was no water,” she said.

Meador said she worked with state officials to put Dempsey in prison, noting that he had presented false plans to the endowment investment firm to build a crematory, which he never did.

“He drank it, he leased cars,” Meador said. “In ‘94, there was a hot rod in the garage. The IRS and the State came in and seized all of the equipment.”

Dempsey started raiding the account just a year after purchasing the cemetery, the L.A. Times article reports. He allegedly used the money to settle debts, including bar tabs and payments on a leased Mercedes-Benz.

An earlier 1991 L.A. Times article about the cemetery describes Dempsey wearing a T-shirt and jeans but also gold jewelry and driving a black Mercedes.

“It’s a real good life,” Dempsey is quoted in that article. “It’s good financially, with the endowment fund.”

After the State first began investigating his use of the funds in 1994, Dempsey sold Sunnyside for $100 to Wilmington-based landscaper Jerome Poland, who said he wanted to donate the site to the state or a nonprofit group, according to an L.A. Times article that year.

Poland ultimately gave the cemetery to a vocal volunteer group called Friends of the Sunnyside Cemetery, which consisted of about 35 family members and friends of people buried there, according to the article.

Burnett describes how that group formed a nonprofit organization called Sunnyside Cemetery, Inc. to take over the cemetery’s title, deed and management in 2000.

For the past 25 years, the board has only managed with the assistance of volunteers and occasional fundraisers, such as an annual movie night and the Long Beach Historical Society’s annual Historical Cemetery Tour. A beer and wine festival raised $42,000 for the cemetery last year.

Volunteer Elizabeth Thomas started a campaign on behalf of the cemetery two years ago, but it has only generated about $14,400 compared to its goal of $100,000.

“A small group of volunteers, who have relatives buried at the cemetery, have kept it alive,” she states in the campaign. “Unfortunately, they are struggling. The cemetery director needs to retire, but to replace him with a licensed cemetery manager would cost thousands more.”

Historically speaking, Sunnyside is one of the few Civil War cemeteries in California, Thomas notes in the campaign.
“The beautiful monuments, gravestones and inscriptions tell a history about the people that built our city,” she says. “The cemetery is in danger of having to close and go to ruin.”

Supporter Cindy Osterlind posted a more recent appeal on the cemetery’s social-media site soliciting donations.

“It’s a beautiful piece of history that has been neglected and is in a sad state– dead grass, weeds, a rodent problem,” she writes. “They have one groundskeeper, and his equipment is old and unreliable.”

Janelle Hillis, another volunteer, told the Signal Tribune that she started out cleaning gravesites because of her interest in history and genealogy and then moved to the cemetery’s office– one of six volunteers working on different days– helping people who call locate family members who may be buried there.

“I have a thing for cemeteries,” she said. “I find them interesting.”

Hillis said the board’s efforts in dealing with everything from watering to gophers in the cemetery has been piling up, leading to its anticipated closure in July or August.

“It’s just sad,” she said. “They’ve been trying to do what they can with the money they have.”

Long Beach City Councilmember Roberto Uranga, whose district includes the cemetery, told the Signal Tribune in an email that he supports keeping it open.

“[I] am hopeful that all parties are able to come to a resolution to keep this location open to the public,” he said. “The City of Long Beach sees the value and historic significance of Sunnyside Cemetery.”

Meador said that the cemetery’s historical significance is not just because of the graves but the records the cemetery keeps in two fireproof safes and a fireproof room in its basement.

“We have all the original deeds and contracts [for cemetery plots],” she said. “There’s several actual books that are handwritten that tell who the person is that died, when they died, how old they were, what they died from, who the doctor was, who the health officer was.”

The records include people who committed suicide after the stock-market crash in 1929 and who died in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, she said.

“We do use these,” Meador said of the records. “It’s not like they’re stuffed in the basement and nobody ever looks at them. We get calls all the time from people wanting information. To me, I’m protecting the history of Long Beach.”
She also said that she feels a personal responsibility to ensure the continued operation of the cemetery rather than have it close.

“We have a man who’s 94, and he spends hours tending to his family’s grave,” she said. “It tears at your heart.”

Meador said she was surprised that the City offered to meet with her Thursday about the beleaguered cemetery.

“I’m sorry that it came to this to get the response we’re getting now,” she said. “I just hope and pray that the City will take it over.”