Beyond Belief: Burial grounds
Beyond Belief: Burial grounds
I was part of the third generation of my family to grow up in the Bay Area, but five generations of us have lived here. My great-great-grandmother first emigrated in 1910, followed by my great-grandmother in 1919. Both lived at various and often-changing addresses in San Francisco’s Mission District until they died, and both are buried in the Bay Area.
A few weeks ago, I went to find my great-grandmother. I knew the name of the cemetery at which she was buried, and that she had been interred there after her death in 1964. But that’s about all I knew. The cemetery is a huge expanse of land in Colma, the “City of the Silent,” miles of green grass as far as the eye can see. According to family lore, my great-grandparents were buried alongside each other in anonymous graves. Their children planted a Scottish heather bush to mark the site: the closest thing to a headstone they could afford and a nod to the homeland they had left behind. But the planters of that bush had themselves died years ago. Thankfully, the cemetery has started to digitize its records, and one day my great-grandmother’s name popped up on its website with a number: Plot 762. I figured this was all I needed to track her down, so I showed up on a sunny Sunday afternoon and asked the front desk staff to direct me to the final resting place of Marion Laird Abernethy.
The receptionist dutifully entered 762 into her system, frowned, entered something else, frowned again, and then wrote something down on a Post-It. Then she turned to her colleague and said casually, “Hey, is anyone free right now to take someone up to the No-Care Section?” An awkward silence followed during which everyone pondered what she had just said. “The no-care section?” I winced. “They … actually call it that?” She was quick to explain. “Um, well, it’s not that they never take care of it, it’s just … well, not as much as the other …” Her co-worker and I both marveled at the fact that she was still talking.
“It’s fine, whatever,” I assured her, cringing. “Just – if someone could just direct me to her site, that would be great.” The older woman at the desk shook her head. “The thing is, we’re really busy today, and to find her, we would need a shovel.” Before I could make the tasteless joke that sprung effortlessly to mind, she gave me a stern look and elaborated: Grass had grown over the number marker for Site 762, and would have to be scraped away with some kind of tool in order to verify the site’s location.
For something that happens to absolutely everyone, death is pretty mysterious – and not just the philosophical and spiritual aspects of it. It’s sort of like birth. Most people don’t see the mechanics of it unless and until they have children of their own. I realized that I knew nothing about how death works in Alameda. I had never seen signs of a cemetery. So where do people go?
Ken Pearce, managing partner of Greer Family Mortuary, filled me in. Greer merged with Murphy Mortuary on High Street long ago and has been at its current location on Blanding Avenue for over 30 years. It’s one of two funeral homes in town. The original mortuary in Alameda was Smiley & Gallagher Funeral Directors, which operated between 1897 and 1973; that space has since been filled by Alameda Funeral & Cremation Services, which is operated by Harry Greer - formerly of Greer's - and Valerie Crithfield Greer.
Pearce says that approximately 55 percent of Greer Family Mortuary's clients choose cremation over burial, which is higher than the national average.
As with many other things, it appears that the Bay Area is leading a national trend. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the cremation rate rose from roughly 15 percent in 1985 to 27 percent in 2001, and to about a third of all deaths since 2006.
There are various reasons for the move away from traditional burial, including increased mobility of the elderly (retirement away from region of origin), increased social and religious acceptance of the practice, a greater focus on environmental issues and the sluggish economy (traditional funerals are much more expensive than cremation). The Department of Veterans Affairs Northern California hopes to build a columbarium (vault with niches for urns containing ashes of the deceased) for veterans at Alameda Point.
Those Alamedans who do opt for casket burial have to leave the Island. Pearce says most are interred in Mountain View Cemetery (Oakland), Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (Hayward) and Sacramento Valley National Cemetery (Dixon). Rolling Hills Memorial Park in Richmond and Chapel of the Chimes in Hayward are also frequent destinations.
Pearce says that 85 percent of the families served by Greer incorporate religion into their services, while the other 15 percent choose to celebrate the deceased’s life with secular eulogies and stories.
“Green” or “natural” burial – an eco-friendly form of interment in which bodies are not embalmed, but wrapped in a biodegradable shroud and buried in a green space – has not caught on among Alamedans. But Pearce believes it will probably increase in popularity over the next decade.
Pearce is clear about why he works in funeral service. “It allows me to help families on their worst day,” he explained. “There is nothing better than one of our families thanking us for getting them through the ordeal of losing their loved one, especially when these individuals were complete strangers to us days prior to the service.”
I also asked him what happens to families, well, like mine (before the American Dream paid off and we could pay for things like headstones). Pearce said that Greer works with families to try to avoid that outcome, but that there are circumstances in which a family simply doesn’t have sufficient funds to cremate or inter their loved one. In that case, the Alameda County Coroner’s Office handles the case. (I didn’t ask him where those people go, but I imagine it is to the East Bay’s version of the No Care Section.)
That Sunday at the Colma cemetery, I held my head up and put the client services ladies out of their misery by leaving the office and getting into my car. I followed the map they had given me and drove up a winding road, past hundreds of lovingly tended memorials. Some families had spent thousands of dollars on their loved ones’ final resting places, with carved stone seraphim and large color portraits and marble plaques. Even the more modest sites were spotlessly maintained by the cemetery staff and showed evidence of recent visits by friends and family. I kept driving.
Finally when I could go no further up the hill, I found it: the No Care Section. The grass had been mowed within recent memory, but the receptionist was telling the truth – the No Care Section just wasn’t a priority for anyone. My only company was a stray cat as I picked my way in between headstones smothered in lichen. A large tree had grown into one of the larger stones, the roots splitting it in two so that only a first name was visible. I looked for the heather bush, but it was gone.
Traffic rushed by and no one heard me as I gave my great-grandmother all the news she had missed in the past 50 years. It occurred to me that if I were a dead person, I would pick the No Care Section over the obsessively tended golf course of modern sites below. It was quiet, and green, and the wind rushed through the trees. It was peaceful.
I didn’t know exactly where she was, but sitting there under the big tree, it didn’t really matter.