By Steve Schleder
(Appeared in the paper as: Markers must be returned)
What is the headstone, other than a piece of marble or granite? Why do we mark our graves with geometric obelisks? What rights do the dead have? These are just a few of the questions I've been asking myself this past year, while organizing the restoration of St. Mary's Cemetery (1862) and Ventura Cemetery (1887) one mile east of the Mission San Buenaventura on Main Street.
The cemeteries were renamed Memorial Park in 1965 after the city removed some 600 headstones, crypts, flush markers, family plot curbs from 3,000-plus graves and threw the whole lot into the Santa Clara River levee at the Olivas Adobe area, in the name of "beautification."
The actual remains of the 3,000-plus deceased are still in the ground just below Memorial Park.
I believe that the headstone is the very first "living trust contract." It is a stone contract with a legal name, legal beginning and ending dates, a description as to your particular work during your life, such as a mother or a father and, many times, with a mention as to your individual personality.
Before the invention of electricity, the television and the radio, many stone contracts had beautiful poems or limerick epitaphs.
The stone contract is placed above the grave to mark a legal location on Earth. This location is implied by its design to be forever owned by the deceased, not the immediate family members, because their fate has not yet been established.
This is the only right that our deceased are allowed. But this "only right" has been elevated in our society to the highest order that living men can give to anybody or anything. This "only right" is implied as sacred. In fact, many of the headstones have the chiseled words, "In Sacred Memory of..." beginning the epitaph.
The headstone is sacred, the grave is sacred, the remains of the deceased are sacred. This tangible property now belongs to the deceased person and God. No person shall dare offend the headstone or grave for fear of desecrating the sanctity, the dignity and the respect given to this person's final resting place.
This "sacred right" is implied to extend into the future forever, or until the resurrection, whichever comes first. And we, the living descendants, have been entrusted to enforce their rights. We are their proxy.
These stone contracts are displayed graveside for everyone living, not just the family members of the deceased. They are, in essence, a continual public notice to anyone in close proximity as to the elevated right or sacred right of the location. The sacred right is chiseled into the most immortal substrates that we can find on Earth.
The white granite and white marble quarries of Georgia and green marble quarries of Vermont have supplied us with headstones since before the Civil War. And how many thousands of miles do the headstone blanks travel by clipper ship and wagon train before they come to their final "contract" location?
As we get closer to the restoration of the cemeteries, we must take special care as to what we actually do. With a cemetery restoration, we are working within the arena of immortality. Architectural restoration is dwarfed in its shadow.
Forty years from now, will the citizens of the city and county look upon our restoration efforts and agree that our doings did as much damage as the 1955 building of the Recreation Center in the cemetery and the 1965 "beautification project"? Are we still so full of ourselves, so high and mighty that we again lose sight of the sacred rights of the deceased?
The 600 headstones must be returned to their rightful contract locations and each and every sacred right will be honored -- granite, marble, or redwood.
-- Steve Schleder, of Ventura, is an architectural restorationist and an organizer of the restoration efforts of the cemetery. A cemetery Web site is http://www.restorestmarys.org.
Copyright 2005, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.