Sunnyside Cemetery is an iconic historical landmark in Long Beach, California resting on 13.25 acres and home to over 16,000 resting souls. Founded in 1906, many of the graves date back to the early 1900’s, with recent guests as well (though few and far between).
A lot has changed for the cemetery since the early 1900’s. At that time a plot could be purchased in which the cemetery offered “perpetual” care which included the best in landscaping, parking and water on plush soil. Then oil was discovered and cemetery officials sold the land. Slant drilling began causing headstones and caskets to sink deeper into the earth. By 1922, Sunnyside and the Municipal Cemetery were perhaps the most valuable burial grounds in the world at the time with producing oil wells on three sides.
Sunnyside Cemetery is the 2nd oldest burial ground in Long Beach, California and with a small yet solid group of volunteers who own and run the cemetery recognizing the need to preserve this sacred burial land and help maintain it. The Friends of Sunnyside is a non-profit organization that works together organizing dates to clean up the markers and headstones, many of which are hidden, buried, sunken, broken, or chipped. In June, Billion Graves and The Friends of Sunnyside gathered for a weekend to brush off dirt of headstones and update their records so family and friends would have an easier time finding their loved ones.
Some stones are so old the names and dates are no longer legible, while others bare no name at all, with just the words “Mother” or “Father”. In the Palm section many small stones show the vulnerability of infants and children, some with only days of life who suffered disease and the flu epidemic between 1917-1921.
Sunnyside is also the final resting spot of over 200 former Union solders, many Japanese-Americans who suffered internment during WWII.
One of the most photographed plots is located at South Chapel Plot 83. It was purchased in 1907 by Hannah Rhea for her husband Albert, a retired Civil War physician, who was struck by a red car on May 10 of that year while riding his bicycle. This plot was photographed by Ansel Adams in 1939. The monument atop this plot is best known as Rhea Angel of Sorrow.
In 1989, Sunnyside was sold to an individual who embezzled over a half million dollars of the funds from the endowment. Since then, Sunnyside Cemetery has been unable to recover financially. They have a hard time with keeping the land watered, resulting in unkempt grounds infested by gopher holes, as well as dead trees that mysteriously fall over late at night. The only paid employee is a single groundsman who is supplemented with court ordered community service workers who give their hours at Sunnyside as an alternative to doing time behind bars.
In stark contrast, the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery on the other side of the rustic fence has green grass and sprinklers constantly running and is being taken care of by department of parks and recreation.
After the recent SoCal rains, weeds grew incessantly. Then came the drought. When help came in to trim the weeds, the heads of around 100 sprinklers were left decapitated, and to this day are still randomly scattered on the grounds readily visible to anyone taking a walk around.
Despite a few optimistic fundraisers and the occasional filming permit such as Nicholas Cage’s “8mm” and Adam Sandler’s “Click” as well as Historic Cemetery Tours where actors portray well dressed and informative ghouls digging up tale-worthy stories on decedents buried there, Sunnyside has no meaningful income streams.
Sunnyside’s board of directors comprised has announced the gates will be shut August 31st unless the city can reach a deal keeping the gates open.
Rest assured, the idea of the city building apartments over the cemetery will never happen. But the unfortunate likelihood of the gates being locked and chained at Sunnyside is real. Let’s hope the city can resolve this matter soon and a deal goes through so that it doesn’t get closed down!
Cost estimates are at least $1 million just to bring the cemetery up to date.
What can you do? Write and call our Mayor and Council Members, insist they step in and help protect a piece of Long Beach history.
Mayor Garcia 562. 570. 6801 – Mayor@longbeach.gov
Roberto Uranga 562. 570. 7777- District7@longbeach.gov
Article & Photographs by: Maggie St.Thomas