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Frank Gruber

A Big Part of the City

By Frank Gruber

More than once in the six and half years I've been writing this column I have ridiculed the tendency of the Santa Monica City Council and the staff that does the council's bidding to try to solve all the problems of everyone who lives here -- residents who mostly have it pretty good -- not to mention sometimes the problems of the whole world.

But I should be fair. Probably more often than I have made fun of the council's hand holding philosophy of government, I've relished the opportunity, in writing about our small city, to have a city to write about that does so much.

Because of Santa Monica's independent history, the City has a number of departments and institutions and provides various services that most cities of 85,000 on 8.3 square miles either don't care about or contract out. Because of Santa Monica's independent streak, the City has broken the trail on various policies over the years, from historic preservation, to rent control, to sustainability, etc.

At various times I feel like I've barely touched the surface of my subject, Santa Monica, and at others I feel like I've written too much about nearly everything the City of Santa Monica does. But I've never written about one of the City's oldest institutions: Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery.

I didn't even write about it when the City fired the cemetery director over charges he didn't keep the books straight, and that he steered mortuary business to his domestic partner.

It's not uncommon for cities to own cemeteries, but the fact that Santa Monica owned one always typified -- to me -- the City's we'll-make-it-better attitude. It was literally the "grave" in "cradle to grave." On the other hand, the urbanista and worshipper at the altar of civic-religion inside me always liked the idea that there was a non-sectarian, non-ethnic place for communal final resting -- one last town square to hang around in and meet your neighbors.

I never knew much about the history of the cemetery which is, as is the case with most places and institutions in Santa Monica, tied up in the history of the land itself.

According to James Pfrommer, a historian of California cemeteries who wrote an unpublished history of Woodlawn that is in the collection of the Santa Monica Historical Society & Museum, Spanish settlers were probably burying their dead on the site by the late 1700s. There are, however, no written records or grave markers to confirm this.

The cemetery was included in the properties that Colonel Robert S. Baker, one of the founders of the City of Santa Monica, bought in the 1870s from the Californio families that owned the coastal ranchos. Colonel Baker in turn sold the cemetery to the Carrillo family in 1884. The Carrillos deeded the land to the City in 1907, although the City, which was incorporated in 1886, was apparently administering the cemetery as early as 1898.

Woodlawn Cemetery: 1883 grave. (Photos by Frank Gruber)

The cemetery contains the family plots of many of Santa Monica's founding families, both Mexican/Californio and Anglo -- graves of Machados, Reyes, Marquezes, Carrillos, Higueras, Lugos, Talamantes, Vawters and Kinneys.

Woodlawn Cemetery: the Machado family section

There's a lot of history at Woodlawn. A ladies auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic erected a large monument in 1917 dedicated to the unknown Civil War dead. Two large areas acquired by the local Elks and Masons for their members reflect Santa Monica's mid-century small town era. The numerous film and TV personalities who have their final residences at Woodlawn reflect one of our prominent local businesses.

Woodlawn Cemetery: Civil War Monument

The graves in the cemetery also track Santa Monica's changing demographics -- there are many more Japanese buried there, for instance, than one might expect based on the current population.

Woodlawn Cemetery: Japanese graves

So why am I writing about the cemetery?

One thing about writing a column about the place you live is that your personal life provides grist for the mill. You can't help it.

I've written numerous columns from my parents' summer home in Italy, even one about their dog, and others inspired by their move a few years ago to one of the new apartments in downtown Santa Monica.

Last fall my mother announced that she wanted to look into cemetery plots. She was healthy at the time, as she had been her entire life. At 86, it was just something she wanted to take care of.

I told her about Santa Monica's municipal cemetery, and one day I drove my parents there to take a look. My father didn't have a strong opinion one way or the other, but my mother said that she liked the idea of being buried in a municipal cemetery, in her adopted hometown -- assuming she died here.

I don't believe my mother had any premonitions, but in January she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I wrote a column about her illness -- about how she benefited during it from living in a city like Santa Monica.

Pancreatic cancer is what the oncologist called "not a curable condition," and my mother came home to her apartment and entered into hospice care. A friend of mine whose father died last year in hospice told me that hospice care is such a good idea that she's shocked that it exists in the American medical system; she's right.

Residents of Santa Monica should be pleased to know that the City has given placards to hospice care providers so that they can park at meters and in preferential parking zones without getting tickets.

My father and I made an appointment with Virgil County, the new Cemetery Administrator, who explained everything about burials to us very clearly and professionally, and my father bought a plot at Woodlawn for him and my mother. He picked one next to a stone bench and a recently planted tree.

So that's why I'm writing about the cemetery. After a life's journey from childhood in Houston, to parenthood in Philadelphia, and to grandparenthood in Italy, with numerous stops in between, and a satisfying career as an artist, my mother died in her apartment in downtown Santa Monica a week ago Saturday. On Monday she was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery.

It's odd to think about it, but her grave will be forever in the care of the City of Santa Monica.

Meeting notice: Tonight at 7 p.m. the City's Planning Department is holding a big citywide workshop at the Civic Auditorium to try to get the update to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan back on track. For details go to this link

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