Sunnyside Cemetery Ups and Downs

By: 
Steve Propes

Claudine Burnett’s “Died in Long Beach: Cemetery Tales” named Sunnyside Cemetery at 1095 E. Willow St. in Long Beach as the most valuable cemetery in the world, owing to its proximity to the Signal Hill 1920s oil boom, estimated at around $100 million. At the time, families with gravesites attempted to assert ownership of the oil rights, but were spurned by the court. According to Gerrie Schipske’s “Historic Cemeteries of Long Beach,” slant drilling on the part of oil operators negated the need to move the cemetery.

Ninety years later, this most valuable status has completely reversed. Because the cemetery’s endowment care fund was embezzled to the tune of $510,000 by the then-current owner in 1995, the remaining fund of $500,000 spins off about $52,000 a year, barely the minimum to pay for one caretaker and supplies needed for upkeep. Consequently, the cemetery might soon close its gates permanently.

Sunnyside (not to be confused with Forest Lawn’s Sunnyside Memorial Park on San Antonio Drive) was deemed a Long Beach Historic site on June 19, 2000 as “the only Civil War veterans cemetery in Long Beach, with approximately 200 graves of former Union Soldiers who fought with the Grand Army of the Republic. It is also the resting place of many prominent people important to the history of Long Beach,” including the first police chief, the first fire chief and the first policemen killed in action as well as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner from the Civil War.

“Families buried there were integral to local development” said board member and Long Beach resident, Elizabeth Thomas, 65, who is spearheading a new campaign to save Sunnyside. “It can be sold, but Forest Lawn doesn’t want to buy it” as most of the plots are taken. “We need a team of people to donate services. Somebody has been getting oil rights money, but we don’t know who it is. Possibly the guy who embezzled the trust fund. We need a attorney to look into the remaining plots” as it’s not entirely clear who owns them.

Sunnyside’s only employee, caretaker Mike Miner, 73, is licensed by the California Department  of Consumer Affairs, Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, a prerequisite for his job. “I’ve been here for 24 years, 12 as an employee. If I retire, since I’m the licensee, I’d have to close the gates.” And Miner made it clear that he’d like to retire.

About 100 plots out of a total of 16,500 remain. Many of those empty plots are paid for, but the owners have not been heard from for years. In total, there are 16,296 filled graves on 13.5 acres of property. In contrast, the neighboring municipal cemetery occupies 3.5 acres. The recent rains caused, “a little bit of damage,” said Miner. “Two vaults collapsed, but nothing was exposed.” They will be filled in, but “dirt doesn’t compact very well around the vaults.”

A recent audit of Long Beach’s municipal finances found that Sunnyside was the intended recipient of governmental largess, though the cemetery received no benefit. A June 2016 Park Maintenance Audit Report by City Auditor Laura Doud stated, “Within a 16-month span, the city paid $80,800 for service locations at which maintenance was never performed. The landscape maintenance contract with Azteca Landscape includes an option to service two possible locations: the LA Rio Trail and Sunnyside Cemetery, which would cost an additional $5,050 per month or $60,600 per year if the option were to be exercised. The City had anticipated possibly taking ownership of these two sites and having maintenance performed at some point during the contract period.” The audit is posted at: http://www.cityauditorlauradoud.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Park-Main....

There is no mention as to why the city did not take ownership. Miner said about three or four years ago, he contacted the city manager’s office about acquiring the cemetery and found out there was a letter circulated to the council by parks and recreation to City Manager Pat West “about what we had. They couldn’t operate it for more than two or three years, then they’d have to go into the general fund.”

According to City Manager Public Affairs Officer Kerry Gerot, the city “has not had contact with Sunnyside for several years.” Asked to clarify “several years,” Gerot responded “I was told the last contact was several years ago which could be 3 or more.”

Gerot did not answer any additional questions about the nature of the contacts between Sunnyside and the city.

Sunnyside is the home to several popular events such as the Historical Society’s Annual Historical Cemetery Tour which was last held on October 29, 2016 with ticket prices in the $15 to $20 range. According to Miner and Thomas, Sunnyside receives $1,200 for the rental. There is also an annual movie night, which also produces limited revenue. “The Historical Society tour gets very little money,” said Thomas. “We get a dollar for each movie ticket sold.” The movie promoter promised to respond to this, but did not. Attempts to speak with the Historical Society were also unsuccessful.

“We need to make the community aware of the problem,” said Thomas of the nine member board of directors. “Someone needs to step forward or we’re going to lose it.” Not anyone can serve on the board. To qualify, a member must have a relative buried at Sunnyside. At the moment, six of the nine board slots are filled. Without an outside entity taking over or outside financial help, “It would go into ruin,” warned Thomas.

Thomas has set up a Go Fund Me page for Sunnyside at Gofundme.com/sunnyside-cemetery

For a complete list of those buried at Sunnyside from 1906 to the early 1920s, go to: http://www.qhgs.info/pdfs/qhgs_sescb.pdf.

steve@beachcomber.news

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