With over 16,000 people buried at Sunnyside Cemetery, the gates of the historic landmark faced the possibility of closing forever, but was averted when the City of Long Beach stepped in.
Long Beach City Council voted in favor unanimously, Aug. 20 for the Long Beach Department of Parks and Recreation to manage the cemetery.
Sunnyside Cemetery opened in 1906 and is the second oldest burial ground in Long Beach, the first being Long Beach Municipal Cemetery. Many civil war veterans are buried beneath the surface, including a medal of honor recipient. The first Long Beach police officer killed in the line of duty is also buried there.
According to Mike Miner, the former manager, the cemetery has been facing financial problems for quite some time. In 1994 former manager Dean A. Dempsey embezzled $500,000 of the endowment fund, which funds the cemetery. He used the money to pay for a Mercedes-Benz, alimony and rent. Dempsey was later sentenced to four years in prison.
“He spent four years in jail, which to me was not enough,” Miner said.
Since the incident, the cemetery has been left underfunded. Due to the lack of funds, maintaining the cemetery has become difficult for the small crew. Weeds and grass have overgrown the property.
Sunnyside Cemetery has been relying on a couple thousand dollars a month to pay bills. The only current employee that is paid is their gardener Jose Robles.
When Miner was acting manager, he didn’t get paid much.
“I got paid a pair of pickles,” Miner joked.
The maintenance of the cemetery is run by volunteers and court-ordered community service workers.
“This is more a labor of love for me than something I wanted to make love of,” Miner said.
After the debacle with the previous owner, Miner took over managing the cemetery for 12 years and was a volunteer for another 12 years. He retired last November, leaving the cemetery with no manager.
Linda Meador, who is also on the small board of directors, told NBC about their cemetery being neglected.
“For 19 years we’ve been in contact with the city of Long Beach, asking them to take the cemetery over. And we’ve been denied time after time after time,” Meador told NBC in an interview.
Both Miner and Meador have multiple family members buried at the cemetery, making it personal to each of them. Meador goes out every day and talks to her mother’s grave.
The fence dividing Sunnyside Cemetery and Long Beach Municipal Cemetery shows the stark difference between the two.
The lush green grass that once surrounded Sunnyside Cemetery is now brown, the fences are coated in rust and the ground is filled with gopher holes. Miner said jokingly that there are probably more gophers than people buried at the cemetery.
On the other side of the fence, the grass has a vibrant green color creating a harsh line between the two sides.
Although Miner and Meador are hopeful that the city will take care of the cemetery, they are hesitant.
“I have mixed feelings because it’s going to someone else who doesn’t have the same look at the cemetery that we do…we have people buried here, so we have a different viewpoint than they do,” Miner said. “It means more to us than it does to them.”
The Department of Parks and Recreation visited Sunnyside Cemetery and inspected the property this past week. Meador said that there is talk about removing the fence that separates both cemeteries.
Sunnyside Cemetery is located at 1095 E. Willow St. and is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day.