“He who seeks equality should go to a cemetery.”
There are many things wrong with this cynical proverb, not the least being the unstated: You should know your place. But after photographer Keith May and I recently toured four Orange County cemeteries, I arrived at this conclusion: Death is the great equalizer only when it comes to decomposition. The necropolises we walked through on that overcast Sunday certainly reflected the departed’s money and power, but alternately had everything and nothing to do with how they’re regarded after they’re laid to rest.
Enter under the sandstone archway of the Mission San Juan Capistrano, walk into Father Junipero Serra’s church, pass the ornate gold-leaf retablo, and just outside the doors is the mission’s modest cemetery. Amid the trees stand a dozen disheveled white crosses (sans identifying names), the ground beneath hidden by a blanket of fallen olives, a simply painted crypt belonging to the priest who renovated the mission, and a cenotaph dedicated to José Antonio Yorba, an early Spanish settler and powerful landowner of much of Orange County. A pitted stone cross, cracked and plastered, towers in the center of the small courtyard—a marker obliquely refers to those “who built the mission”—but it’s the tour headphones that tell you the remains of more than 2,000 indigenous people lie beneath your feet.
The verdant hills of Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar are about as far from the bleak beige of the mission as you can get. The minimal visitors, barred entrances and calming sounds of running water nearby make it feel like any other gated community. The cool aesthetic of implementing recessed headstones and manicured grass melts away upon closer inspection: a preponderance of small details seems to momentarily resurrect graveyard inhabitants. Take a moment to view the ornate pair of stone and glass crypts perched near the top of the hill and peer through the barred doors: from one crypt, paintings of the deceased return your stare; a flat-screen TV and two chairs furnish the interior of the other. From a niche in a memorial wall by a nearby waterway there are small photos of the deceased grinning and holding a glass of wine; rotting toys are left atop the headstones of children’s graves in the Garden of Angels section; a stray note is taped to a mausoleum; and under a tree, a bench with a name engraved on it beckons you to sit.
Fairhaven Memorial Park abuts Santa Ana Cemetery. While the two blend into one other, the demarcation line blurs when it comes to Fairhaven’s elaborate memorials and Santa Ana’s spate of more recent graves. The latter features the obligatory flowers, but also other unusual finds: an open Budweiser can sits atop a polished black marker; several plots are decorated for Halloween; another is graced with a weathered stuffed rabbit. The two cemeteries also differ in atmosphere. Fairhaven has a smattering of visitors, but Santa Ana is full of life. Family and friends relax sedately in lawn chairs under beach umbrellas. Groups are expectedly somber at fresher graves, but older plots can lend themselves to a party-like atmosphere: Food is laid out on tables, a boombox plays music, and others smile and laugh as children chase a Chihuahua running between the headstones.
However briefly, it’s easy to see that this could be Paradise . . . and not just for the dead.
For a slideshow of Keith May’s cemetery photos, please click here.