Breathing New Life Into Santa Cruz's Cemetery for Everyone

May 25, 2017

Santa Cruz is known for its free spirit and eclectic mix of people. Look no farther than the Evergreen Cemetery to see it’s a culture that dates back to the 1800s. After decades of sitting in disrepair, there’s renewed energy to restore the historic site.

The word cemetery often brings to mind green manicured lawns with orderly rows of headstones. That’s not the Evergreen Cemetery. It’s built into a hillside, like a tiered cake. Trees stick out amongst a jumble of old headstones. Sibley Simon volunteers for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, which owns the cemetery.

“So yeah none of it is really flat. But there’s about 2,000 people buried here. Only about half of them have headstones now,” says Sibley.

As unusual as the layout is, so is the history of those people. This is the final resting place for the nameless and noteworthy including Civil War veterans, Chinese immigrants and even local prostitutes.  

“The Anthony Family who formed downtown Santa Cruz is next to community members who were thought to be murderers,” Sibley says.

Also buried here is Louden Nelson, a former slave whose headstone says he willed his property to Santa Cruz schools. Today the city has a community center named after him.

“Loudon Nelson, whose actual name was London Nelson.  That tall white headstone up the stairs here is his,” Sibley says.

Most of the people were buried in the mid to late 1800s. Back then the only other cemetery was at the Santa Cruz Mission, where you had to be Catholic. So a Santa Cruz couple who thought there should be a place for everyone donated their backyard.

“They’re right over here we’re going to walk past them. And Hiram and Ruth Imus walked here from the Midwest (around) 1849-1850,” Sibley says.

Since day one, the Evergreen Cemetery was loosely organized. Families who bought plots had the responsibility to keep them up forever. But as those families disappeared and more modern, flat cemeteries came about, Evergreen fell into disrepair. Ivy took over many of the plots, homeless encampments sprung up and this became a place for vandalism and drug use.  

Then, six years ago, the museum decided to turn things around.

“I really saw this place and I thought it needs a lot of work and it’s a community project that needs to happen,” says Sibley.

Now every Monday morning, a group of volunteers gathers at the cemetery to pull out overgrown vegetation, pick up trash and restore broken headstones. The latter is Gary Neier’s specialty. On this Monday, he’s fixing a marble marker from 1866.

“There’s been vandalism as you can tell, it’s either vandalism or earthquakes in this case have broken this guy. The top of the marker disappeared within the last two years, it was taken,” says Neier.

So far the volunteers have fixed 30 headstones. They say each time they come, they find less trash, fewer drug needles. Neier hopes they can keep their work up -

“Once interest drops you know vegetation takes over, people feel confident in camping here or vandalism and then it degrades pretty quickly,” Neier says.

Next, the museum plans to restore the Grand Army of the Reserve plot, where Civil War veterans are buried.  Design ideas drawn up by local veterans will be unveiled during a Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery. The ceremony starts at 11 a.m.  

They'll need volunteers to complete that work, and like Evergreen cemetery, everyone is welcome.

If you’re interested in volunteering for the restoration of the Grand Army of the Reserve plot, you can email organizers at evergreenGAR@gmail.com. People who want to help out with general maintenance are encouraged to come to the cemetery Monday mornings.