Most of us rarely think about cemeteries unless we have a friend or loved one pass away. And yet there are more than 50 cemeteries nestled amongst Sacramento County’s neighborhoods – some on church lands, some on private ranches, and some privately or publicly owned – each with a unique history.
A small and dedicated group of volunteers, the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission, volunteer their time taking care of the heart of the cemeteries, connecting people with lost relatives, identifying needs and resources and retrieving headstones that have been lost through the years. They research, use GPS and GIS, to plot and record cemetery locations and communicate with people across the country to help preserve the historical artifacts that make up our past.
Dr. Bob LaPerriere, Chair of the Commission, recently helped retrieve 72 missing headstones from the city’s first cemetery, the New Helvetia Cemetery. Established in 1849, the cemetery was relocated in the 1950’s, and the City apparently stacked up the grave-markers on the side of the street. “We recently found 72 of those old grave-markers in two homes; one used them to widen the driveway and the other used them as a garden walkway,” LaPerriere said.
“It’s critical to locate all of the missing headstones and to restore them to their rightful position, to not only honor those that have passed but to protect the architectural pieces of history that help researchers, archaeologists, cultural historians and genealogists,” LaPerriere added. Commissioner Stephen Kadle noted “These old headstones are often works of art, many hand carved, and designed in the artistic style of the time. We are on a mission to try and locate every one of them.”
Many Sacramento families have relatives in our local cemeteries; during the Gold Rush, one out of four people died en route or soon after settling here and the commission aims to preserve the history of those people who helped create the capital of our state. The headstones also reflect historical events, such as flu, floods, and gold rush-related deaths. Members of the Donner party are buried in several local cemeteries.
“There are over 100,000 civil war soldiers buried between San Diego and Seattle – some with no markers. They are veterans and deserve the respect of having a headstone, and we want to help make that happen,” said Jim Monteton, a member of the Cemetery Commission and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
"The commission is not sure what prompts people to take grave-markers, but new property owners may find them in or on property they acquire and are unsure of what to do with them. Please let us (Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission
) know so we can return to the rightful location.” LaPerriere said.
The Cemetery Commission also advises the Board of Supervisors and works to memorialize Indigents buried in our County. It is also creating a comprehensive database of Sacramento County cemeteries and has created a Historic Cemetery Designation.