Santa Barbara Cemetery Association - Established in 1867


The Best Last Place
a history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery

by David Petry

Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Olympus Press; 1st edition (2006)
Designer: Eric Larson, Studio E Books
ISBN-10: 0934161941 / ISBN-13: 978-0934161947

$30.00 - Available at Chaucer's Bookstore,
and the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society.

Image of the book cover of The Best Last Place: a history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery by David Petry

A beautifully-illustrated history of one of the most magnificant cemeteries in the United States. This book tells the story of how this cemetery passed through all five major styles of cemetery development in its 140 years of operation, and how it now binds one of America's destination communities with its public art and architecture.

The following content is copyright © 2006, David Petry,
from his book The Best Last Place: a history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery.


Excerpts from the book:


“A good cemetery blends the elegance of a park with the pensive beauty of a burial ground.”

Adolph Strauch, 1869

Photo of a painting inside the Santa Barbara Cemetery's Chapel, called "The Offering."A large procession set out from the 300 block of State Street in Santa Barbara on a June day in 1867. At its head, drawn by four horses, trundled a black-draped wagon bearing a coffin. In it lay Isaac Sparks. Behind the wagon walked the pastor. Behind him came the black-garbed family, community leaders, employees, and town folk.

The procession was probably the largest yet in Santa Barbara for a Protestant citizen. Isaac Sparks had lived in Santa Barbara for more than twenty-five years. Arriving in 1832 as one of the first Anglos to even visit Santa Barbara, Sparks hunted otter up and down the coast and among the offshore islands. He worked with cohorts George Nidever and Lewis Burton, under a Mexican government hunting license issued to ship captain William Goodwin Dana.

Early on, Sparks used his earnings from hunting proceeds to purchase 200 square varas of the land now known as Burton Mound, located near what we now know as West Beach. On this site, he opened the first mercantile store and post office in Santa Barbara. His store was successful; he built a large brick house in the block at the northwest corner of State and Montecito Streets, bounded by Chapala and Gutierrez. The home sat in the middle of a five-acre lot surrounded by gardens.

Isaac Sparks led a colorful life. In his late thirties, he came close to death, losing his right eye to a grizzly bear he encountered in the Santa Barbara foothills in 1837. In his resolute manner, he recovered and married the young woman who nursed him back to health. In order to marry in the Mexican-governed town, Sparks became a naturalized Mexican citizen. His bride, Mary Eayres, was the daughter of a ship’s captain who had been left in Santa Barbara to be raised by the De la Guerra family. Governor Manuel Micheltorena presented Sparks with the twenty-two thousand-acre Huasna Rancho in San Luis Obispo County as a wedding gift.

The Sparkses continued to prosper, raising three daughters and weathering the 1846 military insurrection staged by John C. Frémont to win the state from Mexico. Sparks was conscripted as a rifleman by Frémont, and $900 worth of supplies were requisitioned from his store.

As Santa Barbara transitioned into an American territory, Sparks’ hunting cohort Lewis T. Burton, was elected the first President of the Common Council in August of 1850. However, Burton resigned the position after three months. The title of the position was changed to mayor and in quick succession Francisco de la Guerra (the first Santa Barbaran to hold the title of mayor) and then Joaquin Carrillo served. In 1852, Francisco de la Guerra served a second term. In May of 1853, Isaac Sparks was elected the fourth mayor of Santa Barbara, serving only six months.

In 1867, Sparks joined with Lewis Burton, and George Nidever, his old hunting partners, and the physician and businessman Dr. Samuel Beviers Brinkerhoff to form the La Compania del Muelle de Santa Barbara, or the Santa Barbara Wharf Company. Construction on the Chapala Street Wharf was started, but Isaac died before the wharf was completed and opened for business in 1868.

In a town of fewer than two thousand souls, of whom more than 75 percent were of Indian or Spanish descent, Sparks was well-known. If Santa Barbara can be said to have had a frontier period, Sparks, Nidever, and Burton embodied it. And yet, this era flowed seamlessly into a period of settlement and stability, due in large part to the efforts these early Anglo hunters made at building a community.

So it was likely that people from all walks of life joined the procession behind Isaac Sparks’ coffin. Though there was no newspaper in town when Sparks died, processions of the day were documented by later editions. When Pablo de la Guerra died seven years later in 1874, the Santa Barbara Times described the procession:

The remains, encased in a metallic casket, upon which was a silver tablet giving the name, time of birth, and death of the deceased, were placed in an open wagon and covered with the American flag. The following is an outline of the funeral cortege: First, Lobero’s band in uniform; second, the priests in their robes, the sisters of charity, and the orphans; third, the hearse and the pall-bearers, who wore white sashes trimmed with crape [sic]; fourth, the members of the medical and legal professions; fifth, the family and relatives of the deceased; sixth, the members of the press; and lastly, friends and acquaintances of the deceased.

When it was Isaac’s time, they did not have far to go. From the front steps of the Sparks’ home, they proceeded out to Montecito Street. Here they turned west to look down a long, lightly developed stretch of dirt track out towards the steep eastern face of the Mesa. As they neared the Mesa, they passed the Stevens and McNally Brickyard where Santa Barbara clay was quarried for roof tiles and adobe bricks. Just past this, they turned in at the little plot of land wedged against the side of the Mesa that the town of Santa Barbara had set aside in 1853 for Protestant burials.

Photo of flowers on a gravesite.It was a sad destination for such an influential Santa Barbaran. Clearly, Isaac Sparks had a permanent place in the town’s history. Other civic leaders in the party must have felt acutely the dissonance between Isaac Sparks’ influence in life and his resting place in death. Among those attending were the likes of Lewis Burton,, Samuel Brinkerhoff, Charles Huse, John Peck Stearns, Augustin Janssens, Charles Fernald, the Reverend Joseph Johnson, Dr. James B. Shaw, Sr., and George Nidever.

What they saw was a graveyard unfenced, unkempt, and roughly used. Most of the burials had been of strangers removed from ships to be buried ashore, or of the poor. They were granted a wooden cross or a crudely carved slab. A select few locals with the means had erected sandstone or marble monuments. Nine years later, the Santa Barbara Index would report, “The bones of the old soldiers and sailors buried in the first Protestant graveyard are not cared for. The excavation for clay for the brickyard is encroaching upon it, and the bones of the brave dead lie scattered around and are ground up by passing wheels.” People experienced a kind of horrified shock at the scene described. How could a community treat its dead this way?

But in those days, the shock was quite a new thing, and quite American. The European burial custom for centuries had been what the French called concession temporaires. This burial method, still widely used in Europe and prevalent today in some New Orleans cemeteries, allotted a grave site to an individual for a minimum period of time. In New Orleans the duration is “a year and a day.” After that time, another burial can occur in the same grave or crypt. In Europe, the decayed remains were moved to ossuaries or charnel houses (now they are cremated), and in New Orleans, the old coffin was removed, the remains pushed back or aside in the crypt, and the new coffin placed inside.

The disheveled little town cemetery on the outskirts of Santa Barbara was a necessary stage in Santa Barbara’s burial of the dead without which the next stage may not have occurred. The stages were carved out in American culture in sharp contrast, each distinct and practical, each one necessary for the times. These stages, from European settlers’ earliest days on the continent, progressed over time and over the continent, culminating in the California cemeteries of today.


The English Churchyard

The American model for burial in the East had largely been derived from the English churchyards of a half-century earlier. Burials took place either in churchyards or in town-designated graveyards. The standard practice in these yards was to bury the poor in unmarked trenches and the middle class in unmarked grave sites. When the cemetery was full, a coffin was laid atop a grave where a coffin had already been interred, and the new coffin was then covered with dirt. The new burials slowly raised the level of the graveyard, and after several rounds of this, the dirt often rose to the bottom of the church windows.

In this way, graveyards in eastern United States cities were able to inter a quarter-million individuals in relatively small plots of land. One can still see the raised effect of these yards in places like Boston’s Copp Hill graveyard, the raised dirt enclosed by a stout brick retaining wall.

Some citizens rose from the ranks and purchased vaults in church sanctuaries, either under the altar or beneath the pews in the sanctuary floors. Some churchyards and graveyards provided sections where an individual could be buried with a marker, giving some assurance that no other burials would take place at that location for at least the life of the graveyard.

But in the late 1700s, and increasingly during the yellow-fever epidemics of the 1810s and 1820s, graveyard problems confronted Eastern cities. During the epidemics, hundreds of dead were buried in shallow trenches, each new interment often being covered with only a few inches of dirt, the trench not being completely filled in for weeks or months. The smell of decay permeated the region around such yards, and people complained increasingly of poisonous miasmas, often thought to be a primary cause of the epidemics themselves.

These graveyards were also unsightly. Caretaking staff was limited to a sexton who acted as head gravedigger. Broken or leaning stones were not his concern. Rotted wooden markers were gathered by nearby residents for firewood. Bodies were stolen for medical studies. As cities grew, the graveyards were surrounded by homes and businesses. Abandoned, they were soon used as building sites.

The distasteful condition of the town or church-side graveyard coupled with the quickly rising influence of the middle class resulted in a massive shift in American burial mores, and eventually, a massive reform in American burial practices. The first significant change was a courageous move of the graveyard to the edge of town.


Photo of a detailed image of a headstone.The Town Graveyard

In 1796, several civic leaders in New Haven, Connecticut, gathered and formed an incorporated association to design and build a graveyard. New Haven had suffered yellow fever epidemics in 1794 and 1795, pushing their 157-year-old town graveyard to its limits. The New Haven Burial Ground was the first incorporated cemetery in the United States. Aside from its distance from the town center, its differences from what had gone before were many.

No longer was the graveyard directly tied to a church and therefore to a specific religious order. The New Haven Burial Ground was nonsectarian: any faith, as well as any race, was welcomed. The founders laid out the grounds and sold plots to different groups in town—Masons, Baptists, Yale graduates, Negroes, and so on. They also sold plots to families, with the implied promise, for the first time in the United States, that the graves would remain sacred for the life of the graveyard.

The New Haven Burial Ground covered six acres, quite large by standards of the day. The founders also planted trees in the grounds, creating possibly the first planned graveyard landscape in the United States, as they made a conscious effort to marry the city to the country.

For a time, the New Haven Burial Ground was successful both as a planned graveyard and as a philosophical model for graveyards. The model spread throughout America. By 1823, cities like New York would ban inner-city earth and vault interment, forcing the vast majority of East Coast burials to occur in graveyards outside the town and city centers. Still, the detractors of these outlying graveyards yearned for the past. They found it distasteful to be buried so far from the town center and from their families and congregations, and so near the Jews or the Baptists, the Negroes, or the Yale alumni. The demands of the cities—to grow, to consume their pasts during their pilgrimage to the future—continued to push cemeteries to the outer edges of the cities and towns.

But New Haven Burial Ground, like many of the town graveyards it spawned, did not effectively stand the test of time. Within fifteen years, the grounds were encircled by new development as the city expanded. Footpaths wound through the graveyard without regard for burial places. Vandalism became a problem. As the number of stones increased, critics found the geometric design of the grounds tiresome and uninspired. New Haven resolved what issues it could by erecting a fence, planting a host of new trees, and building a sexton’s house on the premises, but the expectations of security, permanence, and aesthetics had been raised. In the rarified air of public opinion of the time, these concerns would not fade easily.

Photo of the Santa Barbara Cemetery's grounds on a foggy day.

The Rural Cemetery

In 1831, the Mount Auburn Cemetery opened its gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts outside Boston, setting off a domino effect up and down the Eastern seaboard. Mount Auburn is considered the epitome of the American rural cemetery. Its antecedents are European—cemeteries like Pére-Lachaise in Paris (1804)—but its conception was wholly American.

Mount Auburn was located five miles from the populated center it served. When it first opened, the site covered 72 acres, a vast acreage compared to the one- to five-acre parcels of the town and churchyard burial grounds. By 1854, several acquisitions brought the contiguous whole to 130 acres. The trustees sold the plots in perpetuity, the cemetery being large enough that neither multiple interments in single locations nor abandonment of the site after filling up was permitted or expected.

Photo of the Santa Barbara Cemetery's grounds with a tree in the foreground.In another large step away from most of its predecessors, Mount Auburn focused on the family. Lots were large—300 square feet—and a family was expected to purchase, improve, and care for their plot for many generations. These changes responded to the increasingly dense and mercantile nature of city life, the stronger need for meaning around death and dying and respect for the dead, the orientation of the culture around the family, the powerful and growing desire for a sanitary city life, and the necessity for permanence. Even the dead were seen in a new context. Mount Auburn’s founders strategically introduced the term cemetery, specifically to reflect a belief that the dead were truly immortal, only sleeping.

The old practice of facing every grave to the east to await the resurrection also changed. With grave sites now laid out subject to the natural landscape and curving carriage lanes, graves could point where they might: the grounds were becoming a place for the living also, not just for the dead. The new cemetery was seen as ideally democratic. No restrictions on race or religion held. Anyone could purchase a plot. Anyone could visit.

Up to the opening of Mount Auburn, graveyards had been developed solely on the basis of need. When a graveyard in town filled up, or a new church was built, a new graveyard was created. With Mount Auburn, the purposes expanded to include aesthetics. In fact, to help ensure the success of the cemetery, the Mount Auburn Board of Trustees developed the cemetery in partnership with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society which used a portion of the grounds as an experimental garden.

Marching to the popular landscape aesthetic of the time, the wild and picturesque landscape of the new cemetery was untamed nature in abandon. Cut with winding roads and populated with an increasing forest of monuments, it soon embodied the art of death enfolded in the heart of nature. According to one of the founders, Jacob Bigelow, “The inner portion [of the Mount Auburn property], which is set apart for the purposes of a Cemetery, is covered throughout most of its extent with a vigorous growth of forest trees. This tract is beautifully undulating in its surface, containing a number of bold eminences, steep acclivities, and deep shadowy valleys.”

Boston residents and many critics around the country met the new cemetery with high praise. Annually, thousands of visitors rode their horses or took the specially built tram line to the entrance. During the 1830s and 1840s, Mount Auburn became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. People promenaded, picnicked, and partied in the cemetery grounds.

In the coming years, outlying cemeteries popped up throughout the East. Their creation and success drew an attendant flow of criticism and philosophy, a flow that first merged with the growing interest in all things horticultural and scientifically agricultural. But reactions began to sour as the early rural cemeteries approached their inevitable conclusions.

In time, the New Haven Burial Ground, Mount Auburn, and other rural cemeteries like them demonstrated their limitations. Family lot-ownership and management left the cemeteries looking uneven and cluttered as one family built walls or installed benches, planted exotic ferns and shrubs, while the lot next to theirs fell into disrepair.

In addition, hundreds of lighthearted weekenders interrupted the gravity of funeral services. Critics found that the somber reflection on death itself was becoming impossible due to the popularity of these sites. The Mt. Auburn board was to write, “At first, promiscuous admittance was allowed to persons on foot, on horseback, and in carriages. But in a short time, great inconvenience was felt from the number of persons in pursuit of pleasure.”

As more families erected monuments and encircled them with gates and enclosures, the quantity of embellishments on the landscape began to overwhelm the eye. A competitive spirit arose that increased the size and artistic qualities of the monuments until, as landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead wrote in 1861, “the rural cemetery, which should, above all things, be a place of rest, silence, seclusion, and peace, is too often now made a place not only of the grossest ostentation of the living, but a constant resort of mere pleasure seekers, travellers, promenaders, and loungers.”

Rural cemeteries, including Mount Auburn, once again made what changes they could—issuing a limited number of tickets for visitors and cutting back and removing “superfluous trees”—but it would take a new model driven by a new vision to implement the deeper changes that were needed.

Photo of a painting of Christ inside the Santa Barbara Cemetery's Chapel.

The Lawn Park Cemetery

Hired in 1854 to resurrect the failing rural Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Adolph Strauch designed an answer to the rural cemetery problems—the lawn park cemetery. Though still large, still family-centered, Strauch’s cemetery design removed large “picturesque” swaths of trees and replaced them with simple lakes and large areas of lawn. The landscape was simpler, cleaner, more open and pastoral. He limited the number of roads and paths and increased the size of the family plots. And in these he permitted only one monument per plot, which he controlled in size and style. Nature was to be subdued in the cemetery, controlled, managed, and groomed; as was excessive human intervention and design.

At the same time, Strauch introduced the concept of choosing either perpetual care, with a one-time higher cost for a plot, or annual care. Thus in one fell swoop he handed the care of the cemetery grounds over to the cemetery itself. Coming to an end were the jobs for the gardeners, stonecutters, and caretakers that lot-owners hired to care for their cemetery plots. Gone too, was the sexton as head gravedigger with his crew of shovel swingers. What replaced them was a cemetery superintendent with a growing staff of horticulturalists, gravediggers, and mechanics. Strauch was finding ways to manage the appearance of the cemetery by giving much of the control to the cemetery itself.

Photo of the Santa Barbara Cemetery's grounds with a boulder in the foreground.The lawn park cemeteries also exerted greater control on visitors. Policies had been passed retroactively in the rural cemeteries to limit access to the grounds by “pleasure seekers,” restricting them to weekends, or installing entry gates and limiting the number of visitors allowed. Lawn park cemeteries did this from the beginning, allowing visitors only on Sundays, for instance, a day when no interments took place.

Interestingly, the need for these policies was soon alleviated by the parallel development during this period of large urban parks whose design closely followed the pastoral model pioneered by Strauch. Because of their location in central city areas, these parks drew just those residents in need of recreation and relief from the burgeoning cities, people who had before flocked to the rural cemeteries. In the ensuing years, the development of lawn park cemeteries and urban parks would elicit a dialogue, often spoken by the same designers on different plots of land. Three years after Strauch introduced Spring Grove as a lawn park cemetery, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were awarded the contract to design New York’s Central Park. The new park was to grow from their “Greensward” plan, which shared many fundamental attributes with Strauch’s designs for Spring Grove.

Strauch was consulted on the design for numerous midwestern cemeteries after his success at Spring Grove. Olmstead would say of Strauch that “perhaps no man in the United States since A. J. Downing’s time has done more for the correction and cultivation of public taste in landscape gardening.” Olmstead would go on to design several more large urban parks, as well as several lawn park cemeteries.

The movement to the lawn park cemetery paralleled yet another shift in American mores and attitudes towards death. This period in the late nineteenth century was the beginning of a deepening American separation between the living and the dead. Dying in a hospital was all but unheard of in 1855 when Spring Grove was founded. But by the end of the 1880s, more people died in a hospital in the United States than died in their homes. By the turn of the century, only a small percentage of people died outside of hospitals.

Undertakers, too, took on greater responsibility. Homes in urban settings were smaller than those in rural communities; they lacked the room to display a body as had been done in the family parlors of the past. A funeral “home” was needed, and undertakers began to provide this service. Introduced during the Civil War to preserve the dead while they awaited shipment or burial, embalming became a popular service because of the lifelike appearance it gave to the facial features of the dead. Again, Americans were eager to see the dead as sleeping, and undertakers equipped themselves to provide embalming along with their hearses, coffins, and parlors.

In this period as well, advertising came of age, growing from a $10 million industry in 1865 to $95 million in 1900. Cemeteries saw uses for the new craft, and many new lawn park cemeteries were formed to realize a profit. The new cemeteries incorporated the concept of pre-need sales, employing sales forces that borrowed promotional techniques such as advertising from the insurance and real estate industries.

Lawn park cemeteries were wildly successful, and they spread through the United States in the form of new and revamped facilities. But they were a phase along what might be seen as a continuum, and American mores continued to move along it.


Photo of a painting inside the Santa Barbara Cemetery's Chapel called "The Penitents."The Memorial Park

The landscape of the lawn park cemetery had reflected a change in values. The pastoral lawn park was more serene and simple, more controlled and more professional. Death’s imprint on the landscape was subdued.

Then in 1917, Hubert Eaton performed the same kind of makeover of a failing cemetery that Strauch had accomplished sixty years earlier. Out of the ashes would rise Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, the first of many American memorial parks.

The memorial park was a response to the then-widening rift in America between the living and the dead. Rather than mute this separation, Eaton’s design sought to celebrate it. Eaton saw the resurrection of the dead as a certain, joyous, and cleansing experience. He saw the earlier designs that incorporated family monuments and individual markers as “unsightly stoneyards.” His design prohibited all private, upright monuments, thus creating vast lawnscapes dotted with flush markers intended to give visitors a sense of freedom and separation from nature and death. To anchor these scenes and give additional meaning to the grounds, he installed replicas of classical sculpture, patriotic churches, and other art. The criteria were that the pieces be large focal elements in the landscape and that they communicate patriotism, heroism, and the symbolism of a joyful resurrection.THE ENGLISH CHURCHYARD

With memorial parks, the transition from taking care of a simple need to running a comprehensive business was complete. Memorial parks offered full services to their clientele—florist shops, bronze casting for the new flat markers, funeral services, and even wedding chapels and caterers. The memorial park became a tourist location again, with the paths that a tourist would follow carefully controlled to focus the visitors’ attention on the large features of the grounds, and not on the graves.

Forest Lawn was extremely successful. Sales in the years following Eaton’s reforms were astronomical and other cemetery developers naturally followed suit. Memorial parks spread rapidly across the country, with many older lawn park and rural style cemeteries redesigned to the greatest extent possible to conform to the new model. By 1930, forty percent of all cemetery purchases in the United States were in memorial parks, well out of proportion to their number and availability.


Exterior photo of the Santa Barbara Cemetery's Chapel.Cremation

Nonetheless, the twentieth century also saw a sharp decrease in the use of cemeteries. The popularity of cremation built through the last quarter of the 19th century and continued into the 21st century.

Cremation was not even an option in the United States prior to 1870. The only known heat source up to that time was the open-air pyre, which was abhorrent to American mores. In 1873 Ludovico Brunetti, a professor of anatomy at Padua, Italy, demonstrated the first viable enclosed crematory at the Vienna Exposition. Three years later, Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne built the first operational enclosed crematory in the town of Washington, Pennsylvania, and the first official cremation in the United States took place. Crematoriums were erected slowly, however, and by 1900 only 15,000 cremations had occurred in the United States. As long as the demand for cremations remained low, the prices remained high, and the practice was relatively rare.

But a growing group who sometimes called themselves “Cremationists” maintained an avidly moral stance. They focused on the older town cemeteries that were in disrepair at the turn of the nineteenth century. They raised the specter of dangerous miasmas from human interment. They highlighted the economic divide apparent in cemeteries between the stately mausoleums and the potter’s fields as undemocratic. And as cemeteries took greater control over lots and the burial of the dead, critics called attention to the profitability of the organizations and the influence they had over a family’s decisions and choices.

They held up cremation as the only completely sanitary alternative to protect the living. The practice of cremation also met numerous opponents including cemetery managers and the Catholic Church, which in 1886 officially forbade cremation its members.

As germ theory was better defined, Cremationists’ arguments shifted. Louis Pasteur’s work on anthrax published in 1881 and Robert Koch’s discoveries regarding tuberculosis in 1882 meant that responsible critics could no longer blame earth burial for disease transmission. Their arguments then focused on the lack of democracy in cemeteries and the rise of the profit motive apparent at some cemeteries and funeral homes.

Up through the 1950s, most poor people continued to be buried in potter’s fields (later they were cremated and their ashes scattered). In cemeteries, the middle class and the wealthy still vied for placement, if not for marker and monument size. Further testing democratic ideals, memorial parks brought racism into the cemeteries by segregating or excluding undesirable racial groups. This practice had previously been largely absent in American cemeteries with exceptions in the South and in a few cemeteries in the larger cities. Cremationists struck this chord effectively by exposing the ostentatiouousness and exclusivity of cemeteries.

Cremationists’other key argument was the profit motive of many cemeteries. In 1963, during a period of heightened consumer concern about corporate practices and costs, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, and Ruth Mulvey Harmer published The High Cost of Dying. The sensationalized treatment in these books exposed self-serving practices in segments of the funeral and cemetery businesses, each book suggesting cremation as a more “rational” and “practical” method for disposition of the dead.

The effect of these books on the popularity of cremation was immense. After many decades of cremation accounting for just five percent of dispositions, the numbers began to increase. Cremation offered families the greatest variety of choices, especially the choice to avoid the costly package services described in the books by Mitford and Harmer. These books also coincided with the beginning of a period of cemetery and funeral home consolidation, with three firms building large death industry portfolios, bringing hundreds or even thousands of funeral homes and cemeteries under their corporate umbrellas by the end of the 1970s.

As a result of these influences, twenty-five percent of all individuals who die in the United States today are cremated; fifty percent in California. Cremation gave people a way to avoid cemeteries. Over time, the desire to memorialize family members, combined with the cemetery’s accommodation of cremated remains with new offerings, slowed that trend, but has not reversed it. Since the provisions in cemeteries for cremated remains are less expensive and require less space, cremation has helped drive miniaturization as another important trend in the cemetery in the 20th century.



In addition to cremation, other influences have driven cemetery offerings to smaller and less expensive options. In the last decade, the increase in population, a return to favor for cemeteries of all types, inflation in land and funeral costs, and a sharp decrease in the number of new cemeteries have all converged to drive the industry toward miniaturization. The options include indoor mausoleums, garden-court mausoleums, multiple-depth burial sites, columbaria, urn gardens, and scattering gardens.

Photo of a headstone with the Pacific Ocean in the background.

The Spark

That June day in 1867 Isaac Sparks was buried in the Montecito Street graveyard initiated a big change in Santa Barbara. Witnessing the sad final resting place of their friend and colleague, and imagining the prospects for their own deaths and memorials, a handful of the city’s leaders from the Protestant community met three weeks later and formed the Santa Barbara Cemetery Association. The Montecito Street graveyard was soon abandoned.

This was 1867, and news of cemetery trends in the East traveled slowly. To start a classic town cemetery along the lines of the New Haven Burial Ground, these pioneers started with what they had: five acres purchased on the outskirts of town plus a like-sized donation of undeeded land from George Nidever.

In succeeding years, the Santa Barbara Cemetery would evolve through all the styles and phases of the American cemetery—town cemetery, rural cemetery, lawn park cemetery, memorial park—and it would open its own crematorium and offer an array of smaller burial options. These changes would affect the cemetery’s relationship to the city; the cemetery’s organization and management; the cultural aspects of its markers and monuments and mausoleums; its finances, record-keeping, and employment practices; and its continuing efforts to redesign itself over the years to create—and then to retain—its beauty and relevance.

Through it all, the Santa Barbara Cemetery would remain centered around its original purpose: to provide a beautiful place of burial for all classes and creeds. Corporate consolidation would pass the cemetery by. Pre-need sales and advertising were understated. In passing through these difficult and quickly changing years, the cemetery would remain a solid community asset that was respected and valued.

One year after Isaac Sparks’ death, the new cemetery board located their first piece of land and opened for business. Nine years later, in 1877, before the brickyard excavations could disturb his bones, Isaac Sparks’s family disinterred his remains from the Montecito Street cemetery and reinterred him in the Santa Barbara Cemetery, where he rests today, remembered and respected.

But before we can understand how a Protestant cemetery could be founded in Santa Barbara in 1867, we must back up and examine the local context that enabled a cemetery to be established on the edge of town.


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