Photo: Wendy Chan
I was on my way back to the office after visiting a project site when my navigation app Waze guided me to an old community landmark. I found myself in Boyle Heights, standing across a cemetery. The cemetery looked like one straight from the movies, but situated in the center of a residential neighborhood. I parked my car, in awe of the field of tombstones before me. I felt a tinge of spookiness, this I was too scared to walk inside. Instead, I peered through the fence, noticing one area of the cemetery was definitely older, its age demonstrated by apparent weathering and the Victorian-style tombstones. There were various tombstones, some even dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. I was intrigued by this historic cemetery sitting in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason died in Los Angeles in 1891 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Evergreen Cemetery has a rich history as one of Los Angeles oldest cemetery. Established in 1877, the current occupants of the 67 acre cemetery and their tombstones tell the story of generations of immigrants and various cultures that added to the fabric of this community. Unlike most other cemeteries of the time, African Americans were allowed to be buried at Evergreen Cemetery. Many prominent African American citizens like Bridget “Biddy” Mason can be found here. The cemetery was also popular with first generation Japanese that called Boyle Heights home; there is a memorial dedicated to the 442 Regimental Combat Unit which was comprised of Japanese-American soldiers were served during WWII. The Garden of Pines was also dedicated in 1966 in memorial of the early first generation Japanese pioneers. During the Obon festival relatives of the deceased would gather at the cemetery to clean their ancestor’s graves and perform the Bon Odori folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead.
Illustration: History of Los Angeles County, California, Thompson and West, 1880
The cemetery was also home to members of the early Chinese laborers in the late 1800s, which unfortunately was the only ethnic group banned from being buried in the Evergreen proper at that time. They were only allowed space adjacent to the potter’s field for a fee while their Anglo counterparts were buried in the city-owned section for free. A ceremonial shrine was erected in 1888; in reality the “shrine” was just a brick furnace that Chinese families were relegated to use to burn offerings for the dead to use in their afterlife. Nevertheless, the shrine was used during the Chinese Ghost Festival, a celebration where families would arrive to clean the graves and offer food and wine to the spirits of departed ancestors and friends.
The cemetery was also home to the Jewish community who once called Boyle Heights their home in the early 20th century; it was in 1854, the Hebrew Benevolent Society first established a Jewish cemetery, north of town and west of Calvary, towards the Angelino Heights area. . There is a section called “Showmen’s Rest” where over 400 carnival workers and performers are buried near the Lion topped memorial.
In the last couple of decades, the community of Boyle Heights has changed from predominately Armenian to Latino. Today visitors can see members of both the Japanese American and Mexican American continually paying their respects and remembrance of their love ones within the hallowed grounds.
When Evergreen Cemetery was first opened, it was during an era when cemeteries were used as a recreational location, similar to a public park. Families would gather at cemeteries for picnics and celebrations especially during Memorial Day. Nowadays, the cemetery has fallen into disrepair with neglect, a lack of funding, and undoubtedly due to new drought restrictions. Instead of the hallmark landscape of a traditional cemetery, Evergreen is anything but green today – a field of dirt and dead trees. The few patches of green are where families and community members have taken it onto themselves to water and care for the graves of their love ones.
Photos: Wendy Chan
The cemetery should be a Los Angeles historic landmark and should be maintained with greater care in respect of the deceased, the families they left behind, and also for the historical significance of our city’s varied residents. The cemetery is a reflection of the diverse history of Los Angeles and the melting pot of cultures that have long called the city home. There was even a Change.org petition organized by family members to implore politicians to force a change of ownership in hopes of improving grounds maintenance. For more information about the struggles of the family members and the rich history of Evergreen Cemetery, visit this site.