Cemetery No Longer Forgotten : Oceanside Saving Century-Old Site From Years of Neglect

Times Staff Writer

Vandals have scrawled offensive messages in black across its tombstones and mausoleum. Transients have crept into its concrete crypts, using them as campsites. And weekend partygoers have discarded beer bottles, cigarette butts and other trash upon the graves of its residents--who include Civil War heroes and city founders.

After years of abuse and neglect, Oceanview Cemetery is due for some respect. Now, thanks to a combined effort involving the city, operators of another cemetery and a group of residents whose forefathers are buried there, it looks as if the century-old graveyard is going to get it.

“This cemetery is part of our heritage, our roots, and I think people are beginning to appreciate that,” said Marie Chavez, a lifelong Oceanside resident and leader of the Friends of Oceanview Cemetery. “For a long, long time this was a forgotten place in very poor condition. But now people realize this is a piece of history that we should preserve.”


Councilman John MacDonald, whose parents are both buried there, agreed. “To me, and my kids, who never knew their grandparents, this is a very special spot. One of the characteristics of a fine city is that it respects the dead, so I’m anxious to see us get Oceanview cleaned up.”

There is much to be done.

Last year, the City Council declared the cemetery a state historical site--making it eligible for certain state grants--and also allocated $15,000 in federal revenue sharing funds for improvements at the graveyard.

Currently, Chavez and officials at the Eternal Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary, which owns the tiny cemetery, are preparing to go back to the city for assistance with $70,000 worth of additional renovations. Planned improvements include fencing the graveyard, installing an irrigation system and lighting, re-landscaping the 3-acre parcel, and erecting a monument designating it a historical landmark. Already, federal funds have been used to demolish an empty portion of the mausoleum that attracted transients. The rest of the structure, which contains 60 bodies, will be restored.

To help finance the project, Chavez recently began writing letters to relatives of those buried at Oceanview, detailing the cemetery’s sorry condition and asking for a donation.

“I think they’d like to help put the place (where) their loved ones are buried back into shape,” said Chavez, whose sister, Esther Peters, was buried at Oceanview in 1945. Funds in that pool so far total $1,300.

Situated on a knoll along Hill Street, downtown Oceanside’s busiest north-south thoroughfare, Oceanview Cemetery was once a proud-looking place, with a rose garden, carefully clipped grass, freshly decorated graves and frequent visitors.

Then, around 1950, its owner declared bankruptcy and simply abandoned the cemetery. A few years later, the Eternal Hills Mortuary took over Oceanview at the request of the city. But sales of plots at the old graveyard slumped, and officials had little money to invest in its upkeep.

“We tried to keep it looking decent, but at its worst, it was a horrible mess,” said Joe Cockrill, former manager of Eternal Hills who was in charge of Oceanview for nearly 30 years. “I remember when we first took it over, it was right after Memorial Day. The grass was brown like tinder, there were dead flowers lying on the graves and weeds all over the place. It was a terrible sight.”

Things got worse. Grass crept over grave markers, masking the names of the dead who lay below them. Pranksters knocked over tombstones and sprayed graffiti on any available surface. And, perhaps most distressing, the area’s homeless began taking up residence in the empty crypts of the cemetery mausoleum.

“At one point, all the derelicts in North County were keeping house in there,” said Don Hamilton, manager of Eternal Hills. “It was a regular little community, and rather upsetting for people in the neighborhood.”

Today, the cemetery is something of an oddity in bustling downtown Oceanside. Over the years, urbanization has steadily closed in upon it. A sprawling recreational vehicle park looms on its southern flank, while homes and a bicycle shop sit on its northern edge. To the west are a transmission repair business and a military recruiting center; a bowling alley is down the block.

Conditions have improved somewhat, but broken tombstones, overgrown grave markers and piles of debris along the cemetery’s southern fringe are still to be seen. The remains of the mausoleum are still a target of vandals.

Still, despite its somewhat dilapidated condition, the cemetery has a certain charm that is often missing at today’s sterile and carefully manicured memorial parks.

There’s a rustic flavor to the faded headstones and uneven turf, and the aging, bent and unpruned trees create a peaceful, almost bucolic ambiance amid the surrounding urban swirl. The ocean view the cemetery was named for has long been blocked by development, but if the wind is right, you can catch a hint of salt in the air.

On a recent stroll through the cemetery, Chavez pointed out some of its more famous and unusual grave sites and recalled the stories behind them. The most striking headstone--a shiny white object standing a good five feet tall--belongs to C.J. Clausen, proprietor of one of Oceanside’s earliest boarding houses who died in 1904 at age 50.

His was an unusually tragic fate.

“One day Mr. Clausen was driving his horse and buggy across the slough down here, before there were roads of course, and he hit quicksand,” Chavez said, standing reverently before the man’s plot. “He and the rig sunk right on down.”

On the southern fringe of the cemetery, a long, flat gray stone bears the names of Myrtle and Lorena Sibley, ages 5 and 7, respectively, when they died in 1906.

“We noticed the names of these two little sisters one day and got to wondering what happened,” Chavez said. “We went through old news clippings at the library and found they were from Fallbrook. They died after eating poisonous mushrooms.”

Other headstones bear an assortment of curious, inexplicable messages. William N. McCrea’s 1904 marker declares, “Here Rests a Woodman of the World,” while Katherine E. Baines was proclaimed “A Sinner Saved by Grace” when she passed away in 1922.

Adelaide Morwood’s stone bears a rather poetic phrase, “Sunset and Evening Star and One Clear Call For Me.” Frank Kellogg, buried in 1948, is said to be simply “At Rest.”

The war heroes are everywhere, Olive (Ollie) Davison, 1894-1977, 2nd Lt., U.S. Army, fought in World War I. Dave Rorick, whose grandson by the same name is well-known about town today, was a 1st Lt., Co. G, 31st Iowa Volunteers, in the Civil War.

“All these bodies from all over the world and they end up here,” Chavez mused, surveying the grounds. “This is a real piece of history. We’re going to make it a showpiece.”