When Sal Martinez went to work as a groundskeeper at El Toro Memorial Park in 1967, he was told to expect only a burial or two a year.
Back then, orange groves surrounded the remote, sleepy cemetery, cottontails hopped between the headstones of area pioneers, and groundskeepers painstakingly used picks and shovels to dig new graves in the sandstone.
Now, apartments overlook the cemetery's rolling, green hills, heavy traffic runs in front of it, and modern backhoes are used to dig the 15 to 20 new graves each month. And in the last few years, new hillsides have been opened for graves, an elaborate wrought-iron gate has replaced the chain-link fence, and plans have been made for a new playground and wedding chapel.
Most of the recent improvements are the work of the Orange County Cemetery District. In 1985, at the recommendation of a grand jury, the county consolidated four separately run, county-owned cemeteries into one district to increase efficiency.
Since then, the four historical cemeteries--in Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and El Toro--have been undergoing renovations that have won several beautification awards. New features, such as scatter gardens and walls for urns, have been added, and the county has even planned a marketing campaign to attract business away from private cemeteries.
"One of the major challenges is that people don't even know the district exists," said Sam Randall, general manager. "We thought we would do the improvements first and then get into marketing."
Part of the attraction here, Randall said, is the rich history of the sites.
"All four of the cemeteries have old-timers and pioneers and people from every war buried there," said Vivien Owen, a longtime history buff and president of the district board.
The Santa Ana Cemetery was established in 1870 by the city's early settlers and moved to its current location in 1878. Columbus Tustin, the founder of that city, rests here, as does George Drury, a bookbinder for Charles Dickens. Some of the names on headstones are familiar to anyone who drives the streets of Orange County--the McFaddens, Spurgeons, Frenches and others.
In recent years, about 8,000 new plots have been created at Santa Ana where buggy trails used to be. On holidays, the new graves are evidenced by brilliant paths of flowers running between weathered old tombstones.
"You can get a lot of history out of cemeteries. It's pretty amazing," said Tracy Smith, office manager for the Orange County Historical Society. "It's a really good source of names and dates. . . . Some people think it's real eerie, but it's not. It's just one more place to look."
Smith has walked many times through county cemeteries. One of her favorites is Anaheim, founded by the city's original German colony on a five-acre site purchased for $100.
"In 1861, there was a flood and three people died. That started the push to get a cemetery," Smith said. Five or six years later, their bodies were moved to the new cemetery, which still features old-style crypts.
Martinez, now cemetery manager at El Toro Memorial Park, has seen much of the history firsthand.
Strolling over the grassy knolls of El Toro, Martinez points out the grave of a teen-ager who committed suicide in 1967 after his parents ordered him to cut his hair. A few years later, the boy's friend died of cancer and was buried next to him. Another man's suicide followed his wife's death from terminal illness.
One of the stranger occurrences came at the Santa Ana Cemetery, which Martinez also oversaw for many years.
In the early '80s, a dying man instructed his family to open his grave in 90 days, saying he would come back to life. Because only a mortician may open the coffin, cemetery workers went only as far as digging it up. The family passed out flyers, and a crowd gathered to watch as relatives knocked on the coffin and said, "Come out, come out," Martinez said. An hour or two later the family told him to rebury the coffin.
One thing Martinez has never seen, though, is the legendary Blue Lady of El Toro, a blue mist that reputedly protects everyone buried there.
"When I came here, it was already a legend," Martinez said. "The kids used to come and climb the fence to see her. But I have been here in the middle of the night, and I haven't seen her."
What Martinez has witnessed in his 24 years here are major changes in Orange County, including a population explosion.
Last year there were 455 burials in the district, compared to about 300 a year before 1985, said Randall, of the cemetery district.
Although the county cemeteries don't offer mortuaries or cremation, as private ones do, their prices are generally lower. A plot, for example, costs $350, or $450 in a few popular areas. At Fairhaven Cemetery, next to the Santa Ana Cemetery, the least expensive plot is $796.
While indigents once were buried in the county cemeteries, since 1978 their remains have been cremated and scattered either at sea or in the rose garden at one of the cemeteries.
Although some people still don't think of cemeteries as places they would choose to visit, Owen, of the cemetery district, disagrees.
"It's a part of life," Owen said. "You want it to be serene and beautiful and another passage. The horror movies, I think, frighten children and everyone else. I would like to have it be the opposite of morbid: beautiful."