The hottest real estate in Piru could soon be the 4-by-9-foot plots in the cemetery.
The tiny town's tiny burial ground is running out of room. Too little money and too much red tape have stymied plans to expand Piru Cemetery. But the alternative, burying Piru's sons and daughters elsewhere, is a gloomy prospect to the town's longtime residents.
"You don't want to have anybody buried over there in Fillmore when they grew up in Piru," said John Avila, secretary for the Piru Cemetery District.
For 15 years the district's trustees have been trying to solve the problem. But they are running out of time and space. About 100 of the empty plots are already reserved and only 20 are left.
"That will last a year, maybe a year and a half," trustee David Ramirez said.
After that, the folks in Piru may have to start sending their relatives out of town to find their final resting places.
One solution would be to level a steep, brush-covered hill on the west end of the cemetery's property, which stands in the way of expansion. That would add almost two acres, nearly tripling the total burial area, Ramirez said.
But the district's $6,000 annual income just covers the expenses it already has, Ramirez said. The district doesn't have money for surveying, bulldozing and landscaping.
It finally found a developer interested in buying the dirt about three years ago, but the developer backed out when he heard about the permits and environmental studies the county would require, Avila said.
The board also considered buying land in one of two adjacent orange groves now on the market, but that too would require cash, along with zoning changes. At one time, trustees even offered to merge with the Bardsdale Cemetery District in Fillmore. Bardsdale trustees were not interested, Avila said.
If Piru's only cemetery does close its gates to newcomers, it would also close the book on a chapter of history for the town of 1,900. The cemetery opened in 1914 and the granite markers on its 650 hand-dug graves describe in brief but colorful detail the events and people who shaped the town since before David Caleb Cook laid it out in 1888.
As secretary or trustee for the Piru Cemetery District for 27 years, Avila learned many of the stories behind the headstones. He has lowered vaults into the ground, searched for buried markers and walked the cemetery's uneven rows of markers countless times. He stops by every day, sometimes early enough to see the roadrunner that makes morning visits and sometimes late enough to hear the night owls in the trees.
Avila knows that 21-year-old Josiah J. Dunn, whose remains rest beneath a large, worn, granite headstone, was killed in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The body of another young veteran of that war named Horton rests in an unmarked grave.
The children's stories are the saddest. There are the four Rogers kids--Doris, Chester, Margaret and Richard--who died after the St. Francis Dam near Castaic burst in March 1928 and sent a 140-foot wall of water through the Santa Clara Valley. Each of their markers is engraved with a single rose.
A wave of diphtheria in the summer of 1878 took six youngsters from two families. The children rest under marble headstones at the other end of the cemetery. The Baum family buried four children in two weeks.
"It was in the days when they didn't have medicine for it," Avila said.
Even Ramirez, who has served on the board with his mother, Cecilia Boschee, for only a year, is quickly learning the lore.
"Ulysses S. Grant's nephew is buried here," Ramirez said. William J. Grant, former pastor of the Methodist church, died in 1915.
Avila, 66, a town native whose grandparents raised cattle in Piru Canyon, can put faces with most of the names. "About three-quarters of the people buried here I know--young people, old people, babies," Avila said as he strolled across the cemetery's brown grass.
There are the graves of his mother, Carmen, and three of his siblings. Pablo was killed in the Korean War. Spinal meningitis took Rita as an infant. Rosie died while giving birth in Mexico, and Avila and his family brought her body back so she could be buried in Piru.
And there, under a drooping poinsettia, is the resting place of Avila's good friend, Louis P. "Louie" Real, who died five years ago at the age of 101. His marker reads: "Last of the Real Cowboys." Real and his donkeys lived just across the road, Avila said, and he voluntarily took care of the cemetery and dug many of its graves.
"Whenever there was a funeral, he used to like seeing all the people. He'd make a lot of noise and yell, 'Hey y'all,' " Avila recalled.
Piru's cemetery is well-visited. On the rainy Thursday that Avila talked about its residents, about a quarter of the graves were adorned with flowers, pinwheels or statuettes of the Virgin Mary.
Piru's residents assume that one day they will join their beloved at the cemetery and become part of its history, Ramirez said.
"This is a real small town. A lot of people never left Piru," Ramirez said. "[Being buried here] is just a way to stay here."
Even those who leave Piru often come back when they die.
Garold Muth insisted his family buy plots in Piru Cemetery when he first heard it was running out of space. The oil worker lived on a mountain at the edge of Piru Canyon from 1955 to 1994, when his house deteriorated to the point it wasn't safe for him to live two miles from his closest neighbor anymore. Muth stayed with a son in Bakersfield, then with a son in Ojai, before moving into a retirement home in Ojai, where he died Feb. 9. He returned to his beloved Piru last weekend for burial.
"It was home," said the Ojai son, Daryl Muth.
Short of money, short of land, Piru's trustees figure they will have to rely on the kindness of others if they are to find more space for graves. Ramirez is trying to find a heavy equipment operator willing to donate labor. Cemetery board members are trying to set up a meeting with Supervisor Kathy Long in hopes she can get the county to help.
Surprisingly, no one is rushing to buy the few remaining spots in the cemetery. Even Ramirez and Boschee, lifelong residents who want to call Piru Cemetery their eternal home, haven't reserved space.
Avila, who hopes to be buried in the family plot his father bought in 1945, isn't surprised. Before you get people to face the probability that Piru Cemetery will fill up, you have to get them to face their own mortality, he says.
"I think people are afraid to buy property in a cemetery," Avila said. "They don't even like to talk about it."