2 Compton Crypts Contain Connection to a Family Mystery

I must have driven past Angeles Abbey Memorial Park 50 times before I learned my great-grandparents are there.

By its looks, the cemetery in the heart of Compton seems best forgotten. High fences and razor wire offer little welcome. The doors to the mausoleums are locked. Trees obscure the view of a glorious central abbey built to resemble the Taj Mahal.

A strange sign on a house across Bullis Road from the cemetery discourages visitors: “People are dying to get in across the street. You need go no further.”


The first time I ventured inside the cemetery, asking about graves marked Mathews, I was politely turned away. “It’s hard to find peace,” Jean Sanders, the owner and manager, would later explain. “I just want to run this quiet cemetery quietly, and let the world leave us alone.”

Angeles Abbey’s operators weren’t always set on privacy. The cemetery may have been one of Southern California’s best-known landmarks. Its current anonymity is a reminder of how, for those of us whose roots in California go back generations, personal history is often hidden in plain sight.

Angeles’ founder, a Long Beach shipbuilder named George Clegg, wanted a grand monument. He sent two architects to India, and in 1923 they produced a miniature Taj Mahal in a Compton field, with room for

more than 1,000 crypts.

The abbey, as they called the mausoleum, was made of imported Italian marble and included a stained-glass reproduction of Jean Francois Millet’s “The Angelus,” a painting of two French peasants. The cemetery’s owners later built an organ and held Sunday concerts in the worship space.

The crypts sold quickly. Compton, with plenty of open land, stood at an attractive distance from the messiness of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

In a cemetery brochure used in the 1930s and 1940s, a man looks into a crystal ball and is told: “It is a marvelous thing to live in this modern age, and by the same token it is still more marvelous to know that after your life’s work is done that you can sleep in eternal peace in such a beautiful mausoleum, a memorial within the reach of every purse.”

The cemetery took in souls from all religions, but until the 1960s, only one race: white. A black-owned mortuary company assumed control in the 1970s. Sanders, the third generation of an African American family in the funeral business, bought it in 1992.

The net effect of the early segregation and the last half-century of change in Compton--the black influx and white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, the Latino influx and African American flight of the 1980s and 1990s--has made many of the dead in the mausoleum strangers to the living.

“There aren’t too many visitors anymore, which is fine with me,” says Martin Marks, a podiatrist who has had an office next door for 30 years. “They’re the best kind of neighbor you can have in Compton. They’re dead.”

Angeles Abbey does have a second life as a movie set. The film “The Untouchables,” the television series “JAG” and any number of TV movies seeking Middle Eastern or South Asian locales have used the mausoleum as a backdrop.

But on screen, the cemetery plays Cairo or Kuwait or Calcutta, never Compton. Sometimes architecture or art students stop by, but the interred celebrities are decidedly local, such as the late Mayor Walter Tucker.

Burials continue, but Angeles Abbey’s 37,748 deceased have filled up nearly every inch of land. Sanders’ crew works hard, but with fewer new sales, the cost of upkeep is onerous.

The neighborhood doesn’t help much. Graffiti taggers have marked not only the walls but also the tree trunks. A local gang is widely blamed for throwing rocks through the mausoleum windows.

“I wish the facility was fixed and in a lot better shape,” says Sanders, who is trying to acquire property to the north. “I hate to see a place of history like this.”

Arriving to work as a reporter in Compton last year, I hadn’t heard of the cemetery. But for the previous year, I had been trying to find old family grave sites. A single reference to Angeles Abbey in a 47-year-old family genealogy I had long forgotten sent me in search of great-grandparents whose names I had never learned.

That ignorance is my grandfather’s fault.

He and I first came to Angeles Abbey 61 years apart at the same age: 27. We were both reporters, he for the Munger Oilgram, for which he scoured Long Beach for seismic data and drill depths. In 1939, when his father died, he arranged for burial in a crypt at Angeles Abbey.

It’s hard to know why he chose this place. The family had no ties to Compton. And my grandfather, in other things a social sort, almost never spoke of his parents.

Only recently did it slip out that my great-grandfather, Paul Mathews, had failed as a grain broker in Wichita, Kan., before moving to Long Beach, where relatives lived. He tried the real estate business just as the Depression was getting underway, with disastrous results.

For a time, Paul disappeared, in a mystery we can’t solve. Was it illness? Alcohol? Or did bad business dealings land him in prison?

In the meantime, his wife, Nancy, went to work as a juvenile officer for the Long Beach welfare department. She died in 1946, and is buried in the small crypt next to her husband’s.

For crypts 117 and 124, my grandfather, usually tight with money, paid $582.50, more than two months’ salary.

That section of the mausoleum is not a place for those who fear ghosts. The walls of crypts extend 40 yards on either side of the hall, piled seven bodies high.

The mausoleum is cold and dark, with bits of light streaming in through dirty stained-glass windows in the ceilings. Paint is peeling, and pigeon droppings litter the floor. The only sound is traffic from Compton Boulevard.

In later years, my grandfather eagerly drove me down to Long Beach, showing off the old family house on Nieto Avenue, the tennis courts near Wilson High where he starred, the hamburger joint where he courted my grandmother. But we skipped right around Compton, and he never spoke of the cemetery.

He died last year, a few months before I found his parents’ graves, taking with him two stories from a place almost forgotten.