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Haunted by financial problems, a Long Beach cemetery ponders death

LONG BEACH, CALIF. - JUNE 26, 2019. Sunnyside Cemetery along Willow Street in Long Beach has announc
Sunnyside Cemetery along Willow Street in Long Beach has announced plans to shut its gates if a deal cannot be reached with the city to purchase the property.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The ground at Sunnyside Cemetery embraces 17 of Linda Meador’s kin.

Her mother and brothers and aunts and great-grandparents are buried under the dusty tombstones here. So embedded is this ground in Meador’s life that she’s even a board member for the cemetery. Every day she works at Sunnyside, the 71-year-old Meador makes the short walk from her office to pay respects to her mother.

Now, she worries that the cemetery, which opened in 1906, may close its gates.

“I go out and walk and see my family all the time, so it becomes personal for me. Very, very personal,” Meador said. “Every day I’m here I go by my mother’s grave and say, ‘Hi, I’m here, Mom.’”

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A sordid history of corruption and years of financial problems have brought Sunnyside Cemetery to the brink.

In 1994, the owner of Sunnyside, Dean A. Dempsey, stole more than $500,000 from the cemetery’s endowment fund. He used some of the money to pay for a Mercedes-Benz. Dempsey was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to four years in prison, according to media reports two years later.

Since then, the cemetery has been plagued with money issues.

The grass at Sunnyside is turning brown, and rusted barbed wire tops the exterior walls. Dirt covers many of the names of the deceased on slant markers that lie flat on the ground. It’s hard to walk between the monuments amid holes dug by gophers, and a dilapidated tractor is stranded on one of the paths.

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LONG BEACH, CALIF. - JUNE 26, 2019. Sunnyside Cemetery along Willow Street in Long Beach has announc
The troubled Sunnyside Cemetery opened in 1906.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

There aren’t enough workers or funds to maintain the grounds, board members say. By the end of August, if an agreement with the city of Long Beach is not reached, Sunnyside Cemetery could be headed for closure.

But both sides have been working on a potential deal to transfer the cemetery to the city, according to Long Beach officials and cemetery board members.

Meador said that Sunnyside board members voted unanimously to do this. Meador said she left a meeting with Long Beach officials last week feeling hopeful after nights spent waking up from the stress. Still, she worried about leaving the 13-acre burial ground in the hands of others after having spent so much time and emotion here.

“The other night I woke up at 3 a.m. sobbing,” Meador said. “I feel like I’m letting my family and all the families here down.”

The contrast between Sunnyside and the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery next door is dramatic. There, sprinklers are abundant amid the bright green grass, and leafy trees provide shade throughout the grounds.

Long Beach is working on the proposed transfer, said Johnny Vallejo, business operations manager for the city’s economic development department. Once the details are worked out, Vallejo said, city officials will prepare a report for the City Council for a vote on the transfer.

There is no definitive date yet for the vote, Vallejo said. If Sunnyside is transferred, the city of Long Beach will receive ownership of the property as well as the cemetery endowment, but city officials are still figuring out the specifics of the transfer — and all that it could entail.

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“The city recognizes the significance of Sunnyside and its importance as a historic resource for the city,” said Vallejo. “It has had a great impact and affinity for many families in Long Beach.”

Vallejo said Long Beach has been in contact with California’s cemetery board about what would happen if the transfer is not able to happen. But, he said, no matter what happens, he doesn’t expect the state to take ownership of Sunnyside.

As she walked through the plots, navigating around gravestones and gopher holes on Wednesday morning, Meador noticed that the two American flags that long adorned the grounds had vanished. Sunnyside Cemetery had lowered them to half-staff to honor L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Solano, who was shot and killed two weeks ago.

“Now I have to call the police,” Meador said, throwing her hands up in the air.

As the cemetery’s condition declined, Sunnyside experienced a rash of crimes. A few years ago, about 350 headstones were stolen. Bronze plaques were taken from some of the graves. Then there were other calamities, like flooding that caused some graves to sink, Meador said.

J.E. Shrewsbury, the first fire chief of Long Beach; C.J. Walker, Long Beach’s first mayor in the 20th century; and Long Beach’s first police officer shot and killed in the line of duty are all buried at Sunnyside. The Historical Society of Long Beach hosts an annual tour of the site.

Mike Miner, who was the manager of the cemetery until November, said Sunnyside holds a special place in his heart. He had to retire as manager because of medical reasons, but is now on the board of directors. Sunnyside has not been able to find another manager to run the cemetery.

Miner worked on the property for 25 years, tending to the plots, answering phones, and fixing the sprinklers, among many other duties.

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“My wife and my father are buried there,” he said. “And I’m going to be buried there, too.”


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