Cemetery of the Week #117: Luther Burbank’s gravesite

The Cedar of Lebanon that stood over Burbank's grave

The Cedar of Lebanon that stood over Burbank’s grave. Vintage postcard from my collection.

Luther Burbank Home and Gardens
204 Santa Rosa Avenue (Santa Rosa and Sonoma Avenues, Downtown Santa Rosa)
Santa Rosa, California 95404
Telephone: 707-524-5445
Email: BurbankHome@LutherBurbank.org
Date of Burbank’s burial: 1926
Size of the grounds: 1 acre
Number of interments: 5
Open: The Carriage House Gift Shop and Museum is open and walk-in docent-led tours are available April through October. The grounds are open daily from 8:00 a.m. to dusk year-round for self-guided tours and reserved Group and Children’s Tours.
Admission: $2 for ages 12 and up.

THIS WEEKEND December 7 & 8, 2013:  The house and grounds are decorated in Victorian finery for a Holiday Open House.  The details are here.

Inspired by Darwin’s Variations of Animals and Planets under Domestication, Luther Burbank began to experiment by growing potatoes. By age 24, he’d developed the Burbank potato, which is the most widely grown potato in the United States. You’ve undoubtedly eaten hundreds as French fries.

Burbank moved to Santa Rosa, California, fifty miles north of San Francisco, in 1875. He opened a nursery, importing plants from Japan and Australia. His goal was to increase the world’s food supply by selectively breeding plants. Over the course of his experiments, Burbank introduced over 800 new varieties of plants, including more than 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and even hundreds of ornamental flowers. He developed 100 species of plums alone.

In all, the famed horticulturist lived and worked in Santa Rosa for more than 50 years. He said it had the perfect climate: “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth, as far as Nature is concerned.”

In 1916, Burbank married his 29-year-old secretary. He was 67. They were together ten years before he suffered a fatal heart attack.

On Burbank’s death in 1926 he was buried near his greenhouse on the grounds of his home. The Lewiston Daily Sun reported, “The burial was as simple as the daily routine in the cottage where Burbank lived and worked. No prayers were said aloud at his bier and the stillness of evening in the home was unbroken by funeral orations. Old friends and former fellow workers carried the casket to the grave from the room where Burbank died. A few words were spoken informally by close friends, a song was sung, and the body was lowered to its final resting place.” A Cedar of Lebandon served as both monument and headstone.

Findagrave reports that Madame Dorothy Raegen Talbot, an opera singer and friend of Burbank’s, sang his favorite song at his funeral. She was buried beneath the tree after her death from breast cancer in 1929. Dr. Joseph Hugues Shaw, Burbank’s friend and physician, and local ballet master James Alfonso Kenney were also buried there in the next decade.

In Burbank’s funeral cortege were San Francisco’s Mayor James Rolph Jr., the chancellor emeritus of Stanford University, Mayor Dunbar of Santa Rose, a judge, the superintendent of the Santa Rosa public schools, and a banker.

Judge Ben B. Lindsey of Denver gave a funeral oration at Burbank’s funeral to a crowd that was estimated at 10,000. He expanded on Burbank’s Unitarian rejection of a god of fire and brimstone. He said, “Luther Burbank lives forever in the myriad fields of strengthened grain, in the new forms of fruits and flowers and plants and vines and trees and above all the newly watered gardens of the human mind from whence shall spring human freedom from those earthly fields that shall drive out gods, false and brutal.” Needless to say, the eulogy wasn’t printed in all the papers that carried the story of his burial.

"This rock pool is created in memory to the ingenious plant wizard. This memorial is adjacent to Luther Burbank's home and grave." Vintage postcard dated 1968..

“This rock pool is created in memory to the ingenious plant wizard. This memorial is adjacent to Luther Burbank’s home and grave.” Vintage postcard dated 1968.

The Cedar of Lebanon tree that stood over Burbank’s grave was one he had planted in his front yard, intending from the first that it would serve as his grave monument. These trees can live up to 300 years, but this one developed root disease and had to be felled in 1989.

When his wife Elizabeth died in 1977 — 51 years after her husband — she had to have special permission from the city of Santa Rosa to be buried alongside Luther beneath the Cedar. (Bonita, their dog, is buried there too, according to Permanent Californians.) Permission was probably easier to get since she left the house and gardens to the city as a museum.

Luther Burbank lived in this modified Greek Revival house with his mother Olive from 1884 to 1906. (After 1906, he lived in the larger home he had built across the street, but it was removed in the late 1960s.) After his death in 1926, Elizabeth moved back into the cottage and lived there until her death. Its present furnishings reflect her taste.

The property includes a greenhouse designed and built by Luther Burbank in 1889. The greenhouse includes a replica of his office and contains many of his tools. The carriage house was renovated as a museum in 1986. Changing exhibits Burbank’s life and work.

After the Cedar of Lebanon had to be removed, part of its trunk was shaped into a love seat memorial.  A plaque describes it like this: “This sculpture was made of wood from a Cedar of Lebanon tree that Luther Burbank planted from a seed in the front lawn. Burbank requested that he be buried near his beloved tree, saying, ‘I would like to know that the strength of my body is going into the strength of a tree.’ His request was granted by his widow at Burbank’s death in 1926. Unfortunately, the Cedar suffered from root disease and was felled in 1989. This sculpture signifies a quiet reminder of the bond between Luther Burbank and this historic Cedar of Lebanon tree.”

The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens are located in downtown Santa Rosa, at the corner of Santa Rosa and Sonoma Avenues, across the street from City Hall and Juilliard Park. It has been registered as a national, state, city, and horticultural historic landmark.

Directions: Take Highway 101 north to Yolanda Avenue. Turn left on Santa Rosa Avenue. Go 1.7 miles to the corner of Santa Rosa Avenue and Sonoma Avenue.

Useful links:

Luther Burbank Home and Gardens homepage

Newspaper report of Burbank’s funeral

The text of Judge Lindsey’s eulogy

Flowers from Burbank’s funeral

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About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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