Behind the Scenes at the Old City Cemetery

M. Parfitt in mourning garb
Photograph by Lori Mattas

M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken dishes, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings. You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery, or peering into an abandoned warehouse.  Her artwork has been featured in exhibits from Connecticut to California, and her essays appeared in every issue of Morbid Curiosity magazine.

Cemetery Travel: How did you get interested in cemeteries in the first place?

M. Parfitt: I’ve always been intrigued by old cemeteries: the monuments, the history, the unknown stories of people buried below.  My family never visited cemeteries, so they always seemed mysterious and off-limits to me.   I still find them mysterious, but they’re definitely not off-limits!

Cemetery Travel: Have cemeteries influenced your artwork?

M. Parfitt: No, surprisingly, they haven’t.  I don’t know why!

Cemetery Travel: You’ve been involved with the Old City Cemetery for years.  What’s your connection to them?

M. Parfitt: In 1993 I was a volunteer at the Sacramento History Museum (which was then called the Discovery Museum).  The volunteer coordinator told me my long hair reminded him of May Woolsey’s braid, which was displayed in the museum with her belongings.

May Woolsey’s grave

May was buried in the Old City Cemetery. The coordinator mentioned that I’d make a good May Woolsey for the cemetery’s Halloween Moonlight Tour.  That was the first I’d heard about tours at the cemetery.  I’d never even been there.  Still, I signed up, played May, and was hooked.  I played her every Halloween for seven years.  I lost touch with the cemetery committee for quite a while, but a couple years ago I decided to attend one of the Saturday morning history tours and was hooked all over again.  I went to as many tours as I could, took notes and photos, and vowed to become a tour guide.  Last year I gave my first tour and I loved it.

Cemetery Travel: Does the cemetery still do the night tours?

M. Parfitt: Yes.  The committee holds evening fundraiser tours several times a year, plus Halloween tours.  I haven’t done an evening tour since 1999, but I’m going to participate in the upcoming “Beer, Babes and Brawls” tour on Friday, July 13th.  Ticket information is here.

Cemetery Travel: Why did you want to be a tour guide and how did you prepare?

M. Parfitt: When I was a kid, my family visited historic sites every summer. I always thought tour guides had the best job in the world.  They spent their workdays surrounded by fascinating antiques and they told amazing stories to visitors.  Some of them wore historic costumes, which was a big draw for me as well.

Many years ago, I tried to get a job as a state park tour guide, but apparently people who have those jobs never give them up, because no position ever opened up.  Being a volunteer tour guide is the next best thing.  In some ways it’s better, because I don’t have to do it; I do it because I want to.

When I decided to offer my services to the cemetery, I knew it’d be difficult because nobody on the committee knew me.  I attended the annual meeting, met a few people, traded e-mail addresses, and kept showing up for those Saturday morning tours with my camera and notebook.  Then I was invited to the annual tour-scheduling meeting, which was a little intimidating because most of the others had already come up with tour ideas and picked the dates they wanted.

I saw a booklet from a tour that had been done years ago and just blurted out, “I’d like to do this tour!” It was called “Survivors of Winter Storms.”  The committee said okay and it was a done deal.

The meeting happened in November and my tour was the following April.  After talking with some other volunteers, I broadened it to “Storm Survivors,” because I found some interesting stories that took place in the summer.

I panicked for five solid months.  I researched and memorized and rehearsed and finally pulled it off without a hitch.  Whew.  I should explain that these tours are never done solo.  Every tour “leader” has a “helper” who tells some stories.  Many tours are done by groups of four or five guides.

Cemetery Travel: Do you have other tours in the works?

M. Parfitt: This year I was the helper for Julianna’s “Symbolism and Victorian Mourning Practices” tour in April.  This Saturday, July 7th, I’m leading a tour called “Close Calls and Calamities.”  I should really say I’m co-leading, since my helper, Jean, is telling as many stories as I am.  We also have an additional guide, Eric, who’ll be telling one tale.  A week after that, I’m telling one story at the evening “Beer, Babes and Brawls” tour.  In September I’ll be helping Eric with his “Sacramento Labor History” tour.  I also participated in a private tour in May.  (Visitors can schedule private tours for a fee.)

Cemetery Travel: Do you have a favorite tombstone?

M. Parfitt: I never leave the cemetery without visiting May Woolsey!   She has a lot of fans.  I always find trinkets left at her headstone: strings of beads, little toys, lipsticks, pencils, ribbons.  It’s very sweet.  I also like the Van Voorhies mausoleum, the zinc Simon headstone, Georgia Fisher’s heavily vandalized terra cotta monument, and the Ross family plot.   There’s a strange brick-and-cinderblock mausoleum for the Golding-Carrington family that’s off by itself in a seldom-visited corner. I’d love to know more about it.

Cemetery Travel: Why should people care about cemeteries?

M. Parfitt: I think it’s a shame when people refuse to visit cemeteries because they’re “spooky.”  That’s silly.  Cemeteries are repositories of history, in the form of life stories; art, in the form of monuments and architecture; and nature, in the form of gardens and landscaping.  They should be preserved, not just out of respect for the dead, but for the benefit of future generations.

Shattuck family monument, with the Golding-Carrington mausoleum in the background.

At the Old City Cemetery, we’re always learning fascinating and unexpected stories about the people buried there.  Their stories would be lost to history if nobody had looked at their headstones and thought, hmm, I should find out who he or she was.  Without a name and a date on a headstone piquing a volunteer’s curiosity, these people would be forgotten.

Cemetery Travel: Anything else you want to mention?

M. Parfitt: A few months ago, I offered to be an administrator for the cemetery’s Facebook page.  It’s fun to see the “likes” go up, up, up.  It’s also fun and challenging to come up with exciting announcements about upcoming tours.  I take photos at tours and post them on the Facebook page so visitors can see themselves (or see what they missed). I really try to be a cheerleader for the cemetery.  I want everyone to know what a fabulous treasure we have right here in Sacramento!

5 responses to “Behind the Scenes at the Old City Cemetery

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