by Amy Shea
“They must have to water this place like five times a day,” I muttered as the ground squished beneath my feet. With each step, it felt like I sank further down into the lush, green two-inch-tall grass that lined the grounds of the cemetery: an oasis of life in the middle of the desert. Anymore, Fresno was dried out pretty much all year round: a monochrome of beiges and browns. This was especially so in the hot summer. It fascinated me that the cemeteries in town kept their grounds so alive, which felt both contrary to their surrounding environment and what lay beneath.
“What was that?” my dad asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Plot one hundred forty. We’re getting close.”
No one knew exactly where my maternal grandparents were buried, just that they were somewhere in the Holy Cross Cemetery on the corner of Belmont and Hughes. But my dad was able to locate the coordinates of their graves: row and plot number. Once we found them, my dad clicked away, taking the necessary pictures so that he could upload them to the grave-finding site and complete their profiles: Facebook for the dead.
My great-grandparents had, as did all the others in their section, grave markers not headstones: flat slabs of stone that were set flush with the ground. A few of the markers, such as my great-grandparents’, had oval-shaped portraits of the deceased on them. I never met my great-grandmother, but hers was a familiar face. The faded technicolor picture was the only photo I’d ever seen of her. The top of her hair had a small poof. The rest was pulled back tight and neat so that you couldn’t see what was presumably a bun at the back of her head. She wore simple pearl earrings and a matching pearl necklace, along with an aquamarine collared shirt that looked suspiciously like a polyester suit. The outfit was completed by eyeglasses with just a hint of a cat-eye shape, stylish enough to add interest but not so much to invite scorn.
“Why do some of the graves not have the holes for the flowers?” I asked. My great-grandparents both had the in-ground cutouts, but these were filled with dirt and had only weeds growing from them.
“Not sure.” Dad looked around at the graves nearby. “Looks like quite a few are without them. Maybe it was a cost thing.”
Momentarily distracted by this mystery, we moved from gravestone to gravestone of those without cutout holes, looking for something to link them together. They were all from 1969; perhaps they weren’t offered that year. Then we found one from 1969 that did have cutout holes, blowing our theory. The mystery would have to remain.
I was only in town for a two-week visit from Boston, where I’d been living for over ten years. I’d asked to spend a day of my visit home out on this graveyard jaunt because I wanted to see what a potter’s field looked like: graveyards for the indigent, the unclaimed dead, or those whose families couldn’t afford or be bothered to bury them.
In his retirement, my dad’s work with the local library led him to the project of mapping and cataloging every cemetery in Fresno, including all those buried in them, so that their families and others could find them if they so wished. He’d begun in 2010. Three years later, the project was still going strong.
This project included the potter’s fields, for which records had been kept at one time — albeit not great records, now scattered throughout different city offices. Forgotten about or lost.
Until he told me of this project, I’d never before heard of a potter’s field. Perhaps that was naïve of me. I had to accept the embarrassing fact that I’d never considered what happened to the numerous homeless people I passed on the streets. Does someone with such a life, one constantly ravaged with the threat of death, worry about what will become of their bodies once they leave them? Or are they too busy trying to see the sun come up one more time?
I wondered judgmentally who didn’t know where their family members were buried. Well, we hadn’t. Sure, we knew they were in the Holy Cross Cemetery, but it was my first time visiting, at least in memory. My grandmother, who we had just buried a year earlier down the road at St. Peter’s, must have taken me to visit her parents’ graves sometime.
We moved toward the back of the cemetery, beyond the elaborately decorated building, with its pillars and marbled walls.
Acknowledging my prolonged gaze at this ornate structure, my dad said, “Cremation lots.”
It was news to me that these were referred to as “lots.” As we walked on, I wondered if that was where the phrase “one’s lot in life” had come from.
When we reached the chain-link fence that bordered the cemetery, my dad pointed past it toward a mess of plants. “I don’t think we can get into it, but that’s it.”
I peered through the holes in the fence, amazed this was considered a cemetery. Anyone could drive right by and all they’d see would be an empty dirt field with a handful of weeds in one corner.
“See how the mare’s tails form a small square?” my dad asked. “That’s it. The rest is the Chinese-American cemetery.”
Mare’s tails are notoriously nasty weeds. Weed killer has little effect, so they have to be pulled out by their roots. These stood three feet tall, thin in stature, with needles for leaves. They looked like Nature’s toilet brushes.
“Why are the weeds, here but not in the rest?” I asked. Ninety percent of the expansive lot was barren, lacking any grave markers at all.
“The Chinese-American Society came out not long ago and pulled out the weeds in their section. Before then, the whole thing was completely covered in weeds,” he said. In fact, a newspaper article from 2012 titled “Resting in Weeds” had shed light on the problem with the Chinese cemetery, but had failed to make any mention that it shared space with the potter’s field. One person in the article relayed her distress over the weed-ravaged plots, saying, “I would never let my family rest like that.”
“They couldn’t bother to just finish this section?” I asked.
“Not their land. Belongs to the city,” Dad said. “If you look between the mare’s tails, you can see rows of cement every few feet.”
I leaned closer into the fence and noticed small, unassuming numbers engraved every foot or so.
“Those are the plot numbers,” my dad explained. “Used to be they’d have one person per plot, but they’ve run out of room. Now they cremate everyone and bury 450 people in one lot.”
I pictured a dry mix of cremated remains being dumped into a coffin. In reality, what they did was cremate each body, place the remains into a box that identified who the person had once been, cataloged the box in a database, and then put it into storage. Once 450 bodies had been cremated, boxed, recorded, and stored, they opened a plot and buried them all at once. If any family could be found and notified, they could come to this simple burial ceremony.
Some lot in life that is: boxed up, filed away, then buried in a mass grave with hundreds of other poor souls. Left for eternity to push up mare’s tails, or at least until some city worker gets consigned to the thankless job of weeding.
We left the potter’s field and my mother’s grandparents and drove on to the neighboring cemetery of Mountain View, where my dad’s German grandparents were buried in a nondenominational cemetery. On later visits, he’d show me the potter’s field that rested between Mountain View and Ararat, the Armenian cemetery where Fresno’s semi-famed writer and playwright William Saroyan was buried. To the untrained eye, the area looks like one large cemetery, not three separate ones. The potter’s field here was weeded and had the distinction of resting alongside Civil War veterans who had settled in the Central Valley.
We stopped by the graves of my dad’s grandparents. He said, “So now you know where everyone’s at, should you ever want to come visit.”
There was something in his voice, or maybe in the way he said it, that should have been followed with, “So when I’m no longer here to show you, you will know.”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that our little tour of Fresno’s cemeteries that day would become tradition. My dad and I have since begun to bond over death. Now when I visit, in addition to hiking in the Sierras or Yosemite, eating his homemade pasta sauce, and taking in sun in the backyard, the two of us hop in his pickup and make the cemetery rounds: St. Peter’s, Mountain View, Holy Cross, and the potter’s fields. This has evolved to include the one-time events of a mausoleum tour and a tour of the morgue, where I saw the stacks of boxes set for the next potter’s field burial.
Each time, we stand for a moment at the graves, say hello to our family and to those we never knew, and then my dad reminds me that I will be charged with caring for his final resting spot. He’s currently working on a map of all the places I’m to discretely dispose bits of him. I suspect those will include the backyard and canal behind their home; Kings Canyon, Millerton Lake, Yosemite up in the mountains; Santa Cruz and Morro Bay along the coast; and quite possibly the cemeteries in which we have now spent so much time together. Final resting places important to him, and to us.
Amy has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Her essays have appeared in Spry Literary Journal, Fat City Review, and From Glasgow to Saturn. Her memoir-in-progress was long-listed for Mslexia’s 2014 Women’s Memoir Competition. You can learn more about her work at her website: www.amysshea.com.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.