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There Are Few Burials. Almost No One Visits. The Owner of Sunnyside Cemetery Finds Himself the . . . Caretaker of the Forgotten

July 11, 1991|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunnyside Cemetery's time in the sun has long passed. Burials have become so infrequent that the owner has little to do, but he does not take his job lightly.

"I'm kind of a custodian of history," said Dean A. Dempsey, a casual man of 38 who bought Sunnyside four years ago after a career as a mortician.

History is everywhere in his cemetery, which sits along Willow Street in Long Beach, next to Signal Hill. Monuments bear prominent names: Walker, Ziegler, Berberet, Price, Knox, Fry, Stearns, Buffum.

"A lot of the original Long Beach families are here," Dempsey said. "I believe we have the city's first schoolteacher and the first police chief. And I've been told we have the first auto accident victim."

He also has Ray Clark, a former mayor who died in 1925. But W. E. Willmore, founder of Willmore City, which became Long Beach, is interred next door at the municipal cemetery, which is even older than Sunnyside and has a burial only once in a great while.

Sunnyside had the first of its 18,000 burials in 1907 and was a fashionable final resting place in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Now, with many of the survivors departed themselves, it wears, on most days, a flowerless look that saddens Dempsey.

"They're forgotten," he said of most of the dead.

The cemetery owner is a tall, lanky chain-smoker with a sun-burnished face and long hair. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and gold jewelry, and drives a black Mercedes.

There are many days when he has nothing to do except turn on the sprinklers. Burials have dwindled to about 50 a year ("Cremation--that's where it's at today," Dempsey said), but each is a big occasion.

"It's something to look forward to, something to do . A lot of days it's just me and the cat."

The cemetery is peaceful. Birds chatter in the trees, and oil pumps beyond the rear stone wall groan softly.

"I'll come out here late on a Sunday afternoon to think things out," Dempsey said. "I'll just walk. It's like being in a different world."

He walked on a recent morning across the curving blacktopped road and spotted, atop a monument, a cross that had been snapped in half.

"I came in one day and it looked like World War III out here," Dempsey said, referring to the vandalism that plagues Sunnyside. "Four hundred monuments were knocked over and bottles were everywhere. Halloween out here's a nightmare."

Film crews, to whom Dempsey rents the cemetery, often add to the nighttime spookiness, their lights casting an eerie glow as horror movies are shot.

Dempsey stopped at a granite monument shaped like a bench and picked up several cans and bottles that were on it.

"People will sometimes ask me what I do," he said, "and when I tell them they'll say, 'Oh yeah, you have a bench out there; I used to sit there and drink beer.' "

The cemetery owner likes to read the grave markers and think back to when the hearses must have unloaded day after day. But no clue remains that these graves were once surrounded by knots of black-clad mourners who listened to Psalms as tears flowed behind veils.

The names on the markers are as extinct as the people who lie beneath them--Gertrude, Ethel, Clyde, Mabel, Sadie, Effie, Emil, Lizzie, Bessie, Cora.

Some of the gravestones hold oval photos. In one, a woman wears a hair ribbon and a high-collared blouse that was fashionable in her era. "She was the sunshine of our home," the etched inscription reads.

Many of the monuments are elaborately decorated with granite branches and flowers.

It surprises Dempsey when he finds fresh flowers on a grave. "I don't know who comes out, but somebody comes out," he said.

A few small flags waved in one section, occupied by Civil War veterans, who are honored with a ceremony once a year.

"They fire cannons here on Memorial Day," Dempsey said. "This year we had four spectators. It's kind of sad."

A statue of a young woman sits atop one ancient grave. Her toes, each perfectly carved, peek out from beneath a gown. Her eyes look down, avoiding the sun. The grave is where Albert Rhea was buried in 1907. The Rhea family was Sunnyside's first, Dempsey believes.

There is a children's section, with tiny, tragic markers. These infants, some of whom lived only a day, died between 1917 and 1921. "There was a flu epidemic," Dempsey explained. "The number of kids who died--incredible."

Old black-and-white postcards of Sunnyside show many palm trees. But now, among the elms, magnolias and pines, only a few palms remain.

Dempsey guesses that the palms, which had suffered from old age, were victims of the huge chain saw that sits in the cemetery shed, which also contains rakes, shovels, artificial grass, casket-lowering straps and a poster of Dracula that one of the film crews left behind.

The cemetery office holds the furnishings that Dempsey inherited--a hat tree, a round mirror, a color print of a sea gull. Behind the desk is his diploma from the California College of Mortuary Science.

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