Every other week, Cynthia Angle travels 450 miles to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, a rolling, green expanse on the outskirts of Orange where her mother, father, brother and sister are buried.
From Yuba City in Northern California, she comes to sit quietly beside their graves, on gently sloped land that spills seamlessly to the valley below and blends into the backdrop of hills. "This place just feels safe," she said, sighing. "It gives me comfort."
Years ago, Angle thought she wanted to be cremated when she died. Now, having felt the importance of Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in her life, she wants more than anything to join her family here one day.
The question is whether Holy Sepulcher--the largest of three Catholic cemeteries in Orange County--will be able to accommodate her wish.
Amid neighbors' protests, the City of Orange last week rejected the cemetery's request to add 19,000 burial plots on land it already owns, an expansion that would have ensured Holy Sepulcher's survival for the next 50 years, said Michael Shaffer, director of cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
Without the expansion, diocese officials fear that crowding at Holy Sepulcher will grow critical within the next seven to 10 years.
The possibility is real, they said, that one day the diocese's 1 million parishioners will be shut out of burial grounds that have served tens of thousands of Catholics since 1930.
"This is a serious concern that we cannot expand," Shaffer said. "We want to keep serving our Catholic parishioners, and at some point, we won't be able to."
The plans had included a nearly 20,000-square-foot mausoleum and new crypts on the cemetery's southernmost six acres. Neighbors claimed the mausoleum's proposed size would have detracted from the area's rural character, and they decried the cemetery's refusal to create an equestrian trail along the property's edge.
Though expansions are underway at other Catholic cemeteries--Ascension in Lake Forest and Good Shepherd in Huntington Beach--the inability to expand the 42-acre Holy Sepulcher could have countywide impacts, Shaffer said.
The cemetery buries 700 to 800 people a year, but has just 5,000 open plots. If the death rate stays constant as expected, the cemetery could fill up as early as 2007. "The city is basically telling us how long we can stay open," Shaffer said.
At this time, Holy Sepulcher has no plans to submit a scaled-back project. Neighbors who protested the original proposal said they might be willing to consider a smaller mausoleum that would blend more easily with the natural surroundings.
"They should find something that would not be so obtrusive to such a beautiful piece of land," said Richard Siebert, a resident of nearby Orange Park Acres.
Though Orange officials insist the decision to deny Holy Sepulcher's proposal had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with a business request for development, Shaffer said it has serious implications for the spiritual community.
Most members of the faith want to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, which is believed to be consecrated ground, said Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird of the Orange diocese.
"We believe a person who is baptized is a temple of God and should be buried in a holy place," he said. "There should be reverence for the body at the beginning of life and at the end of life."
Without expanded burial grounds, Baird said, "What has always been our tradition could not be fulfilled."
For Angle, like many of her faith, "it was mandatory" that her family be laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery, she said. Beyond meeting a religious obligation, Holy Sepulcher has been a serene haven where she could grieve.
Distanced from hectic city life on the eastern edge of Orange, Holy Sepulcher's finely manicured lawn is dotted with flowers, pinwheels and American flags left by mourners. Sometimes, women sit quietly by relatives' graves and knit. Others recite prayers, looking out past the valley to the misty hills. It is a safe place for everyone in need of comfort, Angle said.
"My mother wanted to be buried here because she said people need a place to go, to mourn, to remember people," Angle said.
"I didn't think I needed that. But now I realize the value of having some place to go," she added, wiping stray tears from her cheeks. "My mother was right."
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Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, one of three Catholic cemeteries in Orange County, has had its plan to expand denied by Orange.