By Mary O’KEEFE
Those who have lived in this area for any length of time have heard about the Tujunga cemetery and the bodies that floated down the hills. It is a story often told … and told in a variety of ways, some based in fact, some in urban legend. But the true cemetery story is so much more than what happened after a rainstorm.
The Little Landers Historical Society hosted a cemetery tour on Saturday when they shared the history of the Verdugo Hills Cemetery, also known as the Hills of Peace, in a unique way – through the voices of those buried there.
“You hear stories [like], ‘They dug up bodies,’ but you have to put it in context. I wanted everything to be historically accurate, not spooky or Halloween,” said Regina Clark, Little Landers museum director. “We wanted to educate.”
The tour began with Clark giving a presentation that outlined the cemetery’s history – and what a history it has. The cemetery was started in 1922 in the Tujunga area then known as Little Landers. One of the cemetery “occupants” joked during the cemetery presentation that it was called Little Landers because after the farmer had cleared all the rocks from the area there was little land to farm.
The cemetery was built on a hillside that has one of the best views in the city. There were high hopes that the cemetery would be a peaceful resting place for the hardworking Little Landers pioneers, but its history has been as rocky as the ground it was settled on.
For around the first 40 years the cemetery had about a burial a year, a slow start. The Tujunga Cemetery Association was formed in 1922 and, according to an article in the local paper at the time, $10 could buy a membership into the association. For those who wanted to be buried there, the same amount could be used as a down payment on a cemetery plot and also buy membership into the association.
Mabel Hatch was part of the association and was very involved in the preservation of the cemetery. She brought organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars in to help with the maintenance and to pave a road to make it a little easier for residents to reach the steep hillside location. There are 22 veterans buried at the cemetery.
“The first 42 years only had 42 burials, then [that number] swelled in the 1960s,” Clark said.
After Hatch’s death in 1957, the association deeded the cemetery to the Hills of Peace Corp. which began to promote the cemetery.
That didn’t work out well either and the years that followed saw a lot of mismanagement, vandalism and destruction. A developer dug up the bodies and placed them into a recently built mausoleum for storage. He was then to grade the hillside and rebury the bodies; however, that didn’t work out as planned.
Then a group of hippies took on the caretaking responsibilities.
“Neighbors reported seeing them frolicking naked in the cemetery,” Clark said.
Throughout the years the caretakers and corporations were told by the state to stop the burials but each time those orders were ignored.
“And the vandalism continued,” Clark said.
She told the story about the body of a man in a red bathrobe that was found – twice – leaning up against the mausoleum. Then in February 1978 the rains came and neighbors woke up to find bodies from the cemetery in their front yard – 55 bodies in fact.
The city of Los Angeles paid to have the bodies reburied at a cost of about $60,000 in today’s dollars.
And still body parts were found in neighbors’ yards.
The vandalism continued as caretakers came and went. Then two sisters whose father was buried at the cemetery began an outreach effort to save the location, which led to the Little Landers Historical Society and a member named Mary Lou Pozzo.
“She went up to the cemetery every day … and was never afraid to face drug dealers or gang members,” Clark said.
Today the cemetery is owned by the State of California and Harrold Egger is a caring caretaker. He was hand-chosen by Pozzo who left the area to be with family on the east coast.
“I was contacted by Mike Lawler [from the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley] about the cemetery tour,” said Sabrina Walentynowicz, a local resident and actress.
She contacted Clark and was told that an actress had just dropped out of the tour. Her character represented one of the hippies, “Misty,” who had once “frolicked” in the Hills of Peace. She was partnered with “Angie,” a flapper from the roaring ’20s and a bootlegger, a common profession of the area.
“I have been trying to visit the cemetery for 10 years,” Walentynowicz said. But it was always closed to outside visitors.
She loves the historical value of old cemeteries and was very happy to participate in Saturday’s tour.
Some actors on the tour were from the industry, some were members of Little Landers and one got the job because of the CV Dog Park.
“I was at the dog park and someone had backed into my truck. I wasn’t there but the person left a note,” Erick Marcade said.
When he got to his truck, Jon and Karen Von Gunten were waiting for him. They had seen what had happened and relayed it to Marcade. After speaking to him for a while, Karen – who happened to be the writer of the tour’s script – said she thought he would be perfect as prospector and engineer Emmanuel Bonnaud.
Marcade had never acted before but volunteered and was glad he did.
“I heard people, the day of the tour, ask about next year’s [tour],” Walentynowicz said.
Clark needs a few more days to rest up from the tour before she starts thinking about the next one; however, with the amount of positive feedback she received, there is no doubt there will be another Verdugo Cemetery Tour in the future.
Verdugo Cemetery still needs donations to maintain and improve the location. For information on donating to help the cemetery, email email@example.com or contact the Little Landers Historical Society at (818) 352-3420.