The Most Infamous Graveyard of All – Verdugo Hills Cemetery
This is the story of Verdugo Hills Cemetery, sometimes called Hills of Peace Cemetery, in Tujunga. Like many old cemeteries, it was abandoned by its owners when it could no longer turn a profit. Verdugo Hills Cemetery gained local infamy because of several ghastly crypt desecrations over the years. But it reached international infamy in 1978 when, during a heavy rainstorm, the cemetery vomited out scores of decaying bodies into the neighborhoods below, and the dead literally surfed on their coffins through the streets of Tujunga.
Cemeteries have always held a fascination for me. Not for the macabre reasons one might imagine, but because cemeteries are a vast and multi-layered treasure-trove of history and stories. A walk among the headstones is, for anyone with any imagination, like a walk through the past. Each grave is the last resting place of someone who lived a full life. They were someone’s babies, they had babies of their own, they were loved and had adventures that, in most cases, are lost forever (unless someone like me writes about them). That sacred grave is often the last remnant of a full human life.
We have some wonderful cemeteries locally. Mountain View in Altadena is a classic graveyard with rows of ancient stand-up headstones under huge shade trees, making it a favored filming location. Glendale Forest Lawn is iconic – the Disneyland of death – with its exquisite statuary and manicured landscaping. Hollywood Forever cemetery in Hollywood features a who’s who of Hollywood historical figures. Grandview Cemetery, long-time final home to many Glendale pioneers, fell on hard times but has now experienced a new vigor. Many of Glendale’s newest citizens, Armenian-Americans, have chosen Grandview as their final resting place. Their elaborate grave monuments often feature portraits of the honored dead, lending an incredible poignancy to the cemetery.
But Verdugo Hills Cemetery in Tujunga is a little forlorn. It’s small, only four acres, and it sits on a terrace of the San Gabriel Mountain’s foothills. It’s hard to find, tucked way back on a small winding road reached by driving through convoluted residential streets. It has suffered a lot of degradation through its years of abandonment, despite the efforts of a tiny band of dedicated volunteers. Of its 2,400 graves, only a handful, less than 200, still have markers. The rest have been stolen, scattered or buried. Its burial records are lost. The main portion of the dry, largely un-landscaped graveyard is enclosed by a razor wire-topped chain-link fence to keep out the steady stream of the morbidly curious. A portion of the graveyard to the north is completely abandoned and overgrown, with no markers, and the added indignity of a road going over it. No one knows who’s buried there.
Although the cemetery is sad today, it had a heart-warming beginning. In turn-of-the-century Tujunga, there lived a much-loved itinerant preacher, Rev. James Wornum and his wife Jenny. In their horse-drawn camp wagon they traveled the “Church Circuit of the Foothills.” It’s said the early Tujunga residents could hear their beloved Rev. Wornum from miles away belting out hymns as his horse clip-clopped back to his green Verdugo Hills. The developer of Tujunga, Marshall Hartranft, had promised to build a cemetery for the community, but was dragging his feet. In 1922, Rev. Wornum, now 80, was feeling his years and pressed Hartranft to make good on his promise. Hartranft donated his own land and had laborers clear it. When it was ready, he came to Rev. Wornum and told him, “I have your cemetery now, Parson.” Rev. Wornum died the next day. The entire community turned out to bear their beloved “Singing Parson” up the road that is today named Parson’s Trail for the first burial in Verdugo Hills Cemetery.
In the next couple of weeks I’ll write the twisting and bizarre story of this infamous cemetery, but I could really use my readers’ help. Many of you have stories from the landslide in 1978, or daring to jump the fence as a teen. Please share your memories (I’ll leave your name off). We’ll all enjoy reading them.