The Day Dead Bodies Surfed the Streets of Tujunga
Last week I covered the beginnings of the Verdugo Hills Cemetery, including the poignant story of its first burial, a much beloved local minister, Rev. Wornum, the “Singing Parson.” In 1922, he patiently waited for “his” cemetery to be completed, and once it was, he died the next day. Everything went well for the quiet cemetery for the next 50 years as it received burials of Tujunga’s pioneers in a beautiful four-acre hillside location overlooking the Tujunga Valley and the San Fernando Valley beyond.
The trouble for Verdugo Hills Cemetery began in the early ‘70s. The cemetery was in private hands by this time – absentee owners who owned other cemeteries. In 1973 the owners, known as the “Hills of Peace Corporation,” changed their name to the “Institute for Christian Research” and claimed religious exemption from what little state regulations existed at that time. Shortly before that, the cemetery owners picked up a contract with the county to bury indigents and maintain their gravesites. Reports of vandalism started to appear in local papers, culminating in 1976 when a grandson of an individual buried earlier found human remains in a trash pile at the graveyard. County investigators found boxes of cremated remains with no identification, the cemetery in poor overall condition and with questionable finances. But still nothing got fixed.
The winter of 1978 saw record rainfall in the L.A. area, storm after storm causing several major incidents. At the Verdugo Hills Cemetery, years of hillside erosion had put many caskets closer to the surface. Rodents had burrowed into the burial spaces, weakening the structure of the hillside. As well, a natural watercourse had been graded and filled for more burials. By early February the soaked and compromised hillside could hold up no longer.
Just after midnight (how appropriate!) of Feb. 10, as the relentless rain pounded down, the hillside and its load of bodies suddenly shifted and slid down the hill. A newly installed caretaker living next to the cemetery said it felt like an earthquake, and he felt their house shift on its foundation. A family just below the cemetery, who had moved in just two months before, reported that the noise was as loud as thunder. Scores of coffins and coffin liners slid with the mud and rocks. In some cases the caskets tumbled, broke up and scattered decayed body parts everywhere. The neighborhood below was inundated.
Although emergency crews arrived immediately, the full horror of the scene wasn’t realized until dawn. Bodies and body parts were strewn through the streets and yards of the houses below the cemetery. Some of the intact bodies had wedged grotesquely into upright positions. A body had crashed through a living room window. One unfortunate homeowner found two bodies wedged against the wall of her house. Another body had “surfed” all the way down Summitrose almost to Foothill, ending up wedged in the doorway of a market.
The condition of the bodies themselves added a new level of surreal. The bodies and body parts in many cases were not skeletal as one would expect, even though some had been buried for decades. The skin had decayed away, but not the muscle and fat. A naturally occurring phenomenon called adipocere had occurred, in which under certain conditions, muscle and fat are transformed into a white or grey wax-like substance, made up largely of saturated fatty acids. The bodies retained their shape but appeared to be made of soap.
The parts of the cemetery that had held fast to the mountain had coffins and crypt liners poking out from the fractured hillside. Broken coffin pieces and lost headstones littered the slope. Meanwhile the rain continued, and water flushed through the exposed coffins and into the neighborhood below. The cleanup was going to be ugly, complicated and expensive. And no one wanted to shoulder the responsibility – not the cemetery owners, the city, the county or state.
Next week I’ll cover both the cleanup and some of the personal stories from the cemetery, some “Tales From the Crypt” so-to-speak. Please send me your remembrances – I’ve gotten very few so far.