Verdugo Hills Cemetery Today
This column wraps up a short history of the Verdugo Hills Cemetery in Tujunga. Although the graveyard is a historical treasure, it has also taken an infamous place in L.A. history. For it was here in 1978 that the cemetery hillside containing long dead bodies gave way during a rainstorm and tumbled into the neighborhood below.
After the decaying bodies had been picked up and the mud cleared, a serious round of finger pointing began. Who was to blame, and who would be responsible? There was (and still is) little government oversight of cemeteries. The owners had operated pretty much as they pleased in order to squeeze what operating funds could be had from the old burial ground. There had never been enough money endowed to the cemetery from the beginning. The cemetery had received little maintenance, there had been unsafe grading of the hillside (cemeteries were exempt from County Code), and the finances of the cemetery corporation were sketchy, perhaps even illegal. No government agency wanted to get involved in the expensive cleanup and reburials, and the owners were pleading poverty.
The hillside needed retaining walls built and proper drainage established. Burials that had been compromised needed reburial. The County was hesitant to cough up the estimated $200,000 needed. But the money would come from nowhere else, and the problem would remain unresolved, so by the end of summer the County reluctantly caved. The stabilization was done, the bodies were reburied, but the neglected cemetery remained just what it had been before – neglected. The cemetery’s owners faded away in the ‘80s, and eventually the state seized what little was left of the endowment.
A few more years of headstone theft, homeless encampments and vandalism followed, including one much publicized event in 1996.
In that act, carried out on or near Halloween, eight crypts were broken open and the bodies pulled out. One of them was posed leaning against the crypt wall, a cigarette dangling from its mouth.
That atrocity seemed to signal a turning point for the old graveyard. A handful of community members rallied to the cemetery’s cause. Weeds (both botanical and human) were cleared from the site, and some maintenance was performed, funded from the volunteers’ pockets. The L.A. City Councilmember for Sunland-Tujunga at that time was Wendy Gruel, and she was a special friend to the cemetery. Through her efforts, the City funded some larger repairs. Most importantly a tall fence was erected around the main area of the cemetery, which ended most thefts and vandalism. Since then community organizations, veterans’ groups, and Scouts have maintained and improved the site.
The cemetery has proved fertile ground (no pun intended) for scouting projects. An Eagle Scout project by Hunter Kirkwood in 2005 is one example, out of the many that have been completed. With 21 Scouts from Post 288 here in La Crescenta, he did some major brush clearing and established some permanent paths through the graves. Other Scout projects have included using a metal detector to find a few buried bronze grave markers. It’s hoped in the future that a ground penetrating radar search can be funded to locate the nearly 2,000 unmarked graves.
A few relatives of those interred have visited and helped with maintenance or to supply details of obscure grave markers. One particularly poignant marker was placed recently bearing the photo of a beautiful young woman. She was just 24, the mother of four small children, when she was crushed under a bedroom wall in the 1971 Sylmar quake, and she was laid to rest in Verdugo Hills Cemetery. Seven years later – to the very day – her body was violently unearthed in the ’78 landslide. Forty years after her death – to the day – a touching headstone and monument bearing her image and story was placed on her grave by her now-grown children and their children.
The cemetery is not open to the public, but a few group tours and volunteer cleanup crews have been inside. It’s my hope that in the near future, the Verdugo Hills Cemetery will reopen and receive the honor and reverence that it deserves.