By Mary O’KEEFE
It all started with a fire.
Craig Durst had been the Sunland-Tujunga “town historian” for quite some time when a fire broke out at the Verdugo Hills Cemetery.
“In 2020, [apparently] some kids threw fireworks through the fence of the cemetery,” Durst said as to how the fire may have started.
The fire that started was quickly contained but it had local residents worried. There had not been ongoing upkeep of the century-old cemetery and there were a lot of weeds and vegetative growth.
“I looked [at the cemetery] and we didn’t have the brush clearance we needed,” he said.
The Verdugo Hills Cemetery sits on top of a hill surrounded by houses. Since it was established in 1922, the cemetery has had to struggle to keep up with maintenance, abatement and sustained interest. Then Durst came along. He too was worried about fire danger and saw the vegetation overgrowth.
“I realized [in 2020] that the 100th anniversary was coming up,” Durst said. He spoke to the man who was caretaker of the property at the time. The caretaker handed his job over to Durst. The former caretaker had moved to Utah and wasn’t always nearby to follow up with cemetery needs so this seemed like a perfect time to breathe new life, so to speak, into the historical Sunland-Tujunga site.
Durst was not the first person who had high hopes for the refurbishing of the cemetery. Throughout the years interest had ebbed and flowed in the Verdugo Hills Cemetery but to Durst, who not only loves history but also respects it, this was a perfect project.
Since he took it over, the cemetery has become a place of honor for those who had been laid to rest there, including veterans. No one is forgotten; Durst knows the history of just about everyone whose final resting place is Verdugo Hills Cemetery.
And this small cemetery came with a lot of historical baggage, including being a strange commune decades ago, having suffered lots of vandalism and enduring a flood that destroyed many cemetery plots. However, Durst looked beyond the headlines of history and found the smaller stories that are at the foundation of the cemetery.
Verdugo Hills Cemetery had been overseen by the Little Landers Historical Society. Durst had been a member of the society for a long time. But the property needed a lot of care, a lot of time and a whole lot of boots-on-the-ground work.
Once a month volunteers met to pull weeds, repair items and create walking paths; they continue to meet at the cemetery. The cemetery is respected and has become a destination for many people seeking a historical tour.
“We recently got our 501(c)(3),” Durst said.
The cemetery had operated under the non-profit status of the Little Landers Historical Society but due to the success of the repairs and the rebirth of the location it seemed it should be considered its own organization. It is now under the watchful eye of the Friends of Verdugo Hills Cemetery.
“My basic plan is to make [Verdugo Hills Cemetery] a new destination [interest],” he said.
Durst has received a lot of local support from individuals and businesses. He is reaching out to a company to take over regular maintenance so that volunteers can concentrate on the graves and other areas that need care.
Help has come from individuals like actor Bill Pullman and his family who have supported Durst’s efforts from the beginning.
The Friends of Verdugo Hills Cemetery hosted a movie night and on Jan. 6 Durst has a “Star Stories” planned where visitors will be invited to look up to the night sky as he shares the “lore of the stars” of the ancient past.
He has plans to bring a concert of world music to the cemetery and, although he wants to stay away from the “spooky” aspect that is usually part of a cemetery, he is looking at bringing to the area some spiritualist-type events.
The most important thing is to always respect those who are buried at the cemetery and their families, he said.
Durst has focused a lot of efforts on honoring veterans, those who have been buried at the cemetery as well as present veterans and their families. The cemetery recently hosted a Wreaths Across America event.
That organization conducts wreath ceremonies across the U.S. to remember fallen U.S. veterans, honor those who serve and teach children the value of freedom, according to Wreaths Across America.
“This will happen every year. We are an official cemetery on [their list],” Durst said.
This particular event was emotional for Durst.
Verdugo Hills Cemetery has graves that are located outside the fenced area.
“I led a 7-year-old down to the [grave] of a veteran. She presented the wreath,” he said. “At the gravesite, she said, ‘I thank you for your service and now we will have a moment of silence.’ That’s what Wreaths of America is all about; teaching children about the value of freedom.”
All events at the cemetery are free to attend; however, the Friends of Verdugo Hills Cemetery does accept donations to fund their work on this historical location.
For more information or to sign up for the organization’s newsletter, go to https://friendsofverdugohillscemetery.com.