The Weird and Twisted History of Tujunga’s Cemetery
Since 1922 Sunland-Tujunga has had its own little community cemetery tucked back in the hills of the San Gabriels. It had a beautiful beginning and its present state is one of respect, care and a community spirit. But the middle years, between 1958 and 1997, have a history that is both bizarre and sad.
In 1922 the cemetery was created to fulfill the wish of a beloved local minister for a local burial. A board was created to oversee the cemetery and about one burial a year was performed. In 1958 the board decided to hand the cemetery off to professional mortuary operators who I’ll call “Owner 1.” I’m sure it sounded like a good idea at the time.
Under Owner 1, burials shot up from the previous one-a-year rate to one-a-day as Owner 1 had secured a lucrative contract with Los Angeles to bury unclaimed bodies, mostly indigents.
Neighbors of the cemetery were alarmed at the massive grading going on at the once quiet cemetery, and particularly that many graves were being dug up in the process. In the winter of ’69, mud from the hillside grading washed into the houses below. City inspectors told Owner 1 to stop grading. Owner 1 responded by changing the name of its corporation. That didn’t fool inspectors and in ’71 they issued an order to comply, which Owner 1 simply ignored.
In the winter of ’73, rains started washing grave markers down the hill and vandals attacked the cemetery, opening graves and scattering remains. In ’74, a caretaker, “Caretaker 1,” hired by Owner 1, made a public complaint about conditions at the cemetery including unburied bodies and the mislabeling of graves. It can be assumed he was fired as soon after, “Caretaker 2,” described by neighbors as a “group of hippies,” moved onto the property.
In 1976, a local kid found seven cremated bodies and 130 headstones in a trash pile. ABC Eyewitness News picked up the story, but Owner 1 denied neglegence. The State Attorney General got involved and by 1977 filed six charges against Owner 1 for fraud and financial malfeasance. Mother Nature took over the case in February ’78 and during a rainstorm a large section of the cemetery washed down into neighborhoods below, scattering decaying bodies everywhere. The City stepped in, reinterred the bodies and spread plastic over the unstable graves. Owner 1 was billed for the work but ignored it. The City continued working on the property, paying for the re-interment of another 150 graves. Vandals continued opening graves and, in 1980, rains washed out five more bodies.
That same year Owner 1 bailed out and gave the property to Owner 2, who moved onto the property. In 1981, the state sent reps to confront the new owner, but Owner 2 responded by pulling a gun on them. Owner 2 hired Caretaker 3 to live at the cemetery, but LAPD busted him for dismantling stolen cars there. Caretaker 4 and extended family moved into shacks and trailers at the cemetery, all without electricity or plumbing.
In 1984, the state seized the property and hired Caretaker 5, who dealt drugs, threatened neighbors with a gun, and performed no maintenance. In 1988, Caretaker 6 moved with his wife and five kids into a shack at the cemetery, again with no utilities. Caretaker 6 also did no maintenance, and spent his time harassing those trying to visit loved one’s graves. Through all this, neighbors continued to find body parts in their yards.
In 1991, relatives of those still interred at the cemetery appealed to the local historical group, the Little Landers Historical Society. One of their members, Mary Lou Pozzo, took on the task and over the next few years brought the cemetery back. It was fenced and lit, and graves were restored. In 2012, Mary Lou retired and handed the project to Herrold Egger who, at a superhuman pace, continues the momentum of upgrades today, enlisting volunteer labor.
The community, working together, has changed the nightmare of neglect and abuse to a vision of care and respect for Tujunga’s old cemetery.