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Observing History at Orange County’s Oldest Public Cemetery

On a hazy morning in late September, a thin layer of mist lingered over the gravestones at the Anaheim Cemetery, the oldest of Orange County’s three public graveyards. Sitting in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, the historic cemetery is located on a plot of land that dates back to 1866. Home to the oldest community mausoleum on the West Coast and four family mausoleums, Anaheim Cemetery is the final resting place for over 500 war veterans, several thousand early settlers of North Orange County, and members of families living in the area. This park-like cemetery, which features upright monuments, stones and markers, is and always has been a peaceful place for people with have lost loved ones to remember the past.

Anaheim Cemetery is the oldest public graveyard in Orange County.

According to the Anaheim Historical Society’s pamphlet, while the graveyards found at Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Yorba family cemetery “had served the needs of the pastoral life of the Ranchos,” Anaheim’s mostly German settlers, founders of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society, had not “established parish churchyards for the burial of their dead.” This meant they had to set up small burial grounds on their own properties, burying their dead in the corners of their vineyard lots. Anaheim’s founders eventually needed more space to house their dearly departed. In 1866, they bought several acres of farmland east of the city for $100 to expand their family burial plots.

The grounds have increased in size over the years to meet the shifting needs of the Anaheim community. Some growth occurred as roads that crossed the cemetery were closed to make more space for grave sites. In fact, according to the OC Cemetery District website, “Between 1914 and 1917, a massive beautification effort was undertaken” to fix up the cemetery including grading the roads, seeding the lawns, and constructing the beautiful Community Mausoleum. Today, the cemetery encompasses 16 acres in total.

Originally, the grave markers in the Anaheim Cemetery were constructed out of wood. However, none of these remain on the grounds today since most were “lost to fires intentionally set to burn off weeds when the cemetery was just dirt and not the irrigated grass we see today.” The markers have since been replaced by stone monuments and mausoleums. According to the Anaheim Historical Society, two or three of these initial wood markers are in the archives of the Anaheim Library. When the first burial in the cemetery took place in 1867, “endowment care was not considered, as families took great pride in caring for their loved ones’ resting places,” according to the 2019 Anaheim Historical Tour Program. But as time went by, some families were unable to personally take care of their lost ones’ grave sites, and the local cemetery began to fall into disrepair.

According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article by Jean O. Pasco, “From 1867 until 1985, Anaheim Cemetery operated as its own cemetery district, with burial open only to Anaheim residents.” But, in 1985, Orange County officials merged three cemetery districts – El Toro Memorial Park, Santa Ana Cemetery, and Anaheim Cemetery – to establish the Orange County Cemetery District, “the largest such district in the State.” This allowed the District to care for the historic grounds while also providing affordable burial services for the public.  Today, residents of the County and their families can be buried in any of the three cemeteries.

A view through the Pioneer Memorial Archway into Anaheim Public Cemetery.

Entering the cemetery from East Sycamore Street, I first noticed at the far end of the grounds the Pioneer Memorial Archway, the original entrance to the cemetery. According to the OC Cemetery District’s website, it was built in 1917 and was financed through a donation by Frederick Hartmann at a cost of $5,000. The three arches are supposed to represent passing from this world over to the next. Mounted urns on the sides of the structure symbolize hope in the afterlife. As Anaheim grew and changed over the years, the entrance was relocated.

Walking down the paved road leading through the grounds, I passed by the cemetery’s office. Behind the building was the “Back to Nature” Rose Garden, a recent addition by the Orange County Cemetery District. Families have the choice to bury the cremated ashes of their loved ones in the soil of the Rose Garden. There are also some beautiful stained-glass windows set in on the wall of the office, where two memorial plaques sit, honoring the names of those interred at the Rose Garden. These stained-glass windows were originally a part of the old 1902 St. Boniface Catholic Church and were donated to the cemetery by the church’s congregation.

Continuing further into the peaceful grounds, I observed a newer part of the cemetery where there were no upright markers. This section of the lawn, used for in-ground cremation burials, continued up to the Community Mausoleum. Constructed in 1914, this white-pillared resting place was the first public mausoleum on the West Coast, according to the 2019 Anaheim Historical Tour Program. The mausoleum holds 300 vaults, is lined entirely in marble, and “encompasses a large central hall that was made spacious enough to accommodate funeral services in inclement weather,” according to the Anaheim Historical Society pamphlet. The mausoleum gates were locked when I visited but some of the flat gravestones in front of it were decorated to celebrate the memory of the people buried there.

Located on the side of the mausoleum were above-ground cremation spaces, each made to accommodate up to two standard rectangular urns. Turning to the adjacent lawn, I saw the start of the older upright tombstones. According to the Anaheim Historical Society, “These were customary until the beginning of the 20th century.” It was in this area that I found a gravestone for a member of the Hetebrink family, a prominent family associated with two historic houses here in Fullerton. Many members of the Hetebrink Family are buried at the Anaheim Cemetery. Also among the list of Fullertonians buried at the cemetery is actor John Raitt, best known for his role in the film “The Pajama Game,” who graduated from Fullerton Union High School and eventually went on to Broadway fame.

Mausoleum and gravestones with flowers at Anaheim Cemetery.

In one of the oldest sections of the Anaheim Cemetery, I found the Schumacher Mausoleum, an interesting Greek Revival structure whose date of construction is unknown (although, the earliest known burial was that of Ethel May Schumacher on Dec. 19, 1917). Members of the Schumacher Family have played prominent roles in both the history of Anaheim and Fullerton. Peter A. Schumacher, a native of Germany who died in 1933, was a supporter of downtown Fullerton who donated to help finance the construction of the California Hotel, one of Fullerton’s first landmark buildings. The Schumacher family was also the “S” of the S-Q-R department store, according to the Anaheim Historical Society.

The older headstones continued all the way to the back wall of the cemetery where the historic archway entrance still stands. I found some graves covered in what looked like a green, moss-colored substance, which could be, according to the Historical Society’s pamphlet “a century’s worth of lime deposits left on the stones from Anaheim’s mineral-rich water.” There were also groups of stones signifying the final resting places of 56 Civil War veterans buried at the cemetery.

Moving over to the left side of the grounds, I found three other private family mausoleums: the Langenberger Mausoleum for Anaheim’s first pioneer family; the Hartmann Mausoleum, the most expensive privately-owned structure in the cemetery; and the Rimpau Mausoleum, which resembles an old Spanish mission church and is the resting place for Natalia Rimpau, the main force behind establishing the St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim. Stepping off the main road, which loops around the cemetery, I took time to look at the Dwyer Pioneer Monument, the Kraemer Monument, and the Chinese Cemetery found in the southeast corner. According to the Anaheim Historical Society, “Early Anaheim had a significant Chinese population.” Approximately 700 Chinese immigrants were brought to the area “as an inexpensive labor force in the vineyards.” According to the 2019 Anaheim Historical Tour Program pamphlet, “While the local Germans reported the customs, religion, and dining choices of their Chinese neighbors to be confusing and unknown, Anaheim was the most tolerant and friendly of our local cities, which may account for the Chinatown on Chartres Street being the largest in Orange County.” Early Anaheim’s Chinatown was populated mostly by agricultural workers.

Anaheim Cemetery.

As Anaheim’s Chinese pioneers passed away, their families were granted a section of the cemetery “strictly for their own use,” separate from the European settlers, who make up the majority of burials. However, these graves were considered temporary because, culturally, the Chinese believed that it was shameful for a family to leave their departed in American soil. So, until the family could save enough money to ship their loved ones home for burial in China, they were buried at the Anaheim Cemetery. It’s believed that there were 33 Chinese burials, but the lack of markers combined with “the practice of exhumation and reburial,” means that the final number of burials is uncertain. To honor the nearly forgotten Chinese pioneers of Anaheim, the Orange County Cemetery District memorialized these pioneers by planting a grove of Dawn Redwood trees in September 1989.

Crossing to the central part of the cemetery, I spotted healthy Camphor trees providing shade over the gravestones. Notable burials here include: Dr. John and Sophie Heyermann, an early Anaheim physician and civic leader; Timothy Carroll who planted the huge Morton Bay Fig that’s a prominent landmark at Founder’s Park in Anaheim; and Donna Vicente y Serrano Sepulveda Yorba Carillo, a member of one of Southern California’s pioneer families.

Each grave marker has a story to tell. Taking the time to research and remember the names of the people buried at the Anaheim Cemetery will lead you on an interesting journey through Southern California’s past. Some of these stories are heartbreaking, while others are uplifting, but there are many stories to look into at the historic Anaheim Cemetery. The cemetery is open every day from 8am to 5pm and is located at 1400 E. Sycamore Street in Anaheim.