Local cemeteries have rich lives of their own

When visiting Sonoma County cemeteries, look for the nuances of each one. Celebrate the history associated with them and discover the treasures within. Some things you may notice are the absence of someone’s age, occupation, or title designation on gravestones, which are more indicative of the 19th century. Beside the fading older gravestones, you’ll find monuments bearing the names of people integral to Sonoma County’s rich past. You’ll see the cracked, leathery-look of grounds that are dust-bowl dry as well as some manicured lawns. And in autumn, littering leaves and cool winds remind us winter is on its way.

Bodega Calvary Cemetery is an active rural Catholic cemetery located on a hillside just west of the town of Bodega on the right side. A redwood fence along the bottom of the hill runs parallel to the highway. The cemetery has redwood trees on the eastern property line and Chinese Pistache trees throughout the cemetery. There’s a driveway entrance to the cemetery and several paved walkways bottom to top.

Bodega Calvary was established in 1869, after the landowners sold a couple of acres of land to the San Francisco Archdiocese. In the early years the cemetery was referred to as St. Teresa’s cemetery after the beautiful historic church in Bodega. The name was changed to Calvary Cemetery after St. Teresa’s and St. Philip’s churches were established as the St. Philip Parish.

“Bodega Calvary is the only active Parish Catholic Cemetery in West Sonoma County,” said Volunteer Cemetery Manager Arthur Hansen, who has been managing the cemetery for 16 years. Hansen and two of his grandsons placed three white wooden crosses at the top of the cemetery along the property line. “The three crosses represent Calvary, the hill that Christ was crucified on, so they represent the crucifixion and resurrection in the Catholic Church,” said Hansen.

Hansen also put solar lights on all the graves. At night, the lights literally stop traffic because drivers think candles are glowing. If you go by Calvary in the evening, you’ll see Arthur’s ‘Starry, Starry Night.’ He says it reminds him of Van Gogh’s painting and Don McLean’s song of the same name. “In the spring, the cemetery is beautiful with thousands of daffodils in bloom, and hundreds of new bulbs are planted each year. Someone donated a beautiful limestone altar, and through donations, we’re able to do a lot of improvements with the cemetery.,” Hansen said.

Jasper O’Farrell, one of the first settlers of Sebastopol and one of the most influential people of Northern California, is buried in Bodega Calvary, along with members of his family. O’Farrell was a famous land surveyor who surveyed and named Yerba Buena, better known as San Francisco, and much of West Sonoma County. He financed the building of St. Therese Catholic Church in Bodega. There’s a bar in Sebastopol that bears the great Jasper O’Farrell’s name today. He also has a street and a restaurant named for him in San Francisco.

Another notable individual buried in this cemetery is Nicholas Green, whose tragic death grabbed national attention. Nicholas and his family were traveling in Southern Italy, when a band of robbers shot Nicholas in a highway robbery attempt. The Green family, originally from Bodega, turned their grief into acts of love and awareness by donating his organs to Italian families. His death spurred a national organ donation campaign in Italy and increased organ donation awareness in the US. Nicholas’ grave and bench is located near the top of the cemetery on the left side of the sidewalk.

Nicholas’ life was memorialized in a bell tower by a Bay Area sculptor. His three-tiered design has unique clappers that resonate the softness of the wind over the water. The 140 bells sing their melodious chimes like a sweet lullaby. This chiming work of art stands 18 feet and is 1.5 miles north of Bodega Bay, just off Highway 1. The skillful design is a touching memory to innocence lost, but never forgotten. The Italians bestowed their generosity to the Green family by donating the bells. Nicholas’ name, along with each of the organ recipients’ names, are etched on a centerpiece bell.

Another interesting cemetery is the Pleasant Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary, located across from an apple orchard and vineyard on Pleasant Hill Road in Sebastopol. Its picturesque-green landscape has perfectly edged lawns and shrubs that frame the property. It also has a beautiful, spacious chapel with a high wood ceiling, comfortable seating and subdued lighting.

In the Veterans Lawn section, veterans are honored with a Memorial US Flag, full military honor guard, and interment to a national cemetery. On top of a round columbarium is a large set of praying hands made of bronze. This is one of several unique structures that stand as a lasting memory to loved ones.
Did you know cartoonist, writer and Peanuts creator Charles Monroe Schulz is buried in Pleasant Hills’ Veterans Lawn section? Schulz, a veteran of the United States Army, started his illustrious career with the Peanuts cartoon strip ingrained in our history. His family had a memorial bench made that honors the beloved cartoon characters he created, who lovingly smile as they overlook their cherished creator’s site. At the bottom of Schulz’ bench it reads: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy… how can I ever forget them…?”

Schulz’s appeal was that his characters had personalities much like our own, with insecurities and disappointments, like Charlie Brown’s inability to kick the football or woo the girl of his dreams. They were characters drawn from real life laced with humor that made us laugh and forget our own troubles, adults and children alike.

Another historic cemetery is the Occidental Druids Cemetery. The Druids Cemetery is named for the Druid Lodge, the Frederick Sieg Grove #94 United Ancient Order of Druids. The cemetery land was bought by the Druids from fellow Druids, Melvin and Flavia Meeker in 1902. The cemetery was made official in 1903. Meeker and his wife, along with other Druids and their families, are buried there.

The United Ancient Order of Druids of California is a non-political, non-denominational fraternal benefit society. California Druidism was founded by Frederick Sieg in Placerville, and California Druids were started to assist families injured or killed in in the Sierra Nevada goldfields. In addition to the grove virtues of justice, morality and brotherly love, the motto of Druids all over the world is “United to Assist.” California Druids also believe in the Seven Precepts of Merlin, an early teacher of Druids.
In northern Sonoma County, not long after brothers George and Harmon Heald settled in what is now known as Healdsburg, George died in 1853. He was buried in the first cemetery in the area, located at East Street between Matheson and Tucker streets.

After Healdsburg’s namesake Harmon Heald died in 1858, Roderick Matheson donated a place on his ranch—a knoll with sloping sides and oak trees—to establish a more appropriately located cemetery outside town. In 1859, Oak Mound Cemetery was established.

Soon after, Matheson, who volunteered in the Civil War, was named Colonel; he died in 1862 from wounds received in battle. His body was returned home under a hero’s welcome and was buried in Oak Mound.

Today Oak Mound is a larger cemetery with all sorts of trees, such as pine, oak, cypress and palm. Clay and gravel roads extend all around the property. Management of Oak Mound has passed through many hands, but it’s still privately owned. The cemetery was eventually included into the city’s boundary of Healdsburg in 1987.

In 2015, the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society led a major effort to cleanup and restore Oak Mound. Besides the removal of debris, many headstones will be repaired and work ensues to bring the fountain back to life, including replacing its topping of “Leda and the Swan.” with a reproduction. Other proposed plans include a kiosk with maps to the pioneer section and a searchable database to assist in location of gravesites.

Fort Ross Cemetery, a non-working cemetery, is a historical part of Fort Ross State Historic Park, a national landmark and tourist favorite because of its rich culture. Fort Ross cemetery is surrounded by the crystal-blue water of the Pacific Ocean, scenic views of the cove, sandy beaches to romp upon and cerulean skies over a plethora of redwood forests that encapsulate the natural beauty of the coast. Fort Ross comes from the Ross Colony, founded in 1812 by Ivan Kuskov. The cemetery was established around 1817 and is credited with being the first European cemetery and oldest cemetery in Sonoma County. In the cemetery are burials of various ancestral makeup, including Russians and Native Americans. Burials were done in the Russian Orthodox practices by a layman because of the unavailability of a priest.

A Russian Orthodox cross marks the place across the ravine where the earlier settlers are buried. The cross is also on the chapel cupola or dome and carries a short bar on the top, a sign which reads Jesus of Nazareth-King of the Jews, a middle bar which represents Jesus’ crucifixion, a slanted bar where Jesus’ feet were nailed: points towards Heaven for the repentant thief, and downward for the mocking thief.

The Fort Ross Chapel, constructed in the 1820s, included a small belfry made mostly of wood, which gave it a rustic appearance. It was destroyed and reconstructed several times, including the bell, which was recast in Belgium. Since 1925, the chapel holds services on the annual Fort Ross Festival or Memorial Day.

n contrast to Fort Ross, Saint Francis Solano, a Catholic Cemetery in east Sonoma County, is the oldest working cemetery in Sonoma County since 1835.

These cemeteries point to the history and history makers who helped weave the tapestry of the Sonoma County we know and love today. Sonoma County has it all—celebrities, war heroes, and other important figures who continually make an impact on us. They make us want to know them, just because of who they were. It’s that same fascination that brings flocks of visitors to Sonoma County each year.

Editor’s note: Read about the Barbara Bull Memorial Sebastopol Cemetery Walk on Oct. 7-8 in our event calendar.