The California Special Districts Association (CSDA) honored the Orange County Cemetery District at its 2018 Annual Conference for Exceptional Public Outreach and Advocacy.
Specifically, the District was recognized for three free events that we held for the public's education and enjoyment. They included: the Anaheim Cemetery Candlelight Historical Tour; The Dia de Los Muertos Celebration, also occuring at Anaheim Cemetery; and The El Toro Memorial Park Historical Tour.
Of course, the primary purpose of the Orange County Cemetery District is to help families when they experience the loss of a loved one. But that is not our only mission. We believe the District also has a responsibility to act as custodians of the past, preserving the history of those who are interred in our grounds, for the benefit of generations to come.
For many years, Trustee Cynthia Ward, who is also a knowledgeable local historian, would personally lead tours of Anaheim Cemetery, educating groups on notable interments in the park. As the 150th Anniversary of the first interment at Anaheim Cemetery drew near, we really wanted to reach out to the community and present the cemetery’s history in a new and exciting way. Trustee Kelly Rivers, an experienced special event planner, recommended staging our first nighttime tour, complete with costumed actors playing out scenes from the lives of those interred.
It was important to the District, to provide this event at no cost to the public. Thanks to the help of a small army of volunteers and the efforts of Trustee Ward and Trustee Rivers, costumes were provided, scripts written, actors assigned, docents lined up, and history literally came alive.
Approximately 400 people gathered at Anaheim Cemetery to embark on a journey into the past revealing the rich heritage and history of early pioneers, community leaders, immigrants, politicians and veterans from the War of 1812 and the Civil War, all of whom helped to shape not only Anaheim, but Orange County and even the nation. The road that loops around the cemetery was lined with candle lanterns and the private mausoleums, the historic archway, and the grove of rare Dawn Redwood Trees marking the final resting place for an untold number of Chinese immigrants, were bathed in beautiful light, a stunning contrast to the black night sky.
Tours concluded at the Cemetery Office where internationally-known mariachi singer, Sean Oliu, and fellow musician, Jerry Gutierrez, serenaded attendees with a mini-concert. Sean Oliu’s presence at the cemetery held a special significance as he is a direct descendant of Petra Ontiveros and Augustus Langenberger, whose infant son was the first interment to ever occur at Anaheim Cemetery. Sean is also the founder of “Kids Giving Back” a nonprofit that has raised thousands of dollars to support orchestra programs in Anaheim schools. Sean is a wonderful example of how history lives on through all of us.
With the success of this tour, the District began plans for the first historical tour at El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest. This free tour took place during the day and enlisted the aid of students from the Orange County School of the Arts who acted out scenes from the lives of: Olympic Athlete Florence Griffith Joyner; a Brigadier General; a major league baseball player; pioneers who founded El Toro - later to become Lake Forest; and many more. The tour concluded at the gravesite of Christian Kent Nelson, the inventor of the Eskimo Pie and, in his honor, free ice cream bars were handed out. Attendees also received a free 25-page bound booklet recapping the history presented on the tour with biographies of every interment covered during the event. Docents from a local historical society were on hand to answer questions, and Michael Thomas Barry, author of Final Resting Places: Orange County’s Dead & Famous was on hand to answer questions, with copies of his book available for purchase.
Apart from historical tours, the District is always looking for opportunities to connect with the community. For many years we have conducted special programs such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day Observances. We also serve as hosts for special memorial services such as the Angel of Hope Candlelight Service that gathers at El Toro Memorial Park each December for families who have lost a child; or the Homeless Day of Remembrance, an event organized by the nonprofit, Hope 4 Restoration that pays tribute to those in our community who have passed away during the year while homeless.
Recently, we have added a new event for the community with an annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at Anaheim Cemetery. Again, this event is completely free to the public and is a wonderful opportunity for the District to recognize the important cultural significance that this holiday holds for so many of the families we serve. The event is always held on November 2nd and begins with a Dia de los Muertos blessing conducted by clergy from a local church. In 2017, entertainment was provided by Ballet Folklorico Donaji, a local youth dance group that performed a variety of traditional dances with talented performers ranging in age from 4 to 21. Mariachi musician, Sean Oliu also performed. This year Rhythmo Mariachi Acadmey will take turns performing. Founded by Gabriel Zavalas, the academy is dedicated to preserving, teaching, and helping youth to appreciate the history, the art, and the music of the Indian and Hispanic cultural heritage.
While supplies last, attendees are also treated to free refreshments including Pan de Muertos prepared by a local Anaheim Bakery. Kids of all ages enjoy free Dia de los Muertos crafts and the District also assembles and gives out small bouquets of marigolds – a traditional flower often used in the decoration of ofrendas or personal altars to memorialize loved ones who have passed. As a part of Dia de los Muertos, the District encourages families to build ofrendas on the gravesites of loved ones and relaxes the flower clean-up policies so that these gravesite decorations can remain in place for an extended period of time. Our goal is to expand our Dia de los Muertos programs to eventually include the other two District cemeteries.
Most people don’t think about cemeteries as a resource for their communities, but with programs like these, the Orange County Cemetery District is working hard to educate the public and to help them see the true value these grounds really offer.