Santa Barbara Cemetery, ‘The Best Last Place’

On a foggy April morning in 2002, a yellow school bus filled with excited eighth-graders pulled away from school and headed east for a visit with some of Santa Barbara’s most notable citizens. As part of a larger project, my students were to make the acquaintance of such influential locals as Colonel William Welles Hollister, former owner of the Glen Annie Ranch and financial backer of numerous projects such as Stearns Wharf and the old Lobero Theatre, as well as Lewis T. Burton, otter hunter and first mayor; Charles A. Fernald, famous jurist and early city promoter; and Thomas More Storke, owner of the News-Press.

Since these famous citizens are deceased, the visitation was to take place at the Santa Barbara Cemetery. As the bus swung up the curved drive to the Summit Section, a relative hush fell over the teenagers at the sight of so many headstones and tombs. David Petry, our tour guide, was waiting to introduce us to Santa Barbara’s favorite sons and daughters and relate the history behind the cemetery itself.

As we toured the various sections, funereal art was a big hit with the students. Headstones with lambs indicated that a child was buried there, and willow trees signified sadness and grief. Crosses crafted to look like rough logs indicated the number of children left behind by the stubs of cut branches. Fascinated, the students took copious notes that they incorporated into their final projects.

At the time of our tour, Petry informed us that he’d been writing a book about the history of the cemetery, and today, five years later, “The Best Last Place” is complete. “Nearly one hundred forty years after its founding, the Santa Barbara Cemetery is one of the most powerful placeholders for local memories and forgotten stories,” writes Petry in the forward; a fact that my fortunate students discovered first hand.

Founded out of Shame

When well-loved citizen, Isaac Sparks, died in 1867, the only Protestant graveyard was a small plot of land wedged between the side of the Mesa and a brickyard at the end of Montecito Street. This graveyard, established in 1853, had become unkempt, and passing vehicles had disturbed the bones that lay scattered and broken.

Sparks had come to Santa Barbara during the Mexican days as an otter hunter and quickly became a merchant involved in the hide and tallow trade. He later served as Santa Barbara’s fourth mayor and was a partner in the Chapala Wharf Company that built the first wharf directly off Chapala Street.

Sparks’s friends were ashamed and vowed that this sad, dilapidated wreck of a cemetery would not be his final resting place. Three weeks after his death, they created the Santa Barbara Cemetery Association and purchased five acres of land on the lower slope of a hillside near Booth’s Point with another five acres donated by George Nidever. Through the efforts of founders Charles Enoch Huse, Roswell Forbush, Reverend Joseph A. Johnson, Reverend Thomas, R. Williams, N.C. Adams, Nelson W. Winton and S. T. Maxfield, the Santa Barbara Cemetery was open for business the next year. Sparks’s remains were removed to the new cemetery in 1877.


As the years passed, the cemetery continued to grow and evolve. In 1873, the City of Santa Barbara donated 21.7 acres on the bluffs. In 1882, the cemetery acquired James Shedd’s farm, which for years had separated the two sections of the cemetery. In 1889, the cemetery reached its current size of a contiguous 57 acres.

Initially, all cemetery care, except for grave digging, was done by the lot owners. They were encouraged to plant trees and shrubs. Enclosures, sandstone curbs, elaborate funerary decorations, wrought-iron gates and fences were popular for the well to do. Record keeping, however, was not instituted until 1879, and gravediggers kept finding occupied holes.

David Petry writes, “Few cemeteries have been as successful as the Santa Barbara Cemetery at remodeling themselves, their grounds and practices, to the cadences of modern aesthetics and funerary ideals.” While the earliest graveyard resembled a typical Victorian town cemetery, plans were underway by 1882 to make the Santa Barbara Cemetery a rural graveyard, an imitation of idyllic rural scenes that resembled semi-wild lands. Roads were laid out with curves and sweeps, and the angular form was abandoned. Clusters of trees were planted. Later, this plan would be abandoned for the lawn park ideal which favored the planting of lawn throughout the cemetery.

In the 1890s, the Chinese community requested a special section with a shrine where burial rites could be practiced. A small pagoda and altar and fire pit were built where, today, the cemetery’s maintenance buildings stand. Most of Santa Barbara’s early Chinese residents believed that their bones must be returned to the Flowery Kingdom, the land of their ancestors, or else their spirits would wander restlessly for eternity. Consequently, of the 222 recorded burials, 151 were removed. (The number of unrecorded Chinese burials could be legion.)

In 1896, the first of the private mausoleums was built for the Duryea family. Others soon followed ending with the Battistone Mausoleum in 1987.

In 1925, cemetery evolution had a little help from Mother Nature. The June 29 earthquake tumbled many old monuments and enclosures. As a consequence, broken or loose markers were either reset, laid flat or thrown over the cliffs to the beach below. Petry writes, “Over a hundred years of funeral folk art, taste and custom were destroyed, although these efforts were in line with updated cemetery practices.”

As the town focused on rebuilding itself after the earthquake, so did the cemetery. In 1925, George Washington Smith designed the Spanish-Mediterranean chapel and crematorium with its Tunisian dome. Though architecturally beautiful, the mechanics of the system were flawed. While mourners sat in the chapel, disturbing noises drifted up the elevator shaft from the crematorium below. It wasn’t until 1953, however, that the crematorium was replaced. In 1993, it was removed entirely and transformed into a room of funereal niches.

The chapel acquired tiles on its dome and stylized murals by the famous Mexican muralist Alfred Ramos Martinez in 1935. The work was a gift to the cemetery by Henry Eichheim and Mary Greenough Smith, George Washington Smith’s widow. Ramos’ images created quite a controversy due to their abstract, symbolic nature and rural Mexican themes.


During Prohibition, some of the mausoleums became a favorite haunt of bootleggers. From the mausoleums near the cliffs, a lookout could signal to ships off shore that it was safe to land contraband at East Beach. Many a Santa Barbaran was able to wet his whistle due to these sentry spooks.

In 1942, the U.S. Army invaded early one morning. They busted through the locked gates, drove their tanks and trucks to the top of the hill and set up camp. Before cemetery officials could rub the sleep out of their eyes, the army had erected tents and set up cook fires. Official complaints at the high-handedness of the maneuver achieved an apology, but nothing was going to make the camp go away. For the next two years, between 150 and 200 men of the 144th Field Artillery were stationed at the cemetery. A coastal patrol spotlight swept the ocean each night and soldiers walked a watch along the cliffs and beaches between the cemetery and Stearns Wharf.

On that morning in 2002, the Santa Barbara cemetery experienced yet another invasion when 60 junior high school students descended onto its lawns in search of knowledge. This year, the public is again invited to make educational forays into the cemetery with David Petry, who offers tours twice a month. His book is a thorough chronicle of this important Santa Barbara Institution.

(Sources: “The Best Last Place,” by David Petry and interview with David Petry.)