Hallowed ground: Taking care of Woodlawn Cemetery

Since 1897 the Woodlawn cemetery has occupied a hallowed space in Santa Monica on the corner of 14th and Pico Boulevard, and is the resting place for a wide spectrum of the Santa Monica and general California community. A common sight for students and pedestrians, many pass it by without a moment's notice on their way to class. At 26 acres, it is here that Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, is buried as well as German novelist Heinrich Mann, brother of renowned author Thomas Mann and even the creator of Popeye. Buried here are also the founders of Santa Monica itself. And with them are buried other names, less famous yet no less cherished by family or friend. In 2009, the city banned private spaces in the cemetery's vast lawn and mausoleum. Death is egalitarian.

Cindy Tomlinson is the cemetery's Administrator who oversees the general functions and care of the area. "We have families coming in who do pre-planning for the future," said Tomlinson in her office overlooking the green spaces of Woodlawn. "We're not full, we're still an active cemetery," she added.

"When someone passes they call us. This is where we bring them, this is where we wash them, dress them," she continued., "The mortuary also handles cremation."

Those seeking a plot or mausoleum space can carefully plan their burial site. "Some people like to be a under a tree or high up on a hill, others want to face east. We let them walk the grounds and choose whatever feels right," said Tomlinson.

"I take it very seriously," added Tomlinson when discussing the sensitivity of dealing with visitors who are contemplating their residence after death. "It's very rewarding because you get to help families through a very, very difficult time. Sometimes there are two different sides to a family and they argue, you have to be a mediator."

Someone recently deceased will most likely be in the mortuary for about four days as paperwork is filed or relatives from out of state arrive. The maximum allowable time is 10 days.

Tomlinson tries to walk the cemetery grounds everyday, keeping track of the conditions of the grounds. A grounds crew also takes care of the area. The maintenance of tombstones however is a responsibility that befalls the family of a buried resident, this is because the headstone is considered their own property.

Interestingly enough, with such an active surrounding including the campus, Woodlawn has not had to deal with too many intruders or wanderers. "It's very dark here at night, there are no lights, you can't see your hand," explained Tomlinson. "We've had our fair share of homeless but not too many. We've had vigils regularly at night."

The winter months tend to be a time when more burial services are held. Illness in the season tends to claim the elderly more regularly. In fact, Tomlinson has been seeking training from the city to be prepared to deal with possible Ebola deaths, this in consideration to the fact that Ebola is the most contagious and active after death. "Just in case," she emphasized.

But Tomlinson has seen how anyone, at any age can find life's journey come to an end and for her it is not to hard to imagine herself as a future resident at Woodlawn. "It's a very peaceful place. Lots of history. It's like a gem in the middle of Santa Monica, a lot of people don't know we're here."

The cemetery itself is immersed in a silent breeze during the day, with headstones and statuettes that chronicle lives and histories. Here there is a child who only lived a day, and in a far corner a woman who lived for 94 years.

"I see the full gamut of emotions," said Tomlinson contemplating the scope of her work. "We've had babies, all the way to 100-year-old people. The families are very emotional. It's the cycle of life if you will."