The Modern Mausoleum: Evergreen Cemetery

My 101 year old grandmother died in January 2017. As inevitable as the eventual passing was, it still seemed slightly unbelievable when the moment came. How does anyone live so long, and how does anyone that is fortunate to live so long need to die? I think you should get a bonus round at a certain age, right?

I'm certainly realistic about death; I've dealt with it many times in my years. It's always a sad state of affairs, no matter the circumstances. I am happy my grandmother still had her wits about her, was still able to walk, to remember everything from her life. We were all so fortunate to have her so long. She lived through so much, so many inventions, so many modern wonders and technologies. It's crazy to think all that she saw and experienced in her years. 

She was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in my hometown of Riverside, California. When my grandfather was buried, the cemetery was in great disrepair, and the older section, like in so many cemeteries, was long ignored, unkempt, and had been vandalized repeatedly.  Having left the city nearly 20 years ago, and not having visited my grandfather's grave for more years than that, I was surprised to find the cemetery much cared for now; headstones were righted, the lawns were maintained, paths had been laid out in the older sections, and more. It was a place of beauty and pride, and family plots dating back to the 1880s were once again viewable and not hidden by weeds and filth.

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In March 2017, just two months after my grandmother's burial, I went back to see her, say Hey. I brought my camera on purpose so I could do a bit of exploring there on the cemetery grounds. I ended up spending nearly four hours there. I had every intention of shooting some fancy, old school graves and the 'more famous' mausoleum and crematorium on site. What I didn't expect was finding the mausoleum building situated near a newer section of the cemetery. 

I'd seen it before, but essentially from the back only, from a one-way road that behind and above it. Approaching the building on foot, I found it a modern structure sitting at the top of a slight grade, a mid-century wonder in bricks and brown paint, a mausoleum built in 1961. In years not much older than me, yet just like myself it was showing a bit of wear. It was fabulous, freaky, beautiful, haunting. From the cemetery's official website, it quotes a description of the new mausoleum from a brochure of the time as "a thing of unusual beauty, its modern garden style architecture using the rare and beautiful Perlato Italian marble..."  It is indeed a place of beauty, but almost out of place. Its modern architecture most assuredly stands out among the grass, the trees, the otherwise unadorned fields of name-carved headstones that surround it. But I found it striking, not so much because I love this period of design and type of structure, but because it stuck out to me as if someone had dropped a small, gated library building here. The four front facing intricate formed brick walls were stunning, a thing of their time, and something that must have been incredible to behold at dedication, right there in a cemetery no less.

There was no one around that day. I hate to use the term 'eerily quiet' but it was just that; the only sounds were distant, passing automobiles and the audible life from some hidden, chirping birds. It was creepy, but aren't all cemeteries, especially when you're there alone?

I'm not terribly adept at describing architecture. I find it fascinating yet accurately describing details, ideas, and the language often eludes me. But it was a beautiful building, even if with a bit of wear and not-so-green grass surrounding it. I pondered the structure for quite some time, photographing all the outside angles I found interesting. Mostly, I took a lot of photos to prolong my entry to the interior. Upon venturing in, I found a space holding the remains of over 400 persons. Some vaults were still vacant, I assume, as they had no name inscriptions on them, and one space, large enough for a casket internment, was wide open ("Room for one more, honey"). I cautiously approached and photographed this empty 'grave' after a few minutes, not necessarily afraid of a disturbed, former occupant but more of an angry raccoon springing out to claw my face. 

The interior of the mausoleum was noticeably cooler than the temperature outside the building, despite it having a completely open roof and entry way. The sunlight streaming through the top flung so many geometric patterns into all the corners that it was dizzying and fascinating to photograph. The engraved marble caps probably kept the interior cooler than normal, but maybe that's just my perception from movies and the cold, dank aura they give off on film. I shot frames of every corner, shadow, pattern of marble, piles of dust in corners, and dried flowers of the interior, and every second hoped that someone didn't walk in to question me.

No one came in (and no one left, save for myself). Along with this structure, I took so many photos of the cemetery that day; it took a week of reviewing to sort through them all. Most of these I'll never post; they'll just hang out in my archives, not really forgotten, but not visited, either - not unlike the persons in the mausoleum, I suspect.

It's funny how, in the 60s, such a style was new and hip and modern. And it's funny how such a structure was designed to house the dead. There's no irony here, only that I find it interesting that a place of beauty is to hold decay (or in a different location, library books). We design ornate structures to help us forget what's actually going on there, but also to heighten our experience of visitation. A modern ideal of place is certainly more inviting that a frightening old cathedral or an Egyptian-style crypt, I suppose. But what happens when the modernity of a particular place runs out and we have to visit loved ones in stale, frightening and dark crypts? My grandmother will be there in another 100 years and more. The persons interred in the modern mausoleum will also remain. I wonder in 100 years, if burials - whether below ground or in a drawer in a building - will be passé, illegal. And in 100 years' time, people will ponder why we buried the dead in such ornate, fascinating places, and why we wasted the space and materials. In their future modern time, will our modernity be disgusting or incomprehensible, or will not even a thought be given as they walk over and around us?

This was a super fascinating place, the cemetery grounds and the mausoleum. I'd like to know more and I'd like to go back. I'm not sure what will come of me, who will take care of the process of my body, where I might be buried. I'd not thought of it all quite yet, where and how I'd end up. I'd like to be buried somewhere cool however, somewhere modern, too; somewhere that even if no one remembers me, it would be a place that at least someone might think, Wow, this guy liked cool, brown brick buildings. And reading.

Discover more of Evergreen Here.