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Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009 | Cemeteries are supposed to be places for the dead, the grieving, and maybe a grizzled history buff or two.

But San Diego park officials want to try something new with the city’s own Mt. Hope Cemetery. They’re talking about turning it into a showcase for nature, history and art. The idea is to turn a little-known but historic piece of municipal property into a destination for the public at large.

A desert garden, public art and regular tours are being considered, along with a general makeover. “It would nice if it were a place that combined respect for those who are buried there with being a peaceful location within the city where people can get close to nature, enjoy a walk, and get some peace and quiet,” said Clay Bingham, deputy director with the city Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the cemetery. “It becomes more than just a burial ground.”

There are hitches. The desert garden, for one, would be created directly on top of the graves of 4,000 destitute dead people in a barren and forgotten section of Mt. Hope. Legally, the city must take care to avoid desecrating the graves, although they can remain; there’s no talk of moving them.

And then there’s the matter of money: cash-strapped San Diego faces a $179 million deficit, and the cemetery already loses an estimated $300,000 a year.

At the moment, costs are unclear. Still, Bingham said the city can move more quickly to embrace the desert garden along with new guided tours and public art. “What is important to us is to be respectful. If we can do these other things, it can be great,” said Bingham, who cautioned that the plans are in their early stages and still need to go through an approval process.

For now, Mt. Hope Cemetery, which takes up 120 acres south of Market Street near Interstate 15, remains unknown to much of the public that subsidizes it.

Mt. Hope, one of the few municipal cemeteries in California that’s run by a city, is home to about 79,000 permanent residents. Some 250-300 people join their numbers each year thanks to ongoing burials.

There are many famous names here from San Diego’s past — Horton, Jessops, Sessions, Marston. Some rest under elaborate Victorian-era monuments and others are remembered by only flat memorial plaques.

As recently as the 1950s, the cemetery was the only one in the city that refused to discriminate based on race or religion, and it retains a reputation as an inexpensive resting place. Until recently, the cemetery had another distinction: it served as the burial ground for the county’s destitute dead.

Many indigent dead are buried under the cemetery’s lawns, some three deep. But in decades past, about 4,000 were buried in a 10-acre dirt field hidden behind a hedge near the cemetery’s entrance. Only a single grave has a marker; there’s no other indication that anyone is buried here amid the weeds.

It’s this section of Mt. Hope, ironically known as Evergreen Cemetery, that is being eyed as a future home for a desert garden.

Bingham, the parks official, said the very preliminary plan is to turn the dirt field into a desert garden similar to the one near Balboa Park’s rose garden. An underground aquifer would provide irrigation, and the city could create partnerships with an environmental group or landscaping association to get it up and running, he said.

The plan “takes a part of the cemetery that looks disused and underappreciated and makes it a real focal point,” he said.

There’s a precedent for this sort of thing. About 30 years ago, the city took advantage of a state law regarding new uses for abandoned cemeteries and converted a run-down graveyard in Mission Hills into Pioneer Park, which now boasts grassy lawns, a playground and a few remaining headstones.

California state parks historian Alex Bevil, who occasionally leads tours of Mt. Hope, said any new plan for a desert garden shouldn’t neglect the graves of hundreds of poor people.

“They’re not Marston, they’re not Horton, they’re not Matthew Sherman or Kate Sessions,” he said, referring to prominent San Diegans buried at Mt. Hope. “But they’re still people who lived lives and died forgotten. We’re responsible for those individuals in a way. No one else is. No one else basically cared for them.”

Turning the dirt lot into a park may be legally challenging. Sue Silver, a California cemetery historian, said it must remain a cemetery because it is city-owned, and the graves cannot be desecrated. That means no dog park or baseball field on top of them.

A garden may be permissible, she said, but pathways cannot cover or obscure graves, even if they’re not marked. “They have to treat the ground respectfully.”

Back at the main Mt. Hope property, park officials are also thinking about another addition: public art. There’s already one piece of non-cemetery-related art at Mt. Hope: an odd statue called “Our Lady of Shoes,” which sits in a section of the cemetery that is home to many indigent dead, including immigrants who died while trying to cross the border.

Cemetery manager David Lugo wants to rotate pieces of public art in and out of the cemetery, Bingham said, perhaps in conjunction with new walking tours designed to help residents gain appreciation for the cemetery.

While it sounds unusual now, the idea of a cemetery as a destination for the general public has actually been around for some 170 years in the United States. Beginning around the 1830s, cemeteries moved outside city centers for reasons of public health and superstition — their residents being dead and all — and “rural” or “garden” cemeteries began to appear, said Marilyn Yalom, who writes about the history of cemeteries.

People would visit the cemeteries to experience nature and gawk at the monuments to the dearly departed ultra-rich. They’d even bring picnics. “There is a certainly precedent for the cemetery as a nature retreat,” Yalom said.

As for public art, cemeteries have long been home to beautiful statues, artistic monuments and stained glass in crypts, Yalom said.

What’s next for Mt. Hope? The city could move soon on plans to create the desert garden and bring in more public art, Bingham said.

But other improvements that cemetery manager Lugo proposed last summer may have to wait for money to appear, he said. They include a new entrance and new signs, wrought-iron fences, replacement of missing street signs, resurfaced roads and a walkway for the disabled near the entrance.

A tot lot at the cemetery is another possibility down the line, Bingham said. “This could create a place where the kids could enjoy themselves while the parents think about their loved ones.”

For the time being, even without renovation Mt. Hope cemetery continues to offer its traditional blend of nature (eucalyptus and palm trees), public art (elaborate memorial monuments) and, of course, the past.

With the exception of a bit of noise from nearby roads and the trolley, which goes through the cemetery, Mt. Hope is a very peaceful place, historian Bevil said.

“You can stand by where Horton and Sherman and those others are,” he said, “and you can actually see into downtown San Diego, which most of these guys are responsible for developing.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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