Last week, on a bright spring afternoon with a breeze that carried the prickly scent of fresh-cut grass, a crowd of 80 gathered at Mission City Memorial Park cemetery. No one came to grieve the loss of a recently departed loved one, but rather to hear the stories of early Santa Clara residents whose lives shaped local history.
The tour, sponsored by the Santa Clara City Library, was led by Mary Boyle, reference librarian who heads the local history and genealogy department. Boyle, who moved to the area in 1982 from Wisconsin, said that learning the individual stories about the people buried here, “makes you feel more connected to where you live. It just makes you feel like you belong.”
Owned and operated by the City of Santa Clara, the 30-acre cemetery is considered one of the oldest in the state, and is one of two that serve the City.
Boyle led the crowd across the grounds. Traipsing over grass dotted with wild daisies, she pointed out the unique details of certain markers–headstones with family trees etched on the back, and one stone monument with a death mask carved onto it. Other markers throughout the grounds contain epitaphs in a variety of languages–from Arabic to Vietnamese as well as English–reflecting the ethnic diversity of Santa Clara.
The tour took in a total of 20 sites as Boyle recounted stories of immigrant farmers and early Olympians, civic leaders and entrepreneurs who established businesses and traditions that would come to define the City and Santa Clara Valley at large.
For anyone interested in a tour, there’s a self-guided walking tour of the cemetery covering 60 sites available on the Santa Clara City website.
Currently, the cemetery contains 1,431 internments made prior to 1900 and thousands since. Phil Orr, interim cemetery operations superintendent, who also took part in the tour, joked, “We still have room.”
Helen Kerner, 73, a tour participant from Sunnyvale who admitted a life-long fascination with cemeteries, said her own father, who passed away recently at the age of 100, was buried at nearby Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, the Catholic cemetery just down the road.
Kerner said growing up Roman Catholic made her more philosophical about what she called the “great mystery.”
“We didn’t have a fear of death,” she explained that sunny afternoon.
On a more practical note, she added, “There’s nothing to be afraid of–except what it’s going to cost.”