A shopping trip to die for

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2016 12:14

Buying one isn’t like shopping for a fridge or a big-screen TV – although it will be yours far longer than even the most reliable appliance.

While shopping, you aren’t besieged by glad-handing hucksters touting “deals of a lifetime.” Sales lots, in fact, are dead quiet. Senior discounts? No chance.

Buyers don’t show off their new purchases to the neighbors. This might be because their neighbors – or at least their future neighbors – are dead.

I know all of this because I’m shopping for something that really is to die for: a gravesite.

I’m pretty much alone.

“Few buy cemetery plots in advance,” confirms Jeff Wilson of Sonora’s Terzich & Wilson Funeral Home. “People don’t like to dwell on these things while they’re still alive.”

Amid tears, grief and a welter of decisions to make, most bereaved are ill-prepared to choose the family patriarch or matriarch’s resting place.

“So we guide them through,” says Wilson, who as funeral director chooses plots among a dozen area cemeteries selling them.

And who better to do the job? Wilson has been with the family business for decades. He not only knows where the bodies are buried, but does much of the burying.

Still, I wouldn’t let Jeff choose my next car, which I might drive for only five or 10 years. Because I’ll spend centuries in my grave, I’ll pick that final resting place myself.

As I just turned 70 and my picking time may be short, I’ve done some digging.

But first a word about cremation: I’m going for the burn, as do 80 percent of T&W’s clients. But I don’t want my ashes scattered. Instead, I’d like them buried in a quiet place where wandering visitors can look down and say, “Who the heck was that guy?”

I’ve been one of those visitors: I’ve called on famed attorney Melvin Belli at the Oddfellows Cemetery, Union Democrat founder Albert Francisco at the Masonic and legendary Tuolumne County Sheriff Miller Sardella at Mountain View. Buried among them are the little known and largely unvisited. Only pairs of years on their markers – 1858-1863, 1877-1949, 1913-1986 – offer a hint of these forgotten lives.

Yet cemeteries are tapestries of local history.

With the popularity of ash-scattering, however, fewer and fewer people are joining the many thousands from centuries past who chose our graveyards.

But we will. My wife and I want our remains to be a destination – first for our children, then for our grandchildren and finally for those random 22nd Century visitors who will wonder who the heck we were.

Because Suzy prefers a pine-box burial, we start by looking for – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – two-for-one urn-coffin deals.

Tuolumne County is home to some 40 graveyards, most full – only a dozen or so are still in use – and some largely forgotten. A few dozen more dot Calaveras and Amador counties.

I start close to home. The Columbia City Cemetery, 159 years old, just opened a new section with dozens of plots.

“We have room,” assures sexton Jim Kirk, who sells about 10 gravesites a year. “You live in our district, so that’s $750 for a standard plot and $200 more to add your ashes.”

We’d have plenty of visitors: morning dog walkers, tourists, field-tripping students, Pokémon-GO players. There’s even a booklet to guide the curious from grave to historic grave.

On the minus side, prospectors could dig us up.

I’m not kidding: Learning of a gold strike at the town’s first cemetery in 1853, fortune seekers reportedly desecrated several tombs in their fevered search for riches. The current graveyard, adjoining Columbia’s old schoolhouse, opened four years later. It accepted several transplanted residents from the old cemetery and has been miner-free as some 1,500 new bodies settled in.

Still, if I were a dead guy in this graveyard, I’d be wary of any dog walker carrying a pickax or metal detector.

Next, I check Tuolumne County’s newest cemetery, Dambacher Mountain Memorial. Jim and Eileen Dambacher opened the graveyard in 2007 on a three-acre portion of their Lyons-Bald Mountain Road ranch.

It’s scenic and uncrowded, with about 100 burials to date. “It will last for generations,” says Jim, who can accommodate about 1,000 graves per acre and would simply dedicate more of his ranch to the dead if needed.

“We can go as simple or elaborate as you like,” says Eileen, who stopped short of citing prices. “Excavation (Jim digs the graves) and services are included.”

Not only that, but your dog or horse can join you. Cremated remains of pets are allowed, Eileen says, and several are already with their departed owners.

My last stop – literally, it turns out – is and will be Morgan Chapel Cemetery, a small, peaceful graveyard I’ve often ridden past on my bike.

“We’re nearly full, but I do have a spot for you,” says Kathy Hodge, the Wards Ferry Road cemetery’s caretaker, chief weed-whacker and a member of its board. Kathy years ago reserved her own plot among nearly a dozen Hodges already in the one-acre, 136-year-old graveyard.

Shaded by cypress and oak, the cemetery’s few hundred permanent residents get few casual visitors. Wild turkeys, raccoons and occasional coyotes almost certainly outnumber humans.

“Here’s your place,” says Kathy, gesturing at a clearing next to the cemetery fence, beyond which her family’s cattle graze.

Those cows sell Suzy. So we make a down payment on the wide-open spaces of side-by-side $1,000 plots.

Next? We may just buy a headstone to mark our future home. Some local couples, still very much alive, have put up markers with open-ended years of death beneath each of their names.

This way we could visit our own gravesites together.

We could even bring the kids – who I’m sure will be eternally grateful that Mom and Dad have already taken care of all this in advance.

Chris Bateman is a 44-year journalist still digging for stories in unusual places. Email chris@seniorfan.com.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2016 12:14
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