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For Oakland residents, local cemetery a haunt with a view

Where Piedmont Avenue ends, the gravestones begin. The Mountain View Cemetery is 226 acres of hills, trails and headstone after headstone, several with statues of angels crumbling at the wings, some that have fallen over with age – but every single one has a story. The cemetery, which is one of the only non profit cemeteries in the United States, was created by a group of Oakland residents in 1863 who created an association to manage the space.

A statue of an angel guards the Bradbury family mausoleum, constructedin 1892 on Millionaires' Row. (Anna Belle Peterson)
A statue of an angel guards the Bradbury family mausoleum, constructedin 1892 on Millionaires' Row. (Anna Belle Peterson)

When I get there, it is the afternoon and the sun is still shining brightly. Honestly, the cemetery is not very creepy. People walk the trails with their dogs and strollers, and the whole place seems alive with the energy of the living. It could be mistaken for a park or a garden, except for the thousands of graves that surround me.

A look in all directions finds nothing but gravestones, some dating back to the 1850s. Huge statues of angels and large animals sit atop some headstones, reaching toward the sky. Many of the graves are as big as people, some sticking up out of the ground at odd angles, looking recently disturbed. Crypts, some as big as cabins, are chained closed but a look inside reveals decades-old vases and spaces where only spiders have recently visited.

Obviously, this is not the sort of place to go ghost-hunting, but rather a chance to appreciate the beauty of the cemetery designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who laid out the cemetery to create a balance between nature and man.

Millionaires’ Row, up on one of the biggest hills in the cemetery, contains huge towers and crypts. Small trails lined with stones guide you to each monolith, while stairs lead up to the actual structures that were built to memorialize some of the most wealthy men and women in Oakland. The view from the tower that holds the remains of Charles Crocker, a prominent banker and one of the four builders of the Central Pacific Railroad, can only be described as breathtaking – rows and rows of headstones before the modern-day city skyline emerges. If you look out past the buildings, there’s water and more hills on the other side of the bay just above the line of the horizon. It is a view that must have been an expensive plot when Crocker died in 1888. Millionaires’ Row is also the final resting place for Samuel Merritt, an Oakland mayor for two years and the man the college and lake are named after, Domingo Ghirardelli (ever enjoyed his chocolate?) and James Folger, who produced what would later become “the best part of waking up.”

Although the crypts are impressive and even overwhelming in size (the average is as wide as many campus dorm rooms), some of the most intriguing and inviting parts of the cemetery for me are the less grand gravestones. Julia Morgan, the world famous architect of The Campanile on campus and hundreds of other buildings including Hearst Castle, has a grave that is quiet and unassuming. Morgan is buried next to several members of her family and the headstone states each person’s name. Hers is etched on the headstone several names down from the top. Compared to the ostentatiousness of Millionaires’ Row, Morgan’s grave could easily be passed by.

The grave of Sara Plummer Lemmon, who helped to select the poppy as California’s state flower, is simple and touching. Lemmon, who died in 1923, is buried next to her husband, and the headstone reads “Partners in Botany.”

One of my favorite headstones is Captain William Lund’s, which reads “In Memory of My Beloved Husband” who was “Lost at Sea” in 1884. The top of the marker has an anchor, etched into the stone.

The most solemn part of the cemetery, near the front, is the section for children. These are relatively recent graves, from the 1950s up to the present. Many of these gravestones have lambs on them, a mark which means the grave is for a child.

The cemetery, well-known in the community for its holiday programs, will be holding a Pumpkin Festival on Halloween day from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. There are also docent-led tours of the cemetery on the second Saturday of each month. But for those who want to wander the cemetery on their own, the grounds open at 7 a.m. and close when the sun goes down.

My advice is to be sure to get out before the sun sets. This cemetery is lovely in the daytime, but as darkness arrives, the prospect of being inside is terrifying. Every movement out of the corner of your eye could be a crow, or a squirrel… or maybe something else.

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