Sneakers, shorts and spandex are the new black for visitors at historical Mesa Cemetery. Those strolling the landscaped, tranquil turf topped by stately Italian cypress trees are just as likely to exercise or picnic as they are to pay their respects to the departed. And since the launch last year of annual cemetery tours every spring, Mesa Cemetery is also a place for visitors to unearth some of the city’s colorful history. “I started here as a landscaper,” Mesa Cemetery coordinator Rick Fifield says. “It took me forever to mow because I was reading all the headstones.”
Mesa Cemetery is the oldest continually-owned municipal cemetery in the Valley. More than 46,000 people – a population larger than Prescott – have been buried at the sprawling, 55-acre cemetery since 1891. Interments range from early settlers to modern war casualties. “The cemetery is filled with people, some famous like Waylon Jennings, some infamous like Ernesto Miranda, many not so famous, and some anonymous, mostly buried without markers during the Great Depression,” history writer and Mesa Cemetery tour guide Vic Linoff says.
The gravesites document Mesa’s evolution from a small settlement founded in 1878 by Mormon immigrants from Utah to the nation’s 38th largest city. Each headstone makes a poignant statement by the living about their deceased beloved. “There’s no one quite like the dead to bring Mesa’s storied history to life,” Linoff reflects.
Despite having graves dating back almost 125 years, the cemetery – located one and a half miles north of downtown along Center Street – wasn’t Mesa’s initial burial ground. The first cemetery was established in 1878 just outside the original town boundaries at the northwest corner of University Drive and Center Street. Early interments were mostly victims of an 1883 smallpox epidemic that killed more than 40 of the town’s 300 people. The site was considered too close to town, however, and in 1891, Mesa purchased land from the Lamb family for use as a cemetery.
Mesa’s first undertaker, William Aston Burton, was tasked with laying out the new cemetery, as well as transferring the bodies from the old site. Burton hired laborers from the nearby Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to move the remains at one dollar per grave. All the bodies were supposedly transferred from the original site, now occupied by a Circle K convenience store. Some, however, believe differently. “People say strange, paranormal things happen at that Circle K,” Linoff says with a chuckle.
The cemetery became the resting place for Mesa founding fathers Charles C. Robson, Francis Martin Pomeroy, George W. Sirrine and Charles Crismon, and other Mormon residents. “Some headstones have a plaque that represents an 1845 voyage by the ship, Brooklyn, from the East Coast around Cape Horn to San Francisco,” Linoff says. “There were 238 passengers. The fare was $75; kids were half-price. It was the longest Mormon trek at 24,000 miles over a six-month voyage.” Among the passengers was founder Sirrine.
While many people think of Mesa as a Mormon city, the cemetery’s residents are diverse. Their stories and grave locations can be found on the cemetery’s Walking Guide Tour pamphlet or on the guided tours conducted by the Mesa Historical Museum. They include country music star Waylon Jennings (see sidebar); Helen Millet Dana, a maternity nurse who delivered more than 12,500 babies; Charles A. Mitten, longtime publisher of the Mesa Journal-Tribune who printed “Mesa Money” to help keep local businesses operating during the Great Depression; and Zedo Ishikawa, the former Mesa High School football player whose dying wish of “Carry On” remains his school’s motto. Another popular grave is that of Dr. Lucius Alston, Mesa’s first black physician. His office was nicknamed the “Light House” because its chandeliers were illuminated at night when he treated white patients too poor or embarrassed by their ailments to be seen elsewhere. Then there’s the plot of Ernesto Miranda, whose conviction on rape and kidnapping charges (stemming from a confession he’d made without being informed of his right to remain silent) led to the landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which created the Miranda rights.
For years, the cemetery was a rare place where all colors and creeds were welcome. “It’s an egalitarian place, without any segregated areas,” Linoff says. “Death was a great leveler back when segregation was common in Mesa and the Valley.”
The living find Mesa Cemetery compelling for many reasons. “Cemeteries are strangely welcoming places where you don’t have to be specially invited; the open gate is enough reason to come in,” Arizona Capitol Museum manager Jason Czerwinski says. “I’m attracted to the history of cemeteries, not the specific ‘here lies he who did this’ stuff, but the idea that a piece of land becomes a timeline made of deaths which measure the passing of one year to another, one era to the next.”
Although cemetery employees scoff at the notion the place is haunted, some visitors relate exciting experiences. “I was photographing some older Hispanic graves in the 1970s at dusk,” photo historian Jeremy Rowe recalls. “As I kneeled down with my camera, the ground dropped about a foot underneath me – it was quite an adrenaline rush! Apparently one of the old graves had settled below the surface crust.”
One unusual occurrence is common at the cemetery. “A couple of years ago, I stopped by the cemetery to locate the graves of my ancestors,” Phoenix native Dean Isaac recalls. “Of course, the place was flooded with about a foot of water. So I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants and waded around. It’s the only cemetery that I know of that is flood-irrigated.”
Flooding different sections of the cemetery every two weeks makes it a challenge to plan for the almost 400 interments that take place annually. “We perform miracles to get a plot ready for burial,” Fifield boasts. “The cemetery is really for the living, not the dead. We help them in their time of need.”
Burials will continue until around 2034, when it’s estimated Mesa Cemetery will be full. The attraction for visitors, however, seems eternal. People drop by the cemetery – open daily from 7 a.m. to dusk – to eat lunch, walk or ride bikes. “Whether you’re alive or dead, you’re attracted to the green, well-kept space with its cypress and olive trees,” historian Virginia Berg says. “It’s a safe place to be, too; people drive at 10 mph, so you don’t have to worry about traffic.”
graves of Ernesto Miranda and George W. Sirrine