Touring S.B.’s Cemetery with Author David Petry
by Michelle Drown
There’s a prime section of real estate on the border of Montecito and Santa Barbara that people are dying to get a piece of … literally. The Santa Barbara Cemetery occupies 57 acres of coveted oceanfront property and folks come from far and wide to be buried there. But it’s more than a lovely spot to spend your afterlife — the cemetery also bears a treasure trove of tales that chronicle the history of our town.
Perhaps no one knows this more than author David Petry, whose recently published book, The Best Last Place, tells the story of how the cemetery came to be. The book was 10 years in the making and is a detailed, fascinating read of the why, who, and how of the cemetery’s creation, as well as an account of how its growth mirrored changing social trends and expectations about how the dead should be remembered. Plentiful throughout are historic photos and illustrations intermingled with current images, offering a wonderful visual presentation of the cemetery’s physical transformation through the years.
Each year near Halloween, Petry gives tours of the cemetery, as he will this weekend. I met Petry — an intelligent, laid-back man who came to town for college in 1976 and never left — on a recent Thursday afternoon for my own private tour of the burial ground. The excursion began at the chapel, which was built in 1926 and designed by George Washington Smith, architect of many well-known structures in town such as the Lobero Theatre and the News-Press building. (Smith is interred in the chapel wall.) There was a meditative stillness inside, but Petry said it wasn’t always so peaceful — there used to be an elevator in the floor where caskets were lowered to the crematorium underneath. The fires burned all day and made such a din that the crematorium was eventually removed.
The chapel’s ceiling murals, painted in 1934-35 by influential Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez, also caused contention because they buck traditional religious allegorical depictions. Rather, the murals are, as Petry writes, “painted in an abstract style, out of step with the far more conservative, almost retrograde, artistic sensibilities popular at cemeteries at the time.” In other words, no cherubs, puffy clouds, or blue skies. Influential cemetery boardmember William Bryant complained about the murals for 60 years, Petry said, and claimed that “they impaired his ability to sell niches in the chapel, or to sell the use of the chapel for services.”
Next we visited the columbarium, where the cremated remains of former Santa Barbarans rest in urns tucked into marble wall nooks. There, in the dappled sunlit room, one urn’s nameplate stands out: that of Carbon Petroleum Dubbs. The son of oil magnate Jesse Dubbs — who, in 1900, patented his invention using an air-blowing process to make asphalt from petroleum — Carbon was so named in the hope that he’d follow his daddy’s footsteps and devote his career to the oil industry. Although C.P., as he was known, initially resisted, soon he did join his father in the family business. He even carried on his father’s oil referencing naming convention, calling his daughters Methyl and Ethyl, and his son Carbon Petroleum, Jr.
The day was warm and muggy as we left the cluster of buildings and walked up the road toward the Summit section of the cemetery. Acres of manicured grass surrounded us, dotted with headstones and spiked with several grand mausoleums. As we strolled through the different burial areas, Petry captivated me with tales of their inception, pointing out notable grave markers along the way. Some of the sentiments etched into the headstones were touching, some funny, some tragic — all, however, were somber reminders of lives that were lived and then lost.
With Halloween just around the corner, I had ghosts on my mind and so asked Petry to dish about the cemetery’s haunted happenings. To my dismay, he said paranormal activity is non-existent because “everyone is happy here.” I pressed again, eager to hear any tidbit of unexplained phenomenon. Petry, who isn’t apt to believe in ghosts, did direct me to a Web site that has a photo of two “spirits” frolicking in the S.B. Cemetery. (I checked it out, but the picture is small and unclear and all you can see of the specters are two swishes of light: ghost-stalker.com/ghostgallery).
Petry did mention one curious bit of cemetery lore: Rumor has it that 1940s silver-screen legend Ronald Colman was buried vertically so he’d have a nice view of the Pacific. And a gang of bikers — as in motorcycle — are buried in the Vista de la Cumbre section in adjoining plots, which they bought so as to stay together even in death. It’s easy to spot their markers because they have pictures of motorcycles carved on them and names like Duke.
Looking around at rolling green hills, majestic cypress trees, and sparkly ocean it’s hard to believe the cemetery has remained intact since its first five-acre plot was purchased in 1868. “The cemetery would obviously be an extremely valuable chunk of real estate for housing,” Petry said, “but the barriers to converting it to other uses are insurmountable, especially while the cemetery remains in operation.” For the moment the cemetery’s future is secure, and it’s well worth joining Petry on his walking tour to learn how a little graveyard, which in 1872 the local newspaper referred to as “a dreary resting place,” has become the gem that it is today.
4·1·1 Walking tours of the S.B. Cemetery with author and historian David Petry. Sun., Oct. 29, 1-3:30 p.m. and Tue., Oct. 31, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Call 569-3300 for reservations. Meet at the S.B. Cemetery Chapel, 901 Channel Dr. Adults $15; kids $5. The Best Last Place is available at area bookshops and Amazon.com.