A Plot with a View

Touring S.B.’s Cemetery with Author David Petry

by Michelle Drown

David PetryThere’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.

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