Making Pioneer a livelier place

Cemetery upgrades focus on expansion, historical past, guided tours

The Pleasanton Parks and Recreation Commission approved a long-range master plan last week that calls for expanding Pleasanton's Pioneer Cemetery to make it a better place to be buried and a more attractive place to visit.

The commission accepted the report and recommendations of a seven-member task force appointed by the Pleasanton City Council that was asked to determine how the historic site can be beautified and made more accessible -- and how much all that will cost.

The 120-year-old cemetery, which the city purchased in 2007 from the International Order of Odd Fellows, has seen some improvements since the city crews and the Rotary Club of Pleasanton invested time and money to cart away litter, repair broken benches, tombstones and pavement, and spruce up the landscape.

But for many, including those who have purchased the new grave sites made available over the last three years, Pioneer is still a mess. It's a community eyesore for those who think of Pleasanton as a city of well-groomed parks and trails. On rainy days, though those have been few this season, visitors come away with muddy shoes and disappointment. These are survivors who spent up to $10,198 for a full double-burial grave site after the 404 new plots were added, close to what nearby public cemeteries charge, but they have green grass and usually an on-site caretaker.

In many ways, Pioneer hasn't changed much since the days the Odd Fellows owned it and probably not a lot since John Kottinger was buried there. With its recommendations, part of a $4.5 million upgrade and expansion program that the City Council will consider Nov. 18, both the task force and the Parks and Recreation Commission hope to change that, turning Pioneer into a more visible, easily accessed cemetery that will provide more space for burials, including cremains, as well as become a teaching tool and possibly even a tourist attraction.

Veterans' organizations have already promised helping hands and donations, offering to create a privately funded means of rebuilding the veterans' memorial and to help pay future maintenance costs. The price tag for the memorial alone is $50,000.

Local arts contributors Nancy and Gary Harrington want to go even further. They're calling for a creative sign facing traffic on Sunol Boulevard inviting passersby to visit historic Pioneer Cemetery. Once inside the gates, they would be directed to a staging area where the cemetery's history, the names of early Pleasanton settlers and the more than 400 veterans buried there would be listed with a locator map to their graves. All through the cemetery, markers would provide more historic details.

Although a number of the pricey new grave sites have been sold, there's still reluctance on the part of survivors who would like to have a warmer, friendlier place to pay respects to their loved ones. As of August, the city has sold 51 casket sites and 84 cremains plots, with 151 casket and 269 cremains plots still available.

Allowable grave markers, although similar to what newer cemetery locations require, are flat on the ground with room for a name and dates. Without a friend's help, you could walk some distance before finding the deceased buried below. The Veterans Cemetery at Los Banos has the same ground-level ruling, but its headstones are elevated and slanted enough so names are visible by motorists traveling along the roadways.

One initial stumbling block when the city acquired Pioneer was a stipulation that plots could not be re-sold if no longer needed. That's changed under the new plan, giving owners the right to transfer back their plots for a full refund of their purchase price.

By improving the grounds and focusing on the historic values of Pioneer, the new master plan could turn the cemetery into a special place, not only for internment but also as a more pleasant and memorable place for survivors and visitors. After all, there are few cemeteries so easily accessible with grave sites dating back to the 1850s, when Pleasanton Memorial Gardens, as it was known then, was first established.

The oldest legible headstone is dated 1862. Some of the city's founding pioneers, including John Kottinger, Joshua Neal and Augustin Bernal, and many Pleasanton military veterans are buried there. Grave sites were less expensive then, with the first recorded burial of a Sunol Glen resident named "Peck" for $6. Other early burials include the Jorgensens, Augustins and Judge William H. Gale, whose name still adorns an old office building on Neal Street.

The name "Pioneer" dates back to the late 18th century when California recognized these small cemeteries as rustic and informal burial grounds. The alignment of graves, as in Pleasanton's Pioneer Cemetery, is more random and the types of grave markers less uniform. Typically, these cemeteries are not irrigated and plantings are limited, with few shrubs and no lawns.

Fast forward to 2012 when a new and expanded citizens committee was formed to urge the city to clean up, irrigate and landscape Pioneer to make it "the nicest looking park in town." A former City Council was reluctant even to acquire the cemetery for fear it would become a costly operation. This year's council unanimously has agreed to take that cost on and authorized the master plan effort to begin last January.

Members of the task force, or oversight committee, are Brad Hottle and Deborah Wahl, of the Parks and Recreation Commission; Stephanie Wedge and Heidi Massie, of the Civic Arts Commission; Frank Capilla of the Community Cemetery Group; Jayne Archer, Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services; Doug Miller, representing veterans' organizations; and Carolanne Montgomery, a member at large.

Kathleen Yurchak, assistant director of Operations Services who managed the committee, said members met five different times this year, holding public workshops and making drafts of their plan available for public review.

"It's been an aggressive project," she said.

Yurchak and the committee worked with four outside paid consultants: PGAdesign, landscape architects; CPRA Studios, cemetery consultants; Alexander & Associates, surveyors; and HortScience, arborists.

She said the proposed war memorial would be built in what is now called the Flag Circle, where special services once were held on Memorial and Veterans holidays but were moved because of space limitations. The proposed kiosk would list names of those buried at Pioneer and include a map of those sites. It could be a computer-generated search screen and there are also plans for a self-guided tour of the cemetery to historic burial plots.

Also under consideration are adding grave sites in the historic parts of the cemetery where unused spaces could be available next to older graves. It is estimated that 375 additional casket burials and 624 cremains burials could be realized in those portions of the cemetery if all were double plots. Given the privilege of burial next to historic figures, those plots would cost more.

With 56% of Californians now choosing cremation, compared to 38% nationally, Yurchak expects future demand to intensify for cremains sites at Pioneer. That's why most of the proposed expansion would add small plots for cremains, possibly part of low walls at the cemetery's edges but not crypts as now seen at the adjoining St. Augustine Catholic Cemetery.

Although burial site purchases since the city acquired Pioneer include fees for perpetual care, most graves at the cemetery have no ongoing fee structure to maintain graves and many of those buried there have no families remaining to handle those chores. One of the task force recommendations is to establish an organization such as the Friends of the Library to adopt graves for maintenance work.

Also, because at some point in the future Pleasanton Pioneer Cemetery will be at capacity, the task force is suggesting that the City Council may want to contract with a firm to identify new property suitable for future burials in Pleasanton.

If the City Council accepts the master plan report and recommendations on Nov. 18, more studies will be needed before work can begin. Clearly, one of the first challenges for Yurchak and her staff will be to count the graves. No one really knows how many are buried at Pioneer beyond the 400 that Miller and his veterans' organizations have identified.

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Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Oct 17, 2014 at 11:54 am

I understand the desire to have the cemetery green and landscaped. People like gardens. People don't want to feel that they're letting their loved ones down.

I've got quite a few friends in that cemetery, and I visit a couple of times a year to wander and see all the headstones. I've always found comfort in the rustic nature, knowing that is how it looked when the original residents established the place. For me, it serves as a constant. A reminder that we're part of a chain that goes far beyond the concerns and worries of our current moments. A reminder that it's okay to let go, and allow nature to take its course.

But if people want pretty grass, I understand.

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Schwaegerle
a resident of Downtown
on Oct 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Gary Schwaegerle is a registered user.

If You wish to get connected closer to the Cemetery join our facebook group
Web Link Thanks! Gary & Phoebe Schwaegerle

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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