Eldridge Cemetery Memorial project moves forward
State appropriates additional funding; memorial committee presents conceptual plan
By Tracy Salcedo
Honoring those buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Sonoma Developmental Center has long been the goal of a dedicated group of local residents and advocates. Now, the dream of an Eldridge Cemetery memorial is closer to reality, following the allocation of $250,000 for the project in California’s 2021-2022 budget.
Senator Bill Dodd, Senator Mike McGuire, and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry partnered to get the funding secured. “People laid to rest at this institution should receive the respect and dignity they deserve,” said Sen. Dodd in a press release announcing the budget allocation. “Their lives will be remembered.”
Members of the Eldridge Cemetery Memorial Committee, led by photographer Christian Pease, who directed the Eldridge Portrait Project, and community advocate Kathleen Miller, whose son was a resident of SDC before its closure in 2018, have worked diligently with legislative staff and representatives of California’s Departments of Developmental Services (DDS) and General Services (DGS) to get the memorial launched.
Pease and Miller unveiled the memorial’s conceptual design at the June meeting of the Glen Ellen Forum, in a presentation that also featured stunning images of, and information about, the graveyard and institution throughout time. The remains or cremains of more than 1,900 souls were laid to rest at the site: The earliest recorded burials date back to 1892; the last took place in 1962. A plot map from the 1960s documents each burial; aside from being a provocative illustration of how intimate the interments are, the map was used to help delineate the boundaries of the site and ensure memorial improvements will not encroach on sacred ground. The memorial committee presentation also included a vintage photograph showing well-tended gravesites and headstones, which have long since disappeared. These days, the site is a sloping meadowland shaded by heritage oaks, with no individual markers other than those designating where rows of burials begin and end. The memorial, Pease said, will honor those laid to rest by name, achieving a “measure of social justice” for the anonymous, the misunderstood, the mistreated, and the overlooked. The installation will also serve as an invitation to passers-by to sit in for a moment in a place of “reflection and remembrance … for the ages.”
The conceptual design, developed by J.C. Chang and Associates under the auspices of the California Memorial Project and guided by input from memorial committee members, depicts an Americans with Disability Act (ADA)-accessible viewing platform overlooking the cemetery site. Low walls along the platform will be inscribed with the names of the interred, and separate plaques will describe the history of the site. A small parcel immediately across from the cemetery gates will be used to create an ADA-accessible parking space and a display of the numerous informal memorials placed around the campus over the years. The informal memorials, honoring SDC residents, staff, families, and volunteers, consist of both original placements, such as rocks fitted with robust plaques, and images of plaques either too fragile or too large to be disturbed.
Pease and Miller, along with Kathy Speas of Kenwood, one-time chaplain of SDC, Angela Nardo-Morgan, president of the Glen Ellen Historical Society, and (full disclosure) the author, make up the core of the memorial committee, but all are quick to acknowledge the work of other cemetery memorial project benefactors. For example, Speas worked closely with the SDC’s public information officer, J.J. Fernandez, to gather the names of those buried in the cemetery, sorting through original ledgers and other documents, eliminating duplicates, and checking for correct spelling to create a definitive spreadsheet. Their work resulted in the addition of 500 more names, bringing the total to 1900. The plaques on the viewing platform will include space for additions, because although thorough records have been kept, committee members acknowledge the possibility that someone could have been missed.
While project proponents acknowledge more funding may be needed to get the memorial built, the $250,000 allocation, coupled with $150,000 secured through DDS ($400,000 in total), goes a long way toward making sure those buried in the cemetery are remembered going forward, even as overall use of the property changes through time. Some of the DDS funds have been used to survey the cemetery, as well as the additional land for the ADAcompliant parking and informal memorial site, and to commission the memorial design. “The project has had ups and downs along the way, but now has the momentum it needs to succeed because it has been blessed at key moments by the incredible help and interventions of others,” said Pease, who, in addition to helping document the last residents of SDC for the portrait project, also worked at the institution for a time. Pease highlighted the significant contributions of three individuals: Sen. Dodd’s “brilliant, problem-solving chief of staff” Ezrah Chaaban; John Doyle, retired DDS chief deputy director, who secured the initial funding; and Shay Redmond, vice president of J.C. Chang and Associates, “who is providing professional services on an essentially pro-bono basis.” “Our hats are off to them, as well as all the others who have helped and continue to help the quest to make this memorial a fact on the ground,” Pease said.
“This memorial, for so long just an idea but now taking shape, reminds us all that dignity is a human right,” said Miller. Though she has left her leadership role with the SDC’s Parent Hospital Association (PHA), now PHA Family Advocates United, Miller has remained active in discussions about the future of SDC, which is currently the subject of a community-driven specific planning process supervised by the County of Sonoma. The cemetery site is situated outside the campus proper, which is the focus of the specific plan, and is nestled against what is intended to become open space once the planning process is completed and the property is sold.
In a press release announcing the funding, Dodd acknowledged “the hard work” that’s gone into ensuring the memorial project moves forward. So too did Sen. McGuire, who said, “It’s been 100% teamwork between SDC families, the state, and county on the transition of the Sonoma Developmental Center. We’re grateful to partner with Sen. Dodd and Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry to invest these funds on a memorial to honor and remember the more than 1,400 residents buried in unmarked graves. It’s a rightful and fitting tribute for the residents and their families.”
Glen Ellen’s Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning writer and editor who serves as a member of the Eldridge Cemetery Memorial Committee.