It’s Always the Season of Spirits at Sunnyside Cemetery

101 2194

Photos by Matt Cohn. 

It’s a tale of two cemeteries at the corner of Willow Street and Orange Avenue in Long Beach.

Long Beach Municipal Cemetery slopes gently down from Orange Avenue, its 3.5 acres of green grass and well-spaced graves maintained immaculately by the City of Long Beach. It harkens back to Long Beach’s small-town roots, and hosts the grave of the city’s founding father, William E. Willmore.

Sunnyside Cemetery, west of the Municipal Cemetery and separated from it by a fence, occupies a much larger portion (13.5 acres) of the area bordered by Willow to the south, Orange to the east, California Avenue to the west and a fence on the north side. Its dark corners and eerie atmosphere tell a much different story, laced with vandalism, shady dealings, graveyard groupies and religious cults.

A total of 16,290 people are buried at Sunnyside—centenarians, day-old infants, victims of flu epidemics and bridge collapses, Civil War veterans (including a few Confederate soldiers), city dignitaries and folks from families too poor to afford a headstone. One can find famous Long Beach surnames such as Walker, Bixby and Stearns in Sunnyside, as well as quaint, evocative first names like Jasper, Bertha and Ezekiel. If only these graves could talk (some do: See details after this article).

Sunnyside Cemetery opened in 1906, out of necessity: Long Beach was booming, the Municipal Cemetery was filling up quickly, and the next nearby cemetery was in Wilmington. Two families, the Lakins and the Deckers, were the original owners of Sunnyside. Ownership passed to the next generation of Deckers, who continued to run the cemetery until 1987, when they sold it to a career mortician, Dean A. Dempsey.

101 2185

After complaints that Sunnyside had fallen into disrepair on Dempsey’s watch, the State of California launched an investigation, arrested Dempsey in 1994, and seized control of the cemetery. Two years later, Dempsey pleaded guilty to charges of embezzling more than $500,000 from Sunnyside’s endowment fund and did time in L.A. County Jail.

It was in 1994 that a group, including current Sunnyside Cemetery manager Michael Miner, formed Friends of Sunnyside. After paying the cemetery’s bills for four years, the State of California accepted the Friends of Sunnyside’s nonprofit proposal and allowed the group access to the endowment fund, which, because of aggressive investing by the State, had grown to one million dollars.

“It’s taken us from 1999 ’til now to burn through about $500,000. The water bills alone during that interval totaled around $380,000,” said Miner, one of two salaried employees at Sunnyside (the other is gardener Jose Robles).

Under Miner’s supervision, the cemetery receives its funding through a small monthly interest payment from its endowment fund, special events and private donations. Convicted lawbreakers whose sentence includes community service put in their hours as assistant caretakers at Sunnyside.

Michael Miner possesses an easygoing, unflappable temperament—and that’s good, considering the strange and wild things he encounters regularly inside the cemetery.

“We have raccoons, snakes, skunks, possums, and we used to have feral cats, until the coyotes started showing up,” said Miner. “We also had chickens. One night I found one hanging from a tree: Looks like it was sacrificed in a Santeria ritual.”

101 2181

In fact, Miner has removed many a “sacrificed” animal carcass from Sunnyside, where Goths, Wiccans and assorted devotees of the dark side have been known to gather, especially around Halloween.

“The place is well-lit along Willow Street, but back there along the north fence it’s pitch-black at night,” Miner said. “Halloween is a big night for intruders. I call for extra police patrols every year.”

Miner has also had encounters with a gentleman who is a big fan of 12-year-old Lucille L. Jackson, whose haunting gaze has peered out from a cameo on her headstone since she was buried in 1920 (see photo gallery below).

“I’ve asked him to leave several times,” said Miner. Now he shows up when Miner’s not there, leaving candy, flowers and trinkets on her grave.

“People leave golf clubs, basketballs, you name it,” said Miner. “Unless it affects the way we mow, we leave everything there.”

The most troubling intruders are the vandals: headstones are periodically knocked over, usually two or three at a time.

One summer night in 1965, 50 headstones were ripped out of position. But the worst invasion occurred in 1999. Miner had rebuffed and ejected a gang member who wanted to bribe his way out of his community service hours. Three nights later, a group Miner suspects was led by the gang member crawled over the north fence and invaded the cemetery, knocking over 346 graves and littering the place with liquor bottles.

The City of Long Beach, which has refused numerous requests to take ownership of Sunnyside, did come to the rescue after that incident, sending a crew to lift the headstones back into position. A total of 150 volunteers, including members of the city council, helped restore order to the cemetery over two weekends.

Miner is frustrated with Long Beach’s lack of interest in Sunnyside.

“We have 16,290 people here, most of whom worked and paid taxes for Long Beach [including Joseph E. Shrewsbury, the city’s first fire chief and first fireman to die in the line of duty],” he said. “Their progeny numbers in the hundreds of thousands. And yet the city turns its back on us,” said Miner.

Meanwhile, Sunnyside’s mysterious aura continues to attract the curious, the off-beat and the artistic. Scores of student films have been shot in the cemetery. Sunnyside appears in the film 8MM, in a funeral scene of one of the Fast and Furious movies, and was used by Adam Sandler in his film Click. Sandler became enamored of a dying magnolia tree in the cemetery, used it in the background of a scene, and ended up funding the removal of the magnolia and the planting of its replacement, a pepper tree, which is thriving today.

“Nice guy,” said Miner.

101 2187

Long Beach Cinematheque puts on a popular, graveyard-appropriate film series at Sunnyside.

“Sunnyside Cemetery is a Long Beach landmark,” said Logan Crow, founder and executive director of Long Beach Cinematheque. “I think we assume sometimes that places like Sunnyside are owned and maintained by the city, which is sometimes true, but often not the case, and certainly not for Sunnyside.”

“Moreover, the cemetery is full—they are no longer assigning plots, which also means they are no longer collecting plot fees [There are about 100 interments left to be done: All of Sunnyside’s plots are sold]. They depend on donations and events like the cemetery series to keep their grounds maintained and their gates open to the public,” said Crow. “We donate a percentage of every ticket sold to the cemetery, and over the last two years guests of our screenings have made an impact of over $10,000 in donations to Sunnyside, simply by coming out and enjoying an evening with friends and fellow film and arts lovers,” Crow said.

Cemetery manager Miner hopes to retire in the near future, but that doesn’t mean his association with Sunnyside will be over.

“My wife and my father are buried right back there,” said Miner, gesturing over his shoulder at his office’s rear window. Eventually, Miner will join his wife in their “companion” grave, and his place in the history of Sunnyside Cemetery will be secure forever: The State of California has declared that there will always be a Sunnyside Cemetery, even if the money and the empathy run out.

Perhaps the best way to get acquainted with Sunnyside Cemetery is to take the Historical Cemetery Tour presented by the Historical Society of Long Beach every Halloween. The 20th edition of the tour takes place this Saturday, and features actors and actresses standing next to their character’s grave, shedding light on long-past aspects of Long Beach and its citizens. Admission is $20. Tickets are on sale from 8:30 a.m. ’til noon. Performances run continuously from 9:00AM ’til 2:30PM, and guided tours depart at 9:00AM, 10:00AM, 11:00AM and noon. For more information, visit the Historical Society of Long Beach website:

Michael Miner would like to express his special thanks to Mavis Cantino and Joyce Morrison, who spent four years bringing Sunnyside Cemetery’s database into the computer age.

Tax-free donations can be sent to: SUNNYSIDE CEMETERY, 1095 EAST WILLOW STREET, LONG BEACH, CA, 90806.


{FG_GEOMAP [33.8044188,-118.17859340000001] FG_GEOMAP}

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.