Sunnyside Cemetery

Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach on Monday, June 17. The cemetery's directors have said the property is likely destined for closure by the end of the summer.

Yoshiko Iriye wanted to visit her husband’s grave, as she had so many times before.

It was mid-May. She took the usual route, driving west along Magnolia Drive, the circular road whirling through Long Beach’s Sunnyside Cemetery. She stopped at the same wizened laurel tree and walked just beyond the asphalt, where her husband, Koji, has lain for 13 years.

But what she found — or rather, didn’t find — left her distraught. Tears spilled down her face.

Koji’s gravemarker was nowhere in sight. Crabgrass and other weeds had tangled together, obscuring one of the final remnants of her longtime love.

“It was really heartbreaking for me,” Iriye said this week.

Over the following days, Iriye and her family worked with groundskeepers to clear away the crawling grass, letting the gravestone breathe once more.

But Koji’s grave was not alone in its neglect.

Throughout the cemetery, overgrown grass and weeds sprawl across the stones, an uneven spectrum of straw-like hues spread across the expanse. The grounds themselves are a chore to traverse, dotted with holes from a growing gopher infestation.

For 25 years now, Sunnyside has struggled to keep up with the 13-acre plot of land where Koji Iriye lies, leaving his surviving relatives — and those of the more than 16,000 others buried there — without a sense of peace for the ones they’ve lost.

And the board of the cemetery, which first opened its doors in 1906, is ready to surrender the property to what its members believe is the only viable caretaker: the city of Long Beach. But, they say, they’ve been trying to get city officials to take ownership for nearly two decades, and a series of false starts have led them to question whether Long Beach will ever annex the graveyard.

But what those years of discussions make clear, according to multiple interviews with cemetery and city officials in recent weeks, is that everyone thinks Sunnyside is a Long Beach jewel that deserves saving.

“Twice, we’ve gotten close,” Sunnyside’s current manager, Linda Meador, said in a recent interview, “and then they come up with something and say, ‘Oh, we can’t do it.’ Well, we’re to the point now that we’re out of options. Either the city takes it, or we close it.”

Sunnyside’s board members now agree: If the cemetery can’t make a deal with Long Beach by Aug. 31, the cemetery will shutter for good.

The gates will lock. The weeds will fully bury the headstones. The gophers will lay claim to the soil.

And the land, like those it entombs, will decay.

♦ ♦ ♦

Pass through the graveyard’s wrought iron gates and, in an instant, Sunnyside’s status as the burial ground for much of Long Beach’s heritage becomes clear.

Take a left on the property’s major roadway, and head toward the western South Chapel Section. There, you will find the Angel of Sorrows. The guardian, a towering statue, sits atop the graveyard’s first plot, purchased in 1907, for Civil War physician Albert Rhea. His grave preceded those of more than 200 Union soldiers.

Next to the angel stands an obelisk bearing a name: “Walker.”

C.J. Walker served, from 1900 to 1903, as Long Beach’s first new mayor of the 20th Century — before founding Farmers & Merchants Bank in 1907. The forerunner to so much of the city’s history lies, alongside relatives and descendants, beneath that marker.

The first Long Beach police officer killed in the line of duty is buried at Sunnyside. As is the first history teacher at Long Beach High School, the predecessor to Poly High.

Then there are those less recognizable, likely forgotten souls — who, nevertheless, represent the very human impacts of events otherwise relegated to history books.

The cemetery has maintained its original records in giant tomes, hidden away in a fireproof room in the office basement. Those books trace the names and causes of death of thousands of people. In many cases, the handwritten lines coincide with dates any modern reader would recognize: a rash of suicides in late 1929; a deluge of those crushed by debris in one 1933 earthquake.

Last week, on a Thursday afternoon in which the marine layer chilled the air, Meador dragged one of those hefty volumes onto a tabletop. She leafed through it, pointing out other hints of times past: diphtheria, tuberculosis — then called consumption — an infant’s death to influenza.

As she turned the century-old pages, Meador was adamant that Long Beach take responsibility for its past.

“This is history,” she said. “This is history, and this is what I want the city to preserve. It’s too precious. It’s way too precious.”

♦ ♦ ♦

City Councilman Daryl Supernaw (Fourth District) knows all too well how precious Sunnyside’s history is. It is, after all, where his grandparents are buried.

Supernaw has been a staunch supporter of the cemetery, even participating in its annual tour. Just before Halloween each year, he joins actors, dressed in period attire and scattered throughout the property, in telling the tales of the graveyard’s deceased.

The councilman’s presentation — detailing his grandparents’ move from the Midwest to Long Beach — helps bridge the gap between those walking Sunnyside’s grounds and those who lie below.

The event has long been a successful fundraiser for Sunnyside, bringing in scores of the living to learn about Long Beach’s past. But, along with the rest of the cemetery, the future of that event is in question.

Supernaw, in a recent interview said he, like Meador, hopes Long Beach can find a way to take it over.

“I think that everyone understands this is an embarrassment to our city,” he said. “We’ve got to fix this. There is so much history there.”

Everyone, it seems, can agree on that point.

And there’s certainly a long history of discussions, with the most recent chapter taking place this week at the cemetery.

Meador, along with board members Mike Miner and Richard Lough, told the Press-Telegram in separate interviews that Sunnyside’s position for at least the past year-and-a-half has been that they would simply like to hand the keys to the city, with no strings attached.

They said they would be more than willing to do whatever work needs to be done to make that happen.

But John Keisler, Long Beach’s Economic Development director, said on Tuesday, June 18, that Meador and the board have put undue stipulations on any takeover agreement.

“They want to retain control of all the decisions,” Keisler said.

But, he said, the city, using public funds, does not pay private organizations to run its own property. Keisler said he told the board as much.

“It’s just not possible,” Keisler said, “and that’s what (Meador) has wanted.”

The board — according to draft documents from last year’s negotiations with Sunnyside, which Keisler provided — apparently wanted Long Beach to pay a management fee, hire new staff, provide an allowance for capital improvements and be responsible for the costs of all maintenance and operations.

The city, for its part, has its own requirements: Sunnyside would need to update the landscaping to something more drought-tolerant and sustainable. Meador and the board, Keisler said, would not agree to that.

Taken together, Keisler said, the board’s desires are “unlikely to receive support from city leadership.”

But if Sunnyside does simply close its gates, as its operators vow they are prepared to do, Long Beach, Keisler said, is ready to save the property.

Typically, once a cemetery like Sunnyside closes, the state assumes control. Keisler said he’s been in touch with state officials about transferring Sunnyside to Long Beach at that point.

A spokesman for California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, though, said he could not confirm those plans.

“If they do close it, it would be very, very temporary, and they would reopen very quickly,” Keisler said. “I think the number one thing is keeping the asset, and improving its condition, and keeping it open and available to the families that have relatives buried there, as well as community members who have some historical interest or connection to the site.”

Besides Supernaw, meanwhile, at least some elected city officials, who would have the final say on any deal, say they support a Long Beach takeover.

Councilman Roberto Uranga, who represents the Seventh District in which Sunnyside is located, said he hopes the two sides can come to an agreement.

Mayor Robert Garcia, for his part, concurs.

“Sunnyside Cemetery is an important part of Long Beach history,” Garcia said in a Wednesday, June 19, statement, “and I am confident that the city will find a way to ensure the preservation of this important site.”

♦ ♦ ♦

For Christine Rotan, Koji and Yoshiko Iriye’s daughter, now 68, city control is not just something she wants for her father; it’s something, she said, Long Beach owes him.

In 1978, Koji Iriye began a 15-year career as a city gardener, which included maintaining the lawn at the adjacent Long Beach Municipal Cemetery.

As she stood by her father’s grave this week, Rotan glanced over at the sprinklers sputtering across the 3.5-acre Municipal Cemetery’s vibrant grass. Because of the work her father gave to the city — and because of the heartrending life he lived — Rotan said she feels he deserves the same care he gave to those buried next door.

Koji Iriye, a husband and father whose family continues to mourn him, was a quiet man who endured a lifetime’s worth of trauma.

He was born in Los Angeles County, in 1927, to Japanese parents. He spent his early life on Terminal Island.

But then, one February day in 1942, everything changed: His family — along with everyone else they knew — were given 48 hours to pack their things before being shuttled off to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, an internment camp nestled just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 250 miles north.

He and more than 120,000 other Japanese-Americans stayed there for the next three years.

After Koji Iriye was released, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served for a year-and-a-half before coming to Long Beach. Once settled, he and Yoshiko Iriye — also a ward of Manzanar — started a family.

But even then, when it seemed the Iriyes could finally pursue a new life, tragedy accompanied them: In 1959, the couple lost their 14-month-old son, born with cancer in his lymph nodes.

That was the first time Yoshiko Iriye, then 32, visited Sunnyside. She and her husband bought a plot for their son, Craig; just to his right, they bought a companion plot for themselves.

Koji Iriye has been reunited with his son for 13 years. Yoshiko Iriye, now 92, wants to join them one day, but she worries that won’t be possible.

“What’s going to happen then?” she asked Monday, as she looked over her family’s graves.

“And how about the others?” she added. “Maybe a lot of the family members here are deceased and don’t have anybody to speak for them, but I’m here for them. I’m speaking on behalf of everyone that’s here.”

Rotan said that for her father, and the thousands of others in Sunnyside, Long Beach has a duty to intervene.

“You think of a cemetery as being a sacred place, as being taken care of forever,” Rotan said.

“Hopefully,” she added, “they don’t sit by and let it rot or let it die.”

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Sunnyside has long been infected with financial struggles.

In 1994, its owner stole more than half of its $1 million endowment and used the cash to lease a Mercedes, run up bar tabs and pay for alimony.

The cemetery, which operates off interest from its endowment, never recovered. To this day, the fund still sits at about $540,000, leaving Sunnyside’s operators with about $70,000 in annual interest to work with.

But the cost of maintenance, which includes high water bills, pest control, continual infrastructure repairs and one lone groundskeeper earning about $1,000 a month, doesn’t leave any room to upgrade equipment or to keep the grass nearly as verdant as the next-door Long Beach Municipal Cemetery’s lawn.

Instead, Sunnyside’s operators, with the help of folks completing their court-ordered community service, have simply been managing the property’s descent into disarray.

“I have fought so hard,” Meador said. “I have 17 family members there. I feel like, not only am I letting my family down; I’m letting down the survivors of all the families that are buried there.”

Meador and others on the cemetery’s board have had discussions with City Hall dating back to at least 2000 — when Long Beach designated Sunnyside as a historic landmark.

Because the cemetery is nearly full and doesn’t have many more opportunities to bring in money, there’s little private sector interest in purchasing it, board members said.

The nonprofit has been run by the same dedicated few for the past couple of decades. But over the years, board members have died and not been replaced — dwindling their numbers. Those left now face health issues and say they can’t continue running Sunnyside’s operations for much longer.

“We’ve relied a lot on our volunteers, but it pretty much falls on me,” Meador said, “and my health is not getting any better.”

So at this point, board members say, a municipal takeover is the only viable option.

Documents held in Sunnyside’s office outline that long chronology of back-and-forth between the two parties. Memos from 2000 to this year show Long Beach’s purported interest in the property year after year, always noting that the land “needed to be free of all liens, deed restrictions or judgments” to address the city’s legal and financial concerns.

But Lough, from Sunnyside’s board, said this week he stopped believing those requests were made in good faith a while ago.

“They wanted to make sure the T’s were crossed and the I’s were dotted — I appreciate that kind of stuff,” Lough said, “but then they would come up with some ridiculous request.

“We did the work, and it was a waste of time, and the city of Long Beach — they just didn’t want to deal with it,” he added. “They would just throw up roadblock after roadblock.”

♦ ♦ ♦

But Sunnyside may have some hope, at last.

When cemetery and city officials convened Thursday, June 20, the board voted to formally ask the city to take over Sunnyside, Meador said. Keisler, the city’s Economic Development director, signaled the city would be up to the task.

Challenges, however, remain: The cemetery board must submit a formal proposal to Long Beach. The city must assess Sunnyside’s debts, assets and liabilities — which has derailed negotiations before. And, at some point, the City Council must approve taking it over. All before the fast-approaching Aug. 31 deadline.

Officials, wary from the outset of further tension, hashed out the cemetery’s future within Sunnyside’s administrative building. But outside, the cemetery — its present forever mingling with the past — was calm. Falling leaves blew across the tombstones. Birds chirped in the laurel trees above.

All was as it has been for the past 112 years.

Through all of that time, while the graveyard has filled with coffins carrying Long Beach’s dead, the city itself has evolved. Sunnyside saw the Port of Long Beach’s birth; it witnessed the discovery of oil in Signal Hill; it watched the Navy come and go.

The cemetery’s historic status guarantees that it can’t be bulldozed. It will forever remain in place, looking over Long Beach for the rest of the city’s days. But Yoshiko Iriye won’t always be there to clear the crabgrass.

And whether any of her husband’s gardening successors will take over the job remains undecided — despite recent avowals of optimism. Two Sunnyside managers and three Long Beach mayors, after all, have failed to ensure its life continues.

Sunnyside, then, remains on a precipice.

And if this is, as its directors have worried, Sunnyside’s final summer — before an eternal winter — the months, years and decades ahead will not be kind, as the cemetery’s denizens well know. The grass will continue to grow; the stones will continue to sink; the graveyard will continue to wither.

Unlike the fate of those denizens, however, that death is not a given. It’s merely an open question, one awaiting an answer for the past 19 years.

The answer to that question — like the memories of the dead — can only come from one place: the living.

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