Grave Matters

Depending on where they lived, Oakley's dead residents may -- or may not -- be eligible for burial at a local cemetery.

Last year, Mark White offered to bury Oakley’s dead. The manager of the Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen Union Cemetery District wanted to grant Oakley’s residents the right to use his burial ground, one of the few publicly run cemeteries left in the East Bay. “I went to their city council and said, ‘Look, we should talk about offering your residents this service,'” he recalls. “We thought it’d be nice if everyone who lived in Oakley was eligible to be buried here.”

Oakley had officially declared itself a city and doubled in population and size just a few years earlier. Part of the new city overlapped into the cemetery’s “zone,” where tax-paying residents are eligible for burial. But only half of Oakley’s estimated thirty thousand citizens live inside the district’s boundaries. If someone who lives east of Sellars Avenue dies, and his or her family arrives at White’s doorstep, the cemetery manager says he has no option but to turn them away: “I’ll have tell them that their loved one is not eligible to be buried here.”

These eligibility requirements began with the Gold Rush, White says. As immigrants flooded California in the mid-19th century, the population influx caused a new demand for cemetery space. Backyard burials were still common at the time, but as the turn of the 20th century approached and the dead piled up, rural communities like those found in East County tended their own municipal cemeteries.

But within a few decades, once the gold was all panned out and the population had fled with it, the region’s cemeteries had become neglected, many of them looted by desperate graverobbers looking for a last grab at fortune. Some plots in the area, White says, were dug at low ground and next to schoolhouses. When the floods arrived, corpses had an unruly way of rising to the surface.

Considering morbid sights like that, in 1909 the state legislature passed a law to clean up the mess. That led to the formation of special government agencies such as the Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen Union. Residents living inside the district’s zone were taxed annually for the right to a proper burial on high ground, where the land would be monitored by guards. White says trustees of the original Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen district approached Oakley’s town elders to join, but they declined, citing religion.

Until the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which first allowed priests to consecrate individual burial sites, East County Catholics bypassed the public cemetery on their way to Antioch’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Oakley was populated largely by Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish immigrants, most of whom were faithful to the Catholic Church. Consequently, by virtue of religious decree, Oakley’s dead were sent to Holy Cross, where the entire cemetery was already consecrated.

For decades, the boundaries of the Byron-Brentwood-Knightsen cemetery district grew around Oakley. As population returned to the area with the encroachment of the suburbs, the cemetery grew from just four acres to more than eighteen. From a population of 5,000, the district now holds about 65,000 potential customers. Nowadays, despite the gaining popularity of cremation, White says between 5,000 and 6,000 dead now lie beneath the grass at the cemetery.

Meanwhile, Oakley residents voted in July 1999 to incorporate their city once and for all. The new city had its own police department, city council, street crews — everything but a cemetery. That’s when White, who grew up in East County and has served as cemetery manager for 22 years, first saw the opportunity to bring the new city into the district’s fold. He figured he’d be doing the good people of rural Oakley a favor. At a public cemetery such as his, costs are far cheaper as long as the deceased lived inside the district’s boundaries. A gravesite can go for $1,200, while at a private cemetery such as Holy Cross, White says, “You can’t touch a grave for less than $2,500.”

White says the district’s board members did some math. To help offset maintenance costs, Oakley residents would need to pay a little more — about $25 per household. But that caused a dispute. Don Blubaugh, Oakley’s then-interim city manager, received letters from White proposing the new deal. According to Blubaugh, earlier this year, the district trustees requested that the 5,000 Oakley homes that would join the district should pay $25 annually, as opposed to the $7 paid by current residents. To Blubaugh, the disparity was an unfair tax. “It sounded a bit like misplaced larceny to me,” he says. “We politely declined their offer.”

After all, the residents of Oakley already had a deal with Holy Cross, thanks to an agreement signed in 1928, which already secured placement of their residents. Non-Catholics were still eligible for burial at Holy Cross, as long as they were related to a Catholic. In Oakley, that wasn’t much of a problem. After hearing White out in late 2005, the Oakley City Council declined to discuss the matter any further.

White disputes Blubaugh’s contention that the cemetery board proposed an official fee per household. The cemetery manager says his board figured that the costs needed to offset the new customer base would come out to about $25 per parcel, which administrators were willing to have mitigated in other forms. Among other things, White suggested a trade for land. “We just wanted them to know how much it would cost to carry these new people,” he says. “We thought it was unfair to those who’ve been paying into it for 75 years of their life, and then have these new people come along and get the same service for the same price.”

For now, the district’s line runs through Oakley along Sellars Avenue. Residents on either side of the street are unfamiliar with the issue. One man, who’d said he’d been awakened by the knock at the door (it was just after noon) was upset at the notion of the query.

“Why you want to talk about dyin’ today?” he asked before he closed the door.

He lived on the side not eligible for burial.

Still, district rules allow relatives of the dead to get into the cemetery, as long as they pay a $500 surcharge. The cemetery, White says, has plenty of room. He’ll confer with the district’s trustees to consider a new plan, or he may just let the issue rest.

“It’s not a desperate situation,” he says. “We’re not going to fill up in the next 25 years.”

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