IMPERIAL — When you drive on northbound Highway 86, a few miles north from the city of Imperial, before reaching Spreckels Sugar, you are likely to miss a small cemetery on the right side of the highway. It is called Memory Gardens.
At 6:30 Saturday morning, May 6th, Imperial Valley for Vets volunteers worked on the Memory Gardens Restoration Project resurfacing headstones from plots. Equipped with shovels, wheel barrows, leveling tools, sand, bare hands and sheer determination, volunteers and their families resurfaced sunken headstones, some almost completely devoured by the earth.
Volunteers were methodical. They first removed soil around and beneath a headstone; then the headstone was lifted using shovels as fulcrums; soil was added under the headstone until it set above the surface; a carpenter’s level was placed on top of the headstone to ascertain that it was level; and finally, the headstone and its surrounding area were cleaned.
Leading the volunteers was Cruz Abarca, (U.S. Army, 1970-71). He said, “We just completed one year doing this in May. You could say this is our anniversary.”
“We started letting the community know in May of last year,” Abarca said. “Actual labor started in June. So, we’ve been out here for a while but I’ve been involved —I want to say for over 15 years now.”
His concerns for Memory Gardens runs deep. “My mother and my paternal grandparents and my oldest brother are buried here.”
“Being a veteran, I found that we have quite a few veterans buried here —all the way back from the Spanish-American war to Vietnam. Then I started drawing attention to this place based on the veterans. And little bit by little bit, people started getting involved and we started forming a committee and getting people interested.”
Since then, there were noticeable changes in the cemetery. Drivers would wave and honk their cars, flowers began to appear on headstones, people searching for relatives would often leave token items important to the deceased. However, the isolation of the cemetery and the absence of a fence makes it vulnerable to theft according to Abarca.
Working on the plots that same day was David Burns, U.S. Army veteran. He parked his car near the entrance. Quietly as if in meditation, he removed debris surrounding several plots. The previous night had been windy and there was still a breeze on the bright Saturday morning. He said, “I’ve been cleaning it up for a number of years.”
Burns said he was born in Brawley, raised in Holtville and is now residing in Imperial. “I have 12 family plots here and I have ten interred there.” Then he points with his finger to where his father and mother were buried.
“My mother was buried here in 1961. In 1961, this cemetery was competing with Evergreen in El Centro, Riverview in Brawley, and Mountain View in Calexico. And it was a very beautiful spot. It was nice. And then they decided to sell it.”
To add insult to injury. Memory Gardens cemetery is out in the open without any security. People walk in and just get anything. It’s basically robbing the dead, several helpers commented.
“What’s sad,” Burns said, “is vandals. You put out something nice, the looters come by and they take them.”
Without a fence, without security, sunken headstones, metal markers next to empty plots, grasses sprouting among the dead, a dozen tombs above ground visible near a building, Memory Gardens appeared an orphaned child. Yet family members and concerned community volunteers do what they can to slow the downward spiraling state of the graveyard.
So far, according to Kim Vincent of the Imperial Valley for Vets involved with Memory Gardens Restoration Project, more than 600 head stones have been raised and resurfaced to date. Incredibly, the total number of people buried there is unknown.
Ownership of the cemetery, Memory Gardens, is also in limbo.
Abarca entreats the unidentified owners. “I just wanted to make a plea. I was informed this morning (May 6) that there is a new owner of this property. I would appreciate a courtesy call just to let me know what my status is going to be here, as far as what we are doing in the cemetery doing the restoration. Call me at 760.909.7052. Thank you.”