While walking past the weather-worn mausoleums and crumbling tombstones that mark the places where Santa Barbara’s founding fathers and mothers were laid to rest over the centuries, many figure that the Old Mission’s cemetery is a graveyard of the past, yet another history-filled hotspot for the tourists to check out. But that’s far from the truth, as a closer look reveals more recent burials, and even placeholders for people who haven’t yet died.
“It is a living cemetery,” Father Richard McManus told me on a recent misty morning as we walked among the hidden remains of the 480 people known to be entombed there — plus an unknown but certainly high number of Chumash natives. I’d been invited to tour the grounds in the shadow of the mission by a handful of folks who are dedicated to correcting the popular perception that the cemetery is a dead relic of the past. Explained Tina Foss, the mission’s cultural resources manager, “We’re trying to reestablish the understanding of the public that this is and always has been an active cemetery.”
It’s an important quest for multiple reasons, from the slightly silly — “We’ve had tourists walk off with flowers and vases,” said Brother Eric Pilarcik — to the practical, in that there are now many more places than ever to be laid to eternal rest in Santa Barbara’s most historic and hallowed grounds. That’s because a roof renovation project on the Old Mission’s Historic Mausoleum — which was first built in 1878 and is now home to the remains of 119 friars, 11 Franciscan sisters, and 44 lay people — that started five years ago has evolved into a reconfiguring of that burial space into a new columbarium. “We started with the roof project,” said McManus, “and it escalated.”
Dedicated one year ago in a ceremony presided over by Bishop Thomas Curry, the expanded mausoleum now features 834 new niches for cremated remains, and it’s open to people from anywhere on the planet and of any religious faith, including the nonreligious. “It’s open to people of all faiths out of goodwill, and it’s not just limited to Catholics,” said Jason Womack, the mission’s development director, explaining that decision was made primarily to reflect the Franciscan spirit of community.
The remodeled space features an 18th-century wood carving of Christ’s resurrection, wall motifs like the Tree of Life, and lanterns specially designed for the space by well-known Santa Barbara lamp maker Stephen Handelman. The layout is simple and clean, with just etchings of names and dates allowed, and no spots for leaving flowers or other mementos that wilt and fade. The starting price isn’t cheap at $12,000 — and goes much higher for bigger, more prominent spaces — but McManus and Womack explained that, because you can fit two urns in each space, it’s a competitive rate with other cemeteries. Plus, as McManus reminded, “It’s for eternity.”