COMPTON — The gates of Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery have been locked for months, but city officials reopened the gates Aug. 23 so workers could begin cutting weeds and grass and cleaning up debris.
Residents have been complaining that upkeep and maintenance of the cemetery has reached deplorable conditions that has left many visitors disgusted and shaking their heads.
The cemetery, located at 1715 W. Greenleaf Blvd., has changed ownership several times. Woodlawn’s most recent owner, Ruben Suarez, is facing disciplinary action from the state
Accusations citing failure to keep the cemetery in good condition have been filed with the California Department of Justice on behalf of the Cemetery and Funerals Bureau that cites over a dozen code violations.
Recent violations came to light when legal documents were filed by a family in 2018, reporting that they had visited Woodlawn and could not locate the burial records of a loved one interred at the cemetery.
According to the family, Suarez, whose license to operate the cemetery expired on Sept. 30, 2017, allegedly failed to offer the family any help in locating the loved one’s burial site or to help determine what happened to the loved one’s missing headstone.
An investigator from the State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau visited the grounds three times in 2018 and reported in legal documents that he had witnessed human remains left on the surface of previous locations.
He also reported thatgrass at the cemetery had turned dry and brown, the 25-acre estate was covered in weeds and the headstones were unreadable due to vegetative overgrowth and dirt.
Suarez reported that he had had difficulty maintaining the grounds because the copper water pipes at the cemetery had been stolen by vandals and that the water to maintain the grounds had been shut off. He said it cost him $30,000 a month to water the grounds.
Woodlawn cemetery has been in trouble for years. From July 2013 to April 2018, numerous citations were issued.
Prior to that, the cemetery was shut down in 2000 after state officials found fragments of human bone and caskets scattered throughout the grounds. It was reported that people who had purchased single grave sites had been laid to rest in graves that were unlawfully filled with other caskets.
Martin Garcia, a Compton native, said he has been complaining about conditions at Woodlawn for nearly 25 years.
“I have about 15 or 16 relatives buried there,” he said. “It hurts me … when I see the condition of that cemetery.”
“I’ve been to City Hall trying to find who is in charge of the property, but they won’t give me any information,” he added. “They said, ‘It’s out of our hands.’ I even went to the mayor with a note and left my number.”
Garcia said that when he visited Woodlawn years ago, he witnessed headstones that had been thrown in the trash.
“I also witnessed the previous owners, who I believe were either Chinese or Korean, digging up the back part of the cemetery where bodies were buried. It looked like they were attempting to sell the dug up plots to customers so that they could bury more people,” he said.
Garcia said that he had also witnessed the distress of visitors searching for their loved one’s remains.
“There was a lady who came to Woodlawn looking for her family’s burial plot,” Garcia recalls. “She was digging the ground with a little shovel and dug up a human bone.”
Pausing, he said, “She became hysterical and called the police. Cops and news reporters showed up and state investigators were pulling up bones from the dirt.”
“I’m shocked Woodlawn is closed because I’m sure families would like to see their loved ones and groom their graves if they could ever get in,” said Royce Esters, president of the National Association for Equal Justice in America (NAEJA).
He said that cemeteries in Compton don’t have the space to bury more bodies.
“We haven’t had a cemetery opening in 100 years because we don’t have the land to open one. This city is landlocked,” Esters said.
“For us in the community, Woodlawn is an eyesore,” said community activist Mollie Bell. “I drive by there every day and it looks like a vacant lot with weeds growing everywhere. There is nothing green about Woodlawn Cemetery.
“We have to find out if Woodlawn is an endowment cemetery, which means that Woodlawn is responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery based on the fact that the families pay for the upkeep up front,” Bell said. “If it is not an endowment, then who is responsible?”
Ironically, Lincoln Park Memorial Cemetery, which is across the street from Woodlawn, appears to be in operable condition.
“People have loved ones buried on both sides of the street — Lincoln and Woodlawn,” said Mike Mintz, 71, owner of Lincoln Park Memorial Cemetery, which was founded in 1939. He said that the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, known as the “Brown Bomber,” assisted in christening the cemetery when it first opened.
“People come over here all the time and ask me why Woodlawn looks so unkempt. I’d like to see the city of Compton take it over and make it a community cemetery,” Mintz said.
Jonathan Taylor, a retired Compton Adult School teacher, said he remembers the days when cemeteries in Compton were segregated.
“Woodlawn and Lincoln were the only two cemeteries [in Compton] where black people could be buried,” he recalled.
He said he was saddened that Woodlawn had fallen into disrepair.
“Something happened to Woodlawn due to mismanagement and they lost their permit from the state to operate,” he said.
Ironically, another cemetery in Compton, Abby Memorial Cemetery, lauded for its unusual Moorish architecture, has had its own share of complaints from Compton residents about the upkeep and condition of its grounds.
Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery has been a Los Angeles County Historic Landmark since 1946 and was established in 1869. It remains one of the oldest cemeteries in California. The cemetery dates back to the Civil War, and there are 18 Civil War veterans buried there, which surprised many residents.
“I didn’t know about that,” said 79-year-old Eugene Mitchell, a veteran and attorney for Compton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Howard Richardson Post, shaking his head.