Underground Echoes: In our outdoor museum, past lives matter

Special to the Gazette

There is something very serene and introspective about working in the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery, both as the oldest known cemetery in Contra Costa County and as a wonderful outdoor museum. For one thing, the residents are very quiet. The other reasons include the beautiful views of the Carquinez Straights, the chance sighting of wildlife (including deer), and enjoyment of the unique monuments scattered throughout the grounds. The ability of meeting old friends and making new ones, while engaged in the Zen meditative art of cleaning and clearing the cemetery is of course its own reward.

Whatever gravesite you wish to adopt for a day, you will be removing the weeds and light brush from the boarders. For those of you into genealogy and history, you might wonder if the decedent could talk with you, what would they say? Where were they from? How did they make a living? What did they potentially witness or influence regarding local, state, or US history?

Another opportunity for volunteers to experience and explore all of the above is coming again on Saturday, May 11 from 10am – 2pm during the City of Martinez’s Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery Spring Cleanup Day. As usual, the City will provide bottled water, while E Clampus Vitus will furnish all volunteers lunch. Potter’s Field Restoration Project (PFRP) recruits continuing the brick cleanup of the Chinese Funerary Burner, will receive snacks and other goodies from the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA).

Speaking of the MCPA, we would like to take a moment to introduce our new nonprofit. As a result of founding the PFRP more than five years ago, we discovered the huge financial, material, and volunteer needs of the cemetery as a whole. We additionally have also been involved in helping others with finding and learning about their ancestors. It became obvious that founding an organization devoted strictly to supporting the preservation, restoration, and maintenance of the Alhambra Cemetery would be helpful as municipal resources are limited.

According to ABC News in 2014, genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the US after gardening, with a number of television programs devoted to the subject. Who Do You Think You Are?, Ancestors In The Attic, Finding Your Roots, Long Lost Family and Genealogy Road Show are just some examples. The result of which has been to inspire huge interest in the restoration of old historic cemeteries. This in turn resulted in the creation of numerous nationwide “Friends of…” charities to facilitate their care and upkeep.

Following their lead, we officially founded the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance on February 11, 2019. However, the MCPA’s origins arose out of the PFRP which launched on May 9, 2015 during the Cemetery’s Spring Cleanup. Volunteers cleared broken bottles, trash, fallen branches, weeds, while also deconstructing the funerary burner. The PFRP is now under the auspices of the MCPA.

The MCPA’s mission: “To support the preservation, restoration and significance of an outdoor historical museum, while giving voice to its untold stories and serving as a genealogical resource for their descendants.” Their additional goals are: 1) to raise funds in aid of the preservation and maintenance of the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery and its resources. 2) To support the creation of an Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Master Plan with the City of Martinez and the East Bay Regional Park District. 3) To create a partnership alliance with all entities and individuals with an interest in the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery. 4) To advocate for the implementation of the Cemetery Preservation Master Plan on behalf of said alliance in coordination with the City of Martinez and the East Bay Regional Park District. 5) To be ambassadors for community engagement by being an important genealogical resource, while celebrating and raising awareness of Alhambra Cemetery’s residents. To find out more please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org.

Back to the Cemetery Spring Cleanup, all volunteers will need to register and sign a liability waiver before entering the Main or Potter’s Field gates. You will become a dirt magnet. All volunteers should wear long pants, long sleeve shirt, gloves, and sturdy shoes. Gardening tools are permitted. Gas or battery operated equipment is NOT allowed.

To get more volunteer information regarding the overall cemetery cleanup, please contact the Martinez Recreation Office at (925) 372-3510. To volunteer specifically for Potter’s Field contact us either by phone (925) 316-6069, email martinezcemetery@gmail.com, or again visit our website at martinezcemetery.org. For those that love genealogy and history, MCPA will have tri-fold brochures available about some of the decedents in Potter’s Field, and about their organization during the cleanup.

Hope to see you there!

We are Judie and Joseph Palmer, founding members of the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA) and the Potter’s Field Restoration Project (PFRP). Both of us have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology. For more info, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. Do you have a Potter’s Field story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information regarding the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery or Potter’s Field. Please email us at martinezcemetery@gmail.com or call us at (925) 316-6069.

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