History Blog

Welcome to the San Diego History Center Blog

Welcome to the History Center’s new blog! Posts will explore topics relevant to San Diego’s past, present, and future. Each week, discover new stories about our community mined from our vast object, document, and photo collections.

This October, join us as we explore San Diego’s evolving attitude towards death in our series, “Grave Matters: San Diego’s Relationship with Death.”

While death itself has remained a constant in life, attitudes surrounding death and ways of interring the deceased have changed over the course of time. Views and traditions of death may have shifted, however, like all cultures of the past, San Diegans must still confront our physical contact with the dead, funeral rites, and interment practices, and how we grieve and memorialize those gone before us.

Death and dying were once much more communal in the sense that the ill and elderly were cared for in the home by family, friends, and neighbours who would gather around the death bed providing comfort and closure. [i]  Before the advent of modern medicine and hygiene practices, infant mortality rates were high and the average life expectancy was lower, therefore encountering death was a more common occurrence.

People were also exposed to death through their close proximity to burial grounds. The dead were interred in graveyards on church grounds within a town or city. The living would pass by graves and reflect on their own mortality. Spanish soldiers buried in San Diego after their settlement on Presidio Hill in 1769 were interred within the fort’s walls next to the chapel in “El Jardin Del Rey” (The King’s Garden).[ii]

By 1849, more burial space was needed as the population around the presidio grew. El Campo Santo cemetery within Old Town was established and used through 1880. Early San Diegans also buried their dead on private land in individual plots. Additional small cemeteries were designated for other religions, such as Protestant Cemetery in 1850 and Old Jewish Cemetery in the 1860s.[iii]

As city development expanded, land for burials was set aside on the outskirts of San Diego. This type of rural cemetery or garden cemetery had its roots on the East Coast starting in the early nineteenth century. There was a movement, motivated by public health, to move burials outside population centers. Cemeteries were designed to provide solitude, adornment, and beauty. They looked and functioned more like parks with people picnicking and strolling through the peaceful settings.[i]  San Diego’s rural garden cemeteries include Mount Hope Cemetery founded in 1870, Oak Hill Memorial Park founded in 1889, and Greenwood Memorial Park in 1907.[ii]

Around this time, there was also a shift in the way the dead were tended to. Using the services of a funeral parlour became common place in the United States. Embalming bodies for preservation became new practice.  Families received guests within the funeral parlor instead of their own homes.[iii]  People were beginning to physically distance themselves from dealings with death.

This detachment has continued into today’s society. Majority of deaths now occur at hospitals or nursing homes. Funeral arrangements, both burial and cremation, are conducted by mortuaries, the latter of which is quickly becoming the more popular choice for final disposition nationally and in San Diego.[iv] Furthermore, advances in the scientific areas of genomics and stem cell research have found ways to postpone death.

Numerous San Diego organizations are involved with these studies to extend life and help prolong the inevitable. With our denial of death, could we be moving towards its elimination?


[i] http://www.crl.edu/focus/article/8246
[ii] https://sandiegohistory.org/journal/1982/october/cemeteries/
[iii] http://nmfh.org/exhibits/permanent-exhibits/19th-century-mourning
[iv] http://www.tridentsociety.com/san-diego-cremation-trends

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The Research Archive and Photo Department will be closed on Friday June 15, 2018

The Research Archive and Photo Department will be closed on Friday June 15, 2018 for staff professional development and project curation. We will return to regular hours next week.