Barrie Lynn, a board member on the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation, has a full agenda this coming week as part of her efforts to save this heritage site in Reno, with a new looming date of September 30th, when the current owners, Sierra Memorial Gardens, now threaten to start disinterring buried bodies.
A Busy Schedule
There’s a County Commission meeting on Tuesday, a Reno city council meeting on Wednesday, a blessing ceremony at the cemetery on Saturday, and a community meeting at the Washoe County Library on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Lynn is also using social media to help circulate two petitions, as she feels a heavy responsibility.
'A Poor Reflection on Reno'
“The financial gain of just a few people has been placed at a higher level of importance than the dignity and respect of the very people who founded the city we have,” she explains.
“I think it’s really a poor reflection on our community nobody in office has stepped up to say ‘even though we don’t technically have control over this, maybe this is wrong, maybe we should slow this down’. I think it really reflects poorly on us as a community. If this disinterment does happen, future generations will look back on this and say ‘these people had no soul. They destroyed an important historical site, and for what? Some apartments?’”
What Restoration Project?
Sierra Memorial Gardens say their plan is a restoration project. A notice posted outside the cemetery in late August says the plan is to take bodies from the wide expanse overlooking downtown Reno into a tiny, already packed, area on one of its current extremities. Lynn isn’t buying the terminology used.
“They are calling this a restoration project,” she says. “This is anything but a restoration project. This is an attempt to gain control over a piece of prime real estate for profit. This is a lucrative real estate deal. It’s very distasteful.”
Then, she points to the area where the whole cemetery is supposed to go into. “It’s already full. That’s where they want to put everyone. There simply is not room. They want to consolidate everyone over there. And then they claim ‘oh well, then we are going to maintain that.'”
If the plan were to go ahead, Lynn says it would be devastating, and also potentially hazardous. One of the prominent grave monuments inside is for Warren Gould, who his family has said was documented to have died of anthrax after working on a diseased cow.
“Those spores live for hundreds of years. These people were buried in wooden coffins. When they’re dug up it’s going to be dust. The anthrax spores could still be in the dirt, but no one seems to be concerned about that at the county level. I don’t think the neighborhood has been informed about the potential risk.”
Lynn says she is still confident many legal boxes remain unchecked for the disinterment to start at the end of this month.
“They do have to get permission from the local Paiute tribe as there are Paiutes buried here including Chief Johnson Sides. Paiute Nation needs to approve, even if it’s on private land, and they will not give their consent. "
Per state law, Lynn says, owners are also supposed to give a one-year notice before starting disinterment, but signs posted at the cemetery are only giving a one-month notice.
There’s also the strange situation that even though Sierra Memorial Gardens may own the common areas of the cemetery, they don’t actually own the individual burial plots, and the families of those buried there, at least those known to Lynn, have not been personally notified.
Who is Being Notified Exactly?
“I think the county needs to work with the assessor’s office to come up with some sort of an ancestry affidavit to help the people say ‘this is my ancestor, here’s how I’m related to them, here’s an address for noticing,’" Lynn says.
"Right now, the mailing address listed with the county assessor for many of these plots is actually Sierra Memorial Gardens’ address. So if they were notifying the families via mailings, they would be sending mail to their own office. So there are a lot of issues.”
Lynn wants county officials to start overseeing a process she says needs to be transparent and to offer public discussions, especially for health concerns. “They need to require Sierra Memorial Gardens to inform the community of what they intend to do, and they need to let the community know before they begin digging up bodies that there is documented anthrax and other communicable diseases among those buried here. If people would like to protect themselves, they should be able to.”
“This whole road was open up until last week. They could have fenced it to protect it from vandals, but now they’ve fenced it to protect it from the people who want to protect the cemetery. It’s really unfortunate. All of this fence was torn open, up until recently. They had twenty years to fix it to keep the vandals out. Now, they fixed it to keep the people who are trying to protect the cemetery out. It’s disgusting.”
Multiple Owners, Volunteer Caretakers
In past decades, the city of Reno owned the cemetery, and at another point it was UNR in control, but both times there was community opposition and descendant outrage against any attempt to convert it into housing.
Fraternities Returning Markers
It was also once a rite of passage for fraternities and rowdy college students who would steal gravestones, party inside and drive through. Some markers and stones have since been returned.
Diligent volunteers and families of the buried have also maintained the site throughout the years, and even though the grass is dry, due to a lack of water, many parts of the cemetery are clean and tranquil.
Parking Over Bodies
Parts of what was once a larger cemetery have already been converted into a parking lot, including where the poor and some veterans were buried in what is called Potter’s Field.
“These are the people who didn’t have the money for a proper burial, so the county buried them. Most of them had wooden grave markers which are all gone. Through research and cemetery records, dedicated volunteers found their identities, and the approximate location of where they are buried and the original boundary of the cemetery. But it’s really just poor reflection on this community that we knowingly have a graveyard here that has veterans in it and we are parking on top of their graves.”
A Battle At the Legislative Level
Underpinning the new notice is a question over state laws and the definition of blight. The owners had a law passed in the state legislature in 2001, NRS 451.070, which opened the way for the current plan, but Lynn says their failure to pass other laws relating to the ownership of the privately owned burial plots makes it incomplete.
“Basically, they got this law passed that gives them a unilateral right to trespass on someone else’s property and steal a body. These individual burial plots don’t belong to them,” Lynn says.
“This law is unconstitutional. Once they’re done with this process, if they ever get to it, which I don’t think they will, they still have an issue in that they can’t develop this cemetery land until they gain ownership of each individual plot. The process they are going to have to take to get each individual plot, there’s going to be some holdouts, there’s never going to be enough families saying yes I’ll sell my plot so they can develop this. So we’ll have a site that can never be developed. If you think this is blight, that will be worse.”
Can the Law Be Amended?
Lynn would like some consideration at the state legislative level to amend this law, but not the way Sierra Memorial Gardens wants it.
“There needs to be something added to it so that it is not so unilateral, maybe an oversight committee needs to be created. Blight needs to be proven. We need to see here is the definition of blight, here are the conditions under which something is considered blighted. This is not blighted. This is just a desert cemetery without water. It has clearly delineated paths. It has clearly delineated markers."
Lynn wants Reno to emulate other cities who have taken similar cemeteries and turned them into respectful celebrations of an important history.
Turning the Cemetery Into a Public Site
It’s believed bodies were buried here from the 1860s to the 1950s. Lynn says it wouldn’t be difficult to turn the current privately-owned cemetery into a public site that would add to Reno’s foundation going forward.
“We can turn it into an interpretive space, like a public park, and that’s really the destiny of this site, that there is our non-profit group, the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation that is prepared to purchase this cemetery and raise funds to maintain it, and return water to it, to improve the roads, and install markers to explain who these people are, buried here."
Will Apartments Be Built On Top of Graves?
"This has the potential to be an educational site, a heritage site. It has the potential to be something that is going to contribute to the fabric of our community so much more than just some apartments. This is really something that cannot be replaced. If they do go ahead with disinterment, not knowing where every single person is buried, it is impossible to get them all, so they will end up building on top of graves.”