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Six feet under: Getting buried in Sonoma

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Burial glossary

Crypt –A space in a wall built to receive a casket, then sealed and covered with a plaque with an inscription about the deceased.

Columbarium - A free-standing octagon mausoleum that holds many funerary niches side-by-side.

Mausoleum – A mausoleum is an external free-standing building constructed as a monument enclosing the interment space or burial chamber of a deceased person or people.

Niche – Cremated remains are placed in an urn, which is then placed in a space in the mausoleum, called a cremation niche. The face of a niche may be personalized with emblems and flower vases and small objects and photographs can be kept in the niche.

Open and close – A grave opening-and-closing is a requirement for any mausoleum crypt entombment, in-ground burial or mausoleum cremation niche entombment. It is performed by the cemetery at the time of the service and the cost is not paid until the date of service.

Plot: A measured piece of land in a cemetery for which a family or an individual purchases interment rights. There are no longer any ground plot available at Mountain, Valley or Veterans Memorial cemeteries.

Like all other real estate, cemetery space is expensive and in short supply in Sonoma.

And the longer you wait to choose your final resting place, the fewer choices there are likely to be.

While cremation is on the rise, at least 40 percent of Americans still prefer to be buried rather than cremated each year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That’s a problem, because Sonoma has recently run out of in-ground casket burial space.

If you are still determined to be laid to rest in Sonoma, you will get to know Rita Gipson. She is the City’s go-to administrative person for information on Sonoma’s cemeteries.

The City of Sonoma owns, maintains and operates three active cemetery properties: Mountain Cemetery, Valley Cemetery and Veterans Cemetery.

As you stroll through the three sites checking out your options, you’ll see lots of familiar names, such as Sebastiani, McTaggart, Riboni, Ruggles, Dolcini, Bundschu and Mulas. Stately mausoleums memorialize these families’ prominence in the community.

Perhaps Sonoma’s most famous resting place is Mountain Cemetery on First Street West, north of the Plaza. The cemetery was originally allocated 60 acres of land at the base of Schocken Hill, overlooking the northern edge of town. The cemetery winds up the side of the mountain and is home to historical figures like Mariano Vallejo, Henry Ernest Boyes, Captain William Smith, Captain H.E. Boyes, George Fetters, Franklin Sears, John McCracken and two Donner Party survivors. A historic walking tour brochure of the cemetery is even available on the city website.

Mountain Cemetery developed over the years since the mid-19th century. The city currently has open space for cremation niches and it is the only one available with full burial crypts, above ground, available in its #11 mausoleum.

The small one-acre Veterans Cemetery was acquired in 1996 for the purpose of establishing a local dedicated cemetery for veterans. The City of Sonoma owns, maintains and operates this cemetery; it is not a national veterans cemetery.

The niches and small plots for urns in this cemetery are exclusively for veterans who have served their country and those wishing to be buried there must show honorable discharge papers. A spouse can be buried with the veteran, but no other family members (sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, etc.) can be interred.

A few blocks south, Valley Cemetery is a four-acre property located at 425 E. MacArthur St., between Oak Lane and Fourth Street East. Mariano Vallejo originally deeded the land for Valley Cemetery soon after the founding the Pueblo in 1835. It has niches and small plots for urns available.

On East Napa Street, Saint Francis Solano Cemetery was established in 1835 when Father Quijas, the Catholic Priest in charge of Saint Francis Solano Church at that time, received a land grant from Vallejo to be used as a cemetery. It was immediately fenced and consecrated and put to use, and it edges out Valley Cemetery as the oldest continuously used cemetery in Sonoma County.

St. Francis’s cemetery was administered by the parish until 1969, at which time its administration and control was transferred to the Diocese Department of Cemeteries. It is one of the four Diocesan Cemeteries. The other three are Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Santa Rosa, Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Petaluma and Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in St. Helena.

Burial glossary

Crypt –A space in a wall built to receive a casket, then sealed and covered with a plaque with an inscription about the deceased.

Columbarium - A free-standing octagon mausoleum that holds many funerary niches side-by-side.

Mausoleum – A mausoleum is an external free-standing building constructed as a monument enclosing the interment space or burial chamber of a deceased person or people.

Niche – Cremated remains are placed in an urn, which is then placed in a space in the mausoleum, called a cremation niche. The face of a niche may be personalized with emblems and flower vases and small objects and photographs can be kept in the niche.

Open and close – A grave opening-and-closing is a requirement for any mausoleum crypt entombment, in-ground burial or mausoleum cremation niche entombment. It is performed by the cemetery at the time of the service and the cost is not paid until the date of service.

Plot: A measured piece of land in a cemetery for which a family or an individual purchases interment rights. There are no longer any ground plot available at Mountain, Valley or Veterans Memorial cemeteries.

Individuals wishing for their final resting place at St. Francis do not have to be a parishioner. “Non-Catholic spouses, children and extended relatives are welcome as are Christians with a connection to the Catholic community,” said Angela Scheihing, associate director, Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Santa Rosa.

Although you may see in-ground casket burials taking place at St. Francis cemetery, all graves have been sold and the only traditional available casket space is in a crypt space. There are above and below ground options for cremated remains, including space in mausoleums and in a columbarium.

Regardless of religious affiliation, the Catholic Diocese offers families who have cremated remains at home or are considering scattering, a free committal of remains at its Peace Crypt in Santa Rosa.

While death is the ultimate uncomfortable topic, everyone we spoke with strongly recommends planning ahead. So how do you purchase a plot?

Interested residents should stop by and look at options in person and speak with Gipson or Scheihing. Unlike some towns, you do not need to be a Sonoma Valley resident to be buried here. And when you are ready to commit, the City office doesn’t take credit cards so bring cash or a check. And prices do vary depending on your eternal preference.

At Mountain Cemetery, singles niches in a mausoleum or a columbarium range from $2,500 to $3,000. A single in-ground cremation grave (think 12-inch by 12-inch) is $1,860 to $2,046. If you like the idea of your family resting alongside those famous old Sonoma homesteaders, families today also still have the option of purchasing the rights to build their own free-standing private mausoleum for multiple urns and/or crypts at Mountain Cemetery.

At Valley Cemetery, in-ground cremation graves are $1,860 to $2,046 and single niches in its columbarium range from $2,333 to $2,941.

In Veterans Memorial Park, in-ground cremation space is limited and costs around $3,200.

At all of the cemeteries, the “open and close” service is extra.

Gipson can provide a map of the available crypt and mausoleum space or she can arrange for a cemetery worker to show you around. Also popular these days is a digital tour of sorts, and you can search for the graves of your ancestors while you are scouting space.

At findagrave.com you can do a free search for a specific cemetery or search for a person’s name or both and find out where the person is buried and, in many cases, see a photo of the headstone. At Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma, for example, photos of 85 percent of all the gravestones have been catalogued and appear online.

According to the crowd-sourced website, its mission is to help people from all over the world work together to find, record and present final disposition information as a virtual cemetery experience.

You either wrote down “findagrave.com” or shuddered. The world is divided into those who are fascinated by cemeteries and those who cross the road to avoid walking past one.

It is the ultimate personal topic says Cathy Lanning, who runs administrative services for the City of Sonoma.

“Some people want to plan every last details of the burial,” she said. “Others never, ever want to even have that conversation. But the more preplanning that can be done, the easier it is on the family.”

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.