Reviving the cemetery at the SDC

Around 1,400 bodies sit in unmarked graves, with no memorial for family members.|

Volunteers and family members of former Sonoma Developmental Center patients have quietly worked behind the scenes to secure funding for a memorial honoring some 1,400 people buried in unmarked graves at the Eldrige cemetery.

The burial ground was established in 1892 and has fallen into disrepair, but on Sept. 14, state Sen. Bill Dodd announced the selection of a Sonoma County contractor to build a long-sought memorial wall inside the open space of the SDC property.

“I got to really know the family members and the folks in the Parent Hospital Association...and work with them on transitioning residents out,” said Ezrah Chaaban, Dodd’s chief of staff. “This is a continuation of that. How do we properly memorialize people who lived and died at the property and give that cemetery the respect that it deserves?”

Immortalizing the dead

The project will cost between $600,000-$700,000 and is expected to be completed next fall, Chaaban said. The memorial would be built across the street from the cemetery and provide an ADA-accessible walkway for visitors. The funding would also pay for restoration and maintenance of the Eldridge cemetery.

“We’ve had to go to the well three times in three different places to put together the money to make this happen,” Chaaban said. “So the last piece of that was then we had conversations with Department of General Services and got them to utilize some of their existing funding authority to augment that again.”

The effort to raise funds for a cemetery memorial began in 2018 when Dodd’s office secured an initial allocation of $150,000 from the Department of Developmental Services, the state agency that oversaw the SDC until it closed that same year.

The primary concern for project volunteers has always been obtaining enough funding for the full project, according to Christian Pease, a former employee of SDC who is involved in the memorial effort.

Dodd’s office helped to secure another $250,000 in appropriations for the cemetery memorial wall in July. This brought the total to $400,000 — still $200,000 away from the low-end goal for planning and construction costs.

Dodd’s office then spoke with the Department of General Services, which is managing redevelopment of the property for the state, to secure the final amount of funding needed to move forward with the project and honor the unnamed, Chaaban said.

“The memorial is about reinforcing dignity and respect for the people who were laid to rest here,” said Sen. Dodd in a Sept. 14 press release. “We owe it to them and their families to ensure their lives are remembered.”

Putting a name to a grave

For Pease, an important part of the memorial project has been mapping the site and identifying the patients from unmarked graves.

“They say there's two stories to why there are no markers left at the site,” Pease said. “One is that they wanted to take them down so they could maintain [the property] because they could drive a tractor through the gates and cut the grass.”

Pease said the other reason he was told there are so many unmarked grave is due to privacy concerns, “but that begs the question. Dead people have no privacy under the law.”

Pease hopes the funding will go toward a ground-penetrating radar to map the cemetery and finally put names to graves. He would like a full study of the site to be performed in partnership with Sonoma State University anthropology professor Alexis Boutin.

By mid-October, Chaaban said the contractor should have the necessary permits to break ground on the site.

“We've finally reached the point where we have all the funds, we have a contractor under contract to do this work and it’s something that’s going to come to fruition,” Chaaban said.

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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