‘That’s All, Folks’

     Despite contracting a terminal illness at 50, Joseph Nordella kept a sense of humor until the end – and beyond.
     On his tombstone at the Cambria Community Cemetery, immediately under his name, an epitaph teases: “I told you I was sick.”
     For many people, a cemetery is literally the last place they want to spend time. But I find they offer glimpses into history, human drama and mortality.
     A frequent visitor to California cemeteries, I often look at a grave and wonder what stories the person six feet under could tell me.
     If you travel to the Sierras, you’ll find tiny cemeteries filled with people from France, Germany, England, Italy and Ireland. The Europeans planned to return to their homelands with bags of gold in the 1800s, but found their dreams thwarted by cholera, typhus, pneumonia and murder – frequent causes of death during the Gold Rush.
     Jacob Giddis, of New Jersey, was one of the many miners who failed to score the mother lode. But rather than die broke, he decided to make a living collecting as an agent for the Tuolumne County Water Company – a key supplier for gold miners. Apparently, Giddis had at least one enemy.
     According to his epitaph at the Columbia Cemetery, he was “murdered on or about the 28th day of June, 1861.”
     If there’s ever a “CSI: Gold Rush,” I nominate the still-unsolved mystery of Giddis, who was found floating in a reservoir, for the pilot episode.
     As much as our health care system needs work, cemetery visits show you how far we’ve come.
     At the old Parkfield Cemetery many of the dead are children who succumbed to a 19th Century diphtheria outbreak. Near the San Andreas Fault, there’s no sign at the entrance to this small cemetery, no grass and no noise, aside from the wind breezing through the pines.
     Standing in this Old West-style graveyard, you can imagine a once-constant sorrow here as you visit the graves of sisters Edith (7 months old) and Lottie May Jones (7 years old), who died three years apart in the 1890s. Next to them lies their father, who died three months before Lottie May, at 34. His wife outlived the entire family; she made it to 37.
     In the old days, reaching a ripe old age was quite an accomplishment.
     Of the 55 permanent guests at the Canet Family Cemetery in Morro Bay, 11 are babies.
     Often those tombstones give us clues that we can research later. The modest marker for August Wolf, at the rural Estrella Adobe Cemetery in Paso Robles, has an epitaph that proclaims “Lost at Sea.” According to the San Luis Obispo County Genealogical Society, he drowned in a 1931 fishing accident.
     A few yards away lies Thomas Rude, a Kentucky native the genealogical society tells us was dragged to death by his horse in 1882.
     Cemeteries remind us that death often arrives unannounced. One tombstone in Cambria features the names of four Japanese abalone divers who died in 1910. Doug Spelts, manager of Cambria Community Cemetery, told me the men lost the air supply to their diving helmets.
     Cemeteries aren’t all grim, though. Last summer several rockers gathered at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, to pay tribute to Johnny Ramone. In a remarkable cemetery where you can get close to entertainment giants Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Ramone’s tombstone – featuring a bust of the punker playing guitar – stands out.
     The best epitaph I saw there is from Mel Blanc, who bid us farewell with his Porky Pig catch phrase: “That’s all, folks.”
     Nordella, who died two years after Blanc, would have appreciated that. A tree trimmer for 23 years, his “I told you I was sick” was a last laugh.
     While it wasn’t his own material – you can find that epitaph nationwide – Nordella’s parting shot sheds light on what could be a dark place.
     There’s no better place than a cemetery to remind us that life is precious.

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