$2M project planned at Mesa City Cemetery The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

$2M project planned at Mesa City Cemetery

$2M project planned at Mesa City Cemetery
Mesa
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BY GARY NELSON
Tribune Contributor

Looks like Waylon Jennings is gonna be getting some new neighbors.

The country music legend, resting
in Mesa City Cemetery since he died in
2002 at his home in Chandler, will be joined over time by several thousand others by way of an approximately $2 million cemetery expansion.

Mesa, unlike some of its municipal neighbors, has been caring for its dead in this way for almost 130 years with a clientele whose long and varied history mirrors that of the world at large over the past tumultuous century-plus.

The cemetery falls under the supervision of Andrea Moore in the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department.

Moore had been serving as planning and operations administrator; she became the acting department director on Nov. 23     with the elevation of former director Marc Heirshberg to the city manager’s office.

Although Mesa runs the cemetery as a business operation, Moore said the venerable space on North Center Street also reflects the community’s heart.

“Mesa has had a town cemetery for a very long time,” she said. “I think it’s very important for people to be able to be laid to rest in the town they love. It’s always been a part of what Mesa has done.”

It has not been a universal practice in the East Valley, however.

Tempe’s experience most closely mirrors that of Mesa with its city-owned, pioneer-era Double Butte Cemetery at Broadway Road and Interstate 10. Chandler has no municipal cemetery.

Gilbert awarded Bunker Family Funerals and Cremation of Mesa a 99-year lease agreement to build and own the 22-acre cemetery on townland. Bunker Family Funerals will pay Gilbert rent on the land.

Mesa’s cemetery bears witness to the traumas of a city and a nation.

The present site has been in use since 1891. It actually is the city’s second cemetery. The first, in 1883, was necessitated when smallpox, a scourge of America’s frontier, killed 44 residents of the tiny desert community.

A generation later, the cemetery received those who had succumbed to the fearsome Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19.

There is a reminder of the Great Depression in a section dedicated to people buried in paupers’ graves without so much as a marker during the worst economic crash in modern history.

During World War II, Great Britain sent some 2,000 of its young men to Mesa’s Falcon Field for training as pilots and 23 of them died there. They and one American comrade also are buried in the city cemetery.

There are reminders of Mesa’s social history as well – notably, the grave of Lucius Alston, the city’s first black doctor.

He had offices in his home north of what is now University Drive, which served as the dividing line between white and minority neighborhoods during the days of segregation.

And now, without a doubt, the place will receive some who met their end during the COVID-19 epidemic that already has altered the trajectory of early 21st century history.

Along the way, the cemetery made room for an astonishing cross-section of humanity.

There are, as you would expect, the graves of those belonging to many of Mesa’s prominent founding families.

There is that of Zedo Ishikawa, a 17-year-old Mesa High School football player who died of an accidental gunshot in 1932.

“Tell coach to go ahead and play the game tomorrow,” the boy told his family as he lay dying. “Tell the boys to carry on.”

Those words – “Carry on” – are Mesa High’s motto to this day.

And there is the grave of Ernesto Miranda, perhaps Mesa’s least favorite son.

Born in Mesa in 1941, Miranda’s long criminal career ended in a knife fight in a Phoenix bar in 1976. His name is ensconced in America’s legal history as the result of a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bolstered the rights of criminal defendants.

As the roster of the dead grows longer, there is still demand for cemetery space, Moore said.

“It’s pretty steady. In terms of available space for people to purchase burial plots, we’re running very, very low.”

As a percentage of burials, she said, cremations seem to be on the increase, but many still choose the traditional method of burial.

The upcoming expansion will be the largest of several that have occurred in recent years, Moore said.

The expansion covers six undeveloped acres in the cemetery’s northwest corner. Work will include sodding, landscaping, access roads, benches and other amenities. It will include 3,800 burial plots and 1,500 in-ground vaults for cremation remains.

The city’s engineering department is looking for bids ranging from $1.8 million to $2.3 million.

City Council will be required to approve the contract, but taxpayers won’t foot the bill. The cemetery pays its own way through user fees.

After this expansion the cemetery will have one more large undeveloped tract in the southwest corner. Moore said there are no immediate plans for that land.

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