This cemetery is in Crescent City, California, wayyyy up on the North Coast of our state. It’s beautiful and wild up here. The sea has battered this town for centuries now, graveyard included. It’s sun and salt bleached, but a massive tangle of swamp lies just behind it. The oldest parts are in a beautiful state of decay. The graves date back to the 1880’s.

It’s divided up into several smaller units – St. Joseph’s Catholic, Masonic, IOOF, and Veterans’ burial grounds. Two of the burial grounds are dedicated to fraternal societies. If you’re a fellow weirdo, you’ve definitely seen the Independent Order of Odd Fellows at old graveyards. This is because the IOOF was started as a benevolent society. Before the New Deal in America, there were few social programs to help widows and orphans. That meant that if the breadwinner died, many went into poverty. Mutual aid societies like the IOOF functioned like an insurer: members’ wives and children would be assisted when they died, and the society would provide burial services.

A young boy stands on front of a large stone grave monument – the monument is twice the height of the small boy
An etching depicting a man laying in a bed speaking to a somber man, surrounded by children being consoled, with a woman attending behind, and two men weeping on the outside of the scene. The text reads, "The Odd Fellows started as a way to care for their memebers in a time when there were no systems in place to insure one's welfare, health or job protection. Back in the early days, insurance companies and government programs that provided sick and death benefits did not actually exist. Sickness or death of a breadwinner frequently meant poverty and the responsbility of burial depended on the family. During the 19th century, life insurance was available only to the wealthy and beyond the financial ability of the average working class. For these reasons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows took on the responsibilities of visiting the sick, bury the dead, educating the orphans and caring for the widows as a way to support widows, orphans and families in need.

Masonic Burial Ground

The Freemasons are also a fraternal society, but they are more of a social group than a benevolent society. The Masons began as a builders’ guild for cathedrals in Europe, but when their membership slowed, they began to admit “honorary” members. The current iteration of the Freemasons doesn’t really have anything to do with the building trade. Masons are the world’s largest society, and they have spawned newer versions like the Shriners. Are they the secret controllers of the universe??? IDK, but they also have a reputation for excluding basically anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant and having tons of founding father types among their ranks.

I wasn’t in the mood to go down the rabbit hole of Masonic conspiracy theories, but their section of the cemetery was pretty well cared for and houses a lot of prominent locals, which checks out with their reputation.

While I was here I noticed a tombstone convention that I hadn’t seen before – Older stones that are in disrepair have been cast into concrete slabs and laid flat on the ground.

A flat headstone. The inscription reads "In Memory of EDGAR M Son of John & Marion Miller, DIED Nov 11 1872, aged 9 Mos"
A tilting grave monument showing a pointed top, an etching of a floral bouquet, above large letters spelling out "Samuel." Any other marker information is lost or was never included.

Roeder’s Baby Cemetery

It’s called the “Roeder’s Baby Cemetery” which is ughhhhhhh. I’d never seen one of these before, but it makes sense – until fairly recently, infant mortality rate was high. My sister took me straight to this section because her husband’s grandmother is buried here. She lost her last child in childbirth, and she wanted to be buried with her rather than with her husband in another cemetery. I’m in full waterworks just THINKING about it, but it’s also beautiful and comforting to think of them reunited in death.

I did a little bit of research and it turns out that infant areas, sometimes called Baby Gardens or Babylands, aren’t that uncommon in North America. Infant mortality was much higher in the past, and the baby areas could hold a lot of tiny caskets.

In some cases, babies that died were whisked away from their mothers and buried with little or no ceremony, sometimes in unmarked plots and mass graves. It was thought that parents – especially mothers – needed to forget the loss and get pregnant as soon as possible to move on. In recent years, projects have started to restore the dignity to the little lost lives. Google “Babyland Texas” and “Mountain View Cemetery Infant Graves Area” to learn about efforts in Texas and Vancouver to honor them and help surviving parents heal.

A small rectangular stone marker, leaned up against the roots of a pine tree. The stone is inscribed "Roeder's Baby Cemetery"
9 metal grave markers set into the grass. The metal plates were customizable – they came with letters and numbers that could be arranged and popped into spaces cut into the metal (a low cost marker option for those who couldn't afford stone, or who couldn't commit more funds to an infant's grave)
Customizable grave markers – metal characters could be arranged and popped into the spaces in the plates to create a cheaper grave marker (vs cut stone)