Strolling in the Garden of Tigers and Fried Rice

At the 97-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery, you can commune with the city’s heritage. Sometimes it communes right back at you.

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OK. Cemeteries are usually quiet; I get that. But it’s weirdly quiet when we round a row of graves in Las Vegas’ Woodlawn Cemetery and see the spread: more than 30 headstones topped with open, full bottles of water and an apple or an orange. Some even have little half-burned candles melted down their marble faces, and three graves have half-eaten plates of Panda Express, full bowls of chewy candy and a fortune cookie perched on them. It’s the middle of the day. Very few flies have gathered—the food is fresh-ish— which is triply disturbing, because it’s so quiet. Too quiet.

Historian Joe Thomson and I look at each other, pretending we’re not unsettled. But I crack. It’s freaking spooky. Maybe it’s the meticulousness with which it’s all been set up under the still shade trees. Or the sheer size of the spread. Or maybe it’s the loud presence of absence: Somehow I feel like someone’s watching us, but there’s no one around. We furl our eyebrows and tiptoe among the festooned graves with a keen mix of respect, fear, curiosity, October. But if we are a tad confounded by this scene, we are genuinely jarred by the next: a hole in a grave. The double-size, fried-rice-topped headstone on the side-by-side resting place of a deceased couple has begun to sink into the too-soft ground, creating a dark crevice about a foot long where the lawn gives way to stone. Thomson takes his camera from his backpack and snaps a few pics for his records. We say nothing. We should probably walk on. But the thing is, there’s something in there.

We lean our heads down, slowly, carefully, to get a better look into the hole … because how could we not? I see something orange inside. And furry. WTF? A fly buzzes off the fried rice and into my forehead. I recoil. Thomson squints through his glasses and gets closer. I stretch my neck from where I’m standing over here, thank you very much. The object appears to be a plush toy tiger. In a hole. On a grave. Topped with an apple.

Because we figure that the entire area is the subject of an offering in accordance with someone’s spiritual beliefs, and we are loathe to mess with whichever gods are watching, we leave everything alone and walk on. “Don’t you want a fortune cookie, though?” asks Thomson.

Later, we will find out that food, water and stuffed animals are the tamest of the offerings that are periodically found at Historic Woodlawn Cemetery on north Las Vegas Boulevard North between Foremaster and Owens. Dead animals have been left on graves. Live animals have been thrown from moving cars—three of whom, big chickens, now trot around the cemetery like it’s a farm and come when called by the sales staff.

• • •

It’s old. The whole scene, from the faded lawn to so many shades of gray—headstones, pavement, grief—feels somewhere between stately and decrepit. Established in 1914, Woodlawn is listed on the National Historic Registry because beneath its uneven grass and clover patches lie thousands of Las Vegans whose stories built the city. It’s the city’s most complete representation of its pioneers’ diverse mix of race, religion and occupation—a map of mining speculators, railroad workers, farmers, builders, soldiers, gamblers, guys who got hit by trains or died from rotting teeth.

It’s the resting place for many members of Las Vegas’ lauded pioneer families: the Tomiyasus, who were farmers; the Wengerts, who were primarily railroad workers and bankers; the Von Tobels, who started a lumber company. Gunslinger Jack “Diamondfield” Davis, an early miner who struck it rich just before being hit and killed by a taxi cab in 1949, is buried here. Gambler Nick “The Greek” Dandolos—who won and lost more than $500 million in a lifetime and died penniless in 1966—is here. As is the civil engineer who designed the cemetery and most of the major engineering projects in the Las Vegas townsite, J.T. McWilliams (1863-1941). Additionally, there are Civil War veterans and entertainers, plus Sheriff Sam Gay (1860-1932), Mayor Fred Hesse (1872-1941) and Ernie May (1895-1933), believed to be the first cop who was shot and killed in Las Vegas.

But history is woven into present-day loss here; there are funerals every week. New graves are sometimes dug on the east side of the 40-acre property, or in rows that have been added between plots that were dug in the 1930s.

Also buried here, three deep in unmarked graves, are thousands of indigent Las Vegans, and nearly 100 neglected or indigent babies in a section assigned specifically to children. The first person to be buried here directly after death (some bodies were moved from other cemeteries) was James C. Conway, a resident of Searchlight. Conway met his death in 1915 from an infected tooth, for which he had sought treatment at the Las Vegas Hospital. Woodlawn is the oldest surviving cemetery, but there were others before it, with stories of their own. Las Vegas Cemetery was established nearby in 1910, but failed when the undertaker was arrested for taking a stillborn baby home to perform experiments on it rather than bury it in the cemetery.

Thomson, vice president of the Preservation Association of Clark County and author of the paper that nominated Woodlawn to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, told me these stories as we walked through the grounds. At first, the site seemed pastoral to me, but the farther we walked, the more I understood that the business of buried bodies is not always so serene.

• • •

In July, KTNV Channel 13 reported that 91-year-old Doris Ray went to visit her son’s grave at the city’s only public cemetery, as she did every week, but this time she couldn’t find it. There was only dirt where the flat grave marker and grass had been. In a panic, she called her daughter-in-law to the cemetery. Officials said that a sprinkler had flooded the area and covered the grave markers in mud—but that they were still there. The mud was cleaned up.

As we strolled, Thomson and I saw two sprinklers raining onto the road rather than the grass, and several gravesites where the water had pooled and shifted the earth beneath the markers enough to create cracks. Overgrown bushes completely covered the names and dates on dozens of other headstones, and damaged markers were plentiful. Some had been scratched up by vandals, some had ornamentation broken off, and some were tipped over entirely. Thomson lifted one heavy marker back into place.

The city of Las Vegas owns Woodlawn and is ultimately responsible for its care. It leases the cemetery to Bunkers Mortuaries, Cemeteries & Crematory—whose parent company is Carriage Services—for $50,000 a year in exchange for maintenance. Carriage sells the plots and provides burial services, and is charged with keeping plots affordable, starting at about $1,300. This summer, Carriage contracted with a third-party landscape maintenance company, ValleyCrest, for groundskeeping. “There has been some lag in getting that ramped up,” says James L. Mullikin, Bunkers’ managing partner.

Older concrete markers are prone to crack, Mullikin says. Moreover, if a marker is damaged by something other than a landscape mower, it’s not always clear who has the right or duty to fix it, he says. Interment rights belong to the heirs, who may not want Carriage to alter a stone without consent. And when a cemetery’s so old, it’s often difficult to track down heirs. “Of course, if [the headstone] is falling over or presents a hazard,” Mullikin says, “we’ll take it upon ourselves to fix it.”

Meanwhile, the irrigation system is in disrepair, and water bills have reached $30,000 per month. The contract calls for the city to pay for the first $50,000 of water per year; Carriage pays for the next $50,000, and bills after that are split. Carriage has been working with the city to repair a damaged pump, Mullikin says, but with hundreds of sprinklers in the cemetery, it’s not uncommon for a broken one to stay that way for a while.

Ironically, Woodlawn was one of the first places where a well was drilled in the Valley, in 1916. That well has been capped, but it remains visible on the property near the sales office, which is a former caretaker’s home, built in 1915 for $574.

Vandals have hit the cemetery frequently over the years. This may be attributed in part to Woodlawn’s location between the homeless corridor and a high school, Mullikin says. Tents full of homeless people dot the nearby blocks, and on several visits I encountered the homeless leaning against headstones or sleeping under trees. Many ornate memorial sculptures have been stolen, Thomson says. While we walked the grounds, he looked unsuccessfully for one of the Catholic angels that used to be here. The site is fenced, but Carriage has chosen to stop locking the gates—even at night.

“Sometimes locking it creates more of a hazard,” Mullikin says. “If an individual wants in, they’ll get in. [If you lock the gates] you run into the problem of locking someone in if they’re visiting at night. And when someone is trapped in there, you’ve created a large problem.”

• • •

Shortly after Thomson and I creep away from the large block of apple-and-water-bottle-festooned graves, we see a group of teenagers walking through the cemetery, laughing, talking, unfazed by their surroundings. They pass the grave of the civil engineer who cut a townsite out of a vast desert. They pass the graves of city pioneers—the ones who stayed long enough to build something here and the ones who got caught here by a bullet or a toothache. The teens don’t see the area with the fruit and water and Panda Express offering, the mark of a city whose multicultural past continues. The town started with speculators—miners, people who’d headed west to find something better than what they had. At the turn of the 20th century, the earliest of those speculators who died were shipped back home for burial. There was no proper place to bury anyone here yet and, more importantly, there was no sense that this Valley was a place that you stayed, dead or alive. It was a place to stop on the way to your fortune, not to set up a home. It’s something Las Vegas has always struggled with.

Two years after the McWilliams’ townsite was incorporated in 1905, the Las Vegas Age published a list of items that a new city should have: healthy water; fire and police services; a standard for punishing criminals; clean, well-lighted and numbered streets; and “a cemetery and other necessities to civilization.” You see it here, in the etched names; you feel it in the stories—a civilization, one worth preserving and treating with exemplary care. “Woodlawn Cemetery is the foremost representation of a community that has grown to become one of the most successful cities founded in the 20th century,” Thomson wrote when he nominated Woodlawn for the National Register of Historic Places. “There are individuals of great significance represented within the grounds.” But Woodlawn’s deeper significance, he wrote, lay with the hundreds of unsung Las Vegans who built the city and its story: “A full representation of the diversity and complexity of the community does not exist in any other physical form.”

We watch the teenagers weave through the headstones, breezing through their heritage.