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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Final Resting Place, In Foreclosure

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif.--Plastic flowers bloom across the cracked, thirsty ground of a California cemetery, each fake blossom marking a grave.

Yellow roses – Milton S. Jackson, 1904-1991.

Pink roses – Arley R. (Hale) Jackson, 1906-2006.

Beneath their names on a shared marker, the words: "Married Aug, 10, 1924. I’ve fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith."

In some spots, rows of flowers mark a line of headstones with the same last name. The Presleys – from Stanley “Slim” Presley to Nellie Presley – rest in five plots, side by side. Roses follow calla lilies follow carnations.

Other graves sit alone. Pink Carnations – Winfred Lee Reeves, “Our little Boy.” August 11, 1963 to August 14, 1963.

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Look closely and cemeteries tell as much about the life of a community as they do about the deaths that occurred there. Headstones read like poems, revealing who lived in a place, for how long and how they were remembered once they were gone: Beloved mother, loving father, a good soldier. “Querido esposo,” reads one marker at the cemetery, revealing the community's proximity to the Mexican border. “Recuerdos de sus hermanos,” reads another.

Graveyards are among the last places one expects to find a foreclosure sign, and yet there it was, in big red letters at the entrance to Memory Gardens Cemetery and Memorial Park. "Cemetery in Foreclosure," the sign said, followed by the phone numbers of local officials.

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Life in Imperial Valley was fragile even before the recession, with financial struggles stretched far across this community, but now, it seems, the economic downturn has made even the dead here vulnerable.

When Michael and I walked into the cemetery's office, it was in ruins. The walls were ripped of their panels and the bathroom sink blackened by fire.

We found signs someone had been living there. A pair of Rustler jeans, size 38x34, lay on the ground next to a green duffel bag filled with matches, Band-Aids and bullets. Burnt pieces of wood jutted out of a metal trash can that had probably been used as a fireplace or stove. Empty food containers littered the floor.

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

We couldn't help but wonder: How bad must life get for someone to choose to live among the dead.

Red roses – Ed H. Siefker, 1893-1973. Father.

White and pink carnations – Nellie Mae Siefker, 1901-1966. Mother.

Sunflowers – Andy F. Siefker, 1931-2008. Beloved Son.

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  August 3, 2009; 9:48 AM ET
 
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Comments

Much like world hunger being more a political problem than a lack of food, a cemetery in foreclosure is more a sign of a crooked/inept manager than a recession.

Posted by: wolfcastle | August 3, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Imperial vally used to be green and lush growing food.
Next bread for $50.00 under Obama.

The Joker face Obama posters that say Socialism , and Mean Obama faced door mats that say NPD sociopath , tell it all out there don't they?

Posted by: dottydo | August 3, 2009 7:35 PM | Report abuse

These commentaries are incomplete stories. I kept scrolling down thinking that it was continued somewhere. Washington post has apparently been dummied down.

Posted by: Peg__Jo | August 3, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

My hometown. This cemetery has been in dire straights long before the economic downturn -- due largely to out of area owners and no laws that require an owner to maintain the condition of the cemetery (shocking to discover!). All this despite fervent and continued efforts to force the owners to do the right thing, which they never did. Wonderful friends and family are buried here, including Mr. & Mrs. Jackson mentioned above. Thank God we know that there is an eternal home that never decays for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior -- that's where I'll be, right along with the Jacksons and many others whose earthly bodies are buried in Memory Gardens.

Posted by: qualt | August 3, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

This is so sad.
I serve on the board of a small country cemetery developed from the 1880s, incorporated in 1941, when most of the men went off to war and the women decided they had to set up to hire help, as they were getting older.
I'm one of the "kids", the next generation, serving on the board.
My parents and grandparents are buried there; so are my husband's family.
There are "grandkids" coming behind us.
Every year, in the spring, we have solicited donations for our non-profit cemetery association, to get it to the point where it will have a nest egg and become perpetual care.
We're close to our target.
This year, we are building a small office to maintain records and develop employees to take care of mowing the cemetery and keeping it neat, to meeting new members, to cooperating with burials.
(Our old office has deteriorated.)
We're making plans for when we're too old to do the work anymore.
We are so fortunate, now that I see this story, which is not alone.
Recently, a public cemetery in Brooklyn was once again put up for auction.
The problem is, it's on highly valuable property; but in order to use that property, all the graves would have to be moved.
Many of the graves are the poorest of the poor; it's the pauper's cemetery for Queens (I think they said).
You ought to see the little Olive Cemetery near Kountze, Texas.
Olive was a sawmill town, now gone forever.
Every spring Boy Scouts from Kountze go about 3 miles north of the city, back into the woods near a highway, and clean up the Olive Cemetery.
Why?
Because people who are researching their families still arrive to ask directions to find their ancestors' graves in that little peaceful cemetery deep in the woods.
This country is dotted with cemetaries which still have relevance as a bridge from the past to the future.
When I was driving through New Mexico north of Santa Fe, I saw a sign and stopped in at the little church and the cemetery behind it.
There I found the grave of Billy the Kid, deceased sometime ago, in the 1880s, I think.
There were fresh flowers on his grave.
No matter who these people are, their gravesite continues to be worthy of some family somewhere, if they were aware.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | August 3, 2009 11:23 PM | Report abuse

My paternal grandparents are the Jacksons. The state of the cemetery was pitiful long before the recession hit. If you do the proper research, you'll find that the cemetery was poorly managed for decades, perhaps even since its beginning. A state law, signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, since has been signed to penalize owners of poorly managed cemeteries, but little has been done in this case. The law was brought about by the efforts of Linda Cooke, a local resident who has family buried in the cemetery and who has fought long and hard to see it improved. It wasn't so bad when my grandfather was buried. But my grandmother, who thrived until the age of 100, wanted to be beside him and it broke my heart to have her buried there. They both are in a much better place with their Lord. Local schoolchildren and other groups visit this place regularly to place the plastic flowers and clean the gravestones. It by no means is neglected or forgotten by the community. Only by the owners and the government.

Posted by: maggiejax | August 3, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

When I'm dead, burn me and scatter the ashes. Memories are all we need of those no longer here. The body's only a vessel.

Posted by: jimbo1949 | August 4, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

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