Ascension Cemetery doesn’t look like a cemetery until you get inside.
For one thing, it’s small. When we think of cemeteries, we may think acres and acres of the white headstones, like at Arlington, or at least brass plates, such as at in the county.
Also it’s right there on Trabuco Road, the well-traveled byway for drivers avoiding I-5 and the toll roads. If we’re speeding, and we likely are, we might miss it.
The reason for its smallness may also surprise: economics.
Mike Wesner, director of cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, says Ascension shrunk before the founding of the local diocese in the mid-1970s.
Before that, it was part of the Los Angeles archdiocese, and the church sold portions when the land became more and more valuable for homebuilding, he says.
Cemeteries aren’t just for the dead, then, but also for the living. The “highest and best use”—the real estate development term that usually refers to something being built for money—means land on call for God might end up becoming our front lawns.
In the case of Ascension, that land became green space for your average suburban housing tract. Because of the parcel sales, the cemetery borders homes, with a brick wall between the two.
“We have a good relationship with the homeowners association,” Wesner says. “We try to stay in contact with them.”
This includes being mindful of noise when caring for cemetery property—mowing or tree trimming, for instance. Wesner says such concerns also came into play when Ascension added the mausoleum four years ago.
The cemetery staff met with homeowners during planning and construction, he says.
The green space is good for other activities as well. A memorial park in Santa Ana has a chapel on its grounds. It looks centrally cast from 11th-century England and is leased by church groups for services and is popular for weddings.
Philosophers meditate in cemeteries; poets have been known to write odes. Some people just jog.
Wesner says that because Ascension is small it gets fewer poets and philosophers; cars whizzing by on Trabuco and the dearth of members in such professions these days probably contribute as well.
But people do walk in Ascension, he says, and enjoy the solitude and silence.
And, of course, it is a cemetery.
Cemetery manager Kevin Haynes says there 15,000 in-ground burial spaces, and most in-ground spaces can accommodate two caskets or three cremation urns.
So the capacity is high, and only about 9,300 have been sold. "Sold" doesn’t mean used, because a common practice in cemeteries and funeral preparations is to buy space ahead of time.
“We offer families the opportunity to make all cemetery and funeral arrangements in advance,” Haynes says.
The Guardian Angel Mausoleum opened March 2007, with nearly 1,600 crypt, family estate and cremation niches. Most can keep at least two interments, so the capacity is 3,400. About 500 have been sold.
With about 250 interments a year, even a small cemetery such as Ascension can go some time before needing more land—which isn’t available anyway, other than an Ascension-owned parcel that hasn't been developed at the north end of the cemetery.
It’s not just a cemetery, either—it’s a very Roman Catholic one.
Confreres from are buried there, for instance.
But walking even a few moments among the grave sites shows how universal Ascension is. Scelzo Carbonara died the year I was born. Salvatore and Frances Cortese are buried here. Italy contributes many sons and daughters to Ascension.
As do many areas around the world: Eastern Europe, the Catholic West, Latin America, and even Southeast Asia, which was Catholic before it was communist.
Podlaski, Slavinski, Koneski, Kosak, Byrne, Ryan, Dunn and Dunne, Keenan, Terrazas, Pham … both Tiên and Thiên families have departed ones here.
Even Epstein and Sholseth are welcome here.
There is someone first-named Xiomar, something we don’t see much ever, let alone anymore.
Markers tell stories:
- A couple born in the 1800s, who lived deeply into their eighth decades.
- A plot with three markers: a son dead at 17, the parents as yet unburied.
- Plots where a spouse has been dead for decades and the other is still alive.
- A mother who died at 28, leaving husband, children, parents and all.
The military's represented, too. There's a brigadier general, a major (male) who served in Korea and a 2nd lieutenant (female) from World War II.
A large statue of Christ, promising rest for the weary, watches over them all.