One feels an instant calm upon entering through the open, curving, wrought-iron gates at Alta Mesa Memorial Park. Perhaps it's the sound of the distant sprinkler -- or the cawing of the crows -- coupled with the dim engine hum of the mowers or the click-click of the groundskeepers' edgers.
Alta Mesa -- resting place of Palo Altans of yore -- is a place to slow down and smell the newly mown grass, while contemplating the fleeting nature of life and remembering the dead.
Located off busy Arastradero Road, just a block shy of Gunn High School and bounded by residential Palo Alto and Adobe Creek, Alta Mesa is a 72-acre private park with a purpose.
Incorporated more than 100 years ago, when about a dozen local businessmen chose the land because it was dry and elevated (Alta Mesa means "high ground"), with a view of Bay and valley, the cemetery was run for many years by their descendents.
The 71,000-plus interred at Alta Mesa surpassed Palo Alto's live population several years ago. Sprinkled throughout the cemetery are names from Palo Alto's past or other people of fame: Eichler, Parkinson, Peers, Boulware, and more recently, David and Lucile Packard, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and the parents of Amy Tan.
The most visited gravesite: Pigpen, aka Ronald McKernan (1945-1973), whose epitaph reads "Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead."
The cemetery's hand-written records go back to 1904, with the first recorded notation Margery J. Foster, who was buried on July 11. The book even notes her cause of death: arteriosclerosis and old age. She was 71.
Every night the written records go into a concrete vault to protect them, noted Marilyn Talbot, general manager and corporate secretary -- and the first non-family member to run the place. She said they are in the process of transferring at least the names and dates onto a computer.
Today, 51 acres are developed, with 21 acres left.
"This will last way over 100 years," Talbot added.
When Talbot arrived 27 years ago, there were more burials than cremations, but today the numbers run closer to 70 percent cremations, she said. She attributes the change to a higher consciousness of land conservation, especially since publication of Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death" in 1963.
"It got a lot of people thinking: Maybe there are better ways to memorialize people and a better use of land," she said.
The cemetery has been expanded over the years, both with added acreage and new mausoleums. Today, plans are underway to tear down the original building, which has been added onto a la Sarah Winchester over the years.
The new building will include a chapel that can seat up to 168 people (the only other chapel on site holds 60), as well as office space for helping more than one family at a time. The California-style building is working its way through the city's planning process.
When the new building is complete, Alta Mesa will become a mortuary, as well as a cemetery, Talbot said, offering full services all on one site. That reflects changes in the industry, with the major cemeteries in the area -- Oak Hill in San Jose, Skylawn and Cypress Lawn in Colma -- all incorporating mortuaries now.
About 900 funerals take place on weekdays each year, with most on Monday or Friday, Talbot said, but the cemetery is open every day for visitations.
Although there are occasional clusters of gravesites from a particular ethnicity or religion, the cemetery has always endorsed a nonsectarian policy: Monuments feature crosses, Jewish stars, hearts, Japanese and Chinese lettering. On a recent day, an urn filled with colorful flowers and a large helium balloon that said "Love ya!" graced the tomb of Humberto Tejeda, who died in 1994. Nearby were headstones with the names Tsuchiya, Kenney, Stenzler, Huang and Sepulveda.
The older part of Alta Mesa features many headstones and a few family crypts, but from the late 1950s through 1981 only flat markers were allowed in new sections, reinforcing the feel of a park.
"The bulk of the cemetery is flat," Talbot said, adding that monuments that take more land are restricted to designated areas. "Since I've been here, we've opened four monument sections. We do sell a lot of them," she added.
In addition to the grassy gravesites, the Circle of Oaks Columbarium offers sites for cremated remains, and several mausoleums offer above-ground space for both caskets and ashes. Benches are located within the mausoleums -- as well as amid some of the live and valley oaks outside.
In the olden days, one could reserve a gravesite (with perpetual care) for $25 for an adult, $15 for a child. Today's rates have evolved with the times, with "lots" ranging from $4,950 to $7,200 and a full funeral beginning at $7,352. Part of the price goes toward the endowment, now about $15 million, that ensures payment for upkeep of the site in perpetuity.
Although located off a busy street, and close to a high school, the cemetery is rarely bothered by acts of vandalism. Occasionally, someone will place something on the tall statue of the lady holding a cross, located near an old oak tree on the right as one enters, which had been a gift from Stanford University. Once, police tracked down graffiti artists, who quickly confessed and agreed to immediately paint over the marked-up wall, Talbot recalled.
But trimmed hedges, a wall around the perimeter and the respect of nearby residents and students keep the aura of calm at Alta Mesa, allowing all to visit in peace.