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Care and Understanding
 421 Berry St, Roseville, CA  95678
 Phone: (916) 783-3131

Keeper of the Past

[Roseville Press-Tribune, 4-1-2002]

For two decades Rich Johnson has walked among the dead. There are more than 10,000 gravesites at the Roseville District Cemetery. A 38-year-old Roseville native, Johnson has opened and closed more than 3,500 of them.

Johnson has been at his job 20 years, first as a seasonal helper, then assistant superintendent, superintendent, and now maintenance supervisor. To him, a walk through the cemetery is a walk through Roseville’s history. But his job keeps him too busy to dwell on history. “After 20 years you don’t think about it much anymore,” he said. “Occasionally I’ll reminisce about the past as I walk past a headstone.”

Johnson chose the position of maintenance supervisor when the district board of directors hired current Superintendent Linda Roberts in 1998. Johnson had worked under three former superintendents and was serving as superintendent but wanted to return to the outdoors where he felt he was needed most. “He’s a walking computer,” Roberts said. “He knows where everyone is buried. He takes very good care of the people who are buried here. That takes a very special person.”

In addition to opening and closing the grave and preparing the site for a burial, Johnson and his crew of give maintenance people aerate, mow, trim the shrubs and trees, and reseed the grounds. There are more than 1,400 trees and hundreds of rose bushes on the grounds. As the sound of the cemetery’s chimes fill the early morning air, Johnson makes his rounds to assess the work to be done that day. When he returns to the office, he writes out the work list and assigns the jobs.

The cemetery conducts about 200 burials a year. The most burials occur during the hottest part of the summer and around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Johnson said. The 20 acres currently developed contain 16,304 burial sites and 567 cremation niches for above-ground burial. Of those, approximately 1,800 burial sites and 282 cremation niches remain. Approximately 2,800 burial sites have been sold but not used at present. Another 1,400 plots are taken up by trees or are unusable because of space.

“With the growth of Roseville, we’re selling a lot more plots,” Johnson said. In order to maintain the city’s growth pattern, the district recently purchased an additional 20 acres at the Berry Street site, boosting undeveloped land for future use to approximately 31 acres. That acreage will provide room for a considerable number of potential burial sites. However, cremation burials have been increasing in popularity and take up less land. As a result, the district has opened a new area for cremations that will accommodate four to a 3-foot by 7-foot plot.

The district also maintains Union Cemetery at the corner of PFE Road and Watt Avenue. That cemetery contains approximately 400 gravesites out of a potential 2,000. Only 236 sites are used.

Johnson is the son of the late David Bruce Johnson, who served as a Placer County deputy. His grandfather, David R. Johnson, operated the privately owned Johnson Pool on Vernon Street until it was purchased by the city of Roseville in the 1970s.

Johnson said he plans to be around the cemetery another 20 years. Johnson has gone through many changes in Roseville Cemetery, including trends in headstones. At one time, no new upright monuments were allowed. All had to be flat or ground-level slabs of granite, bronze, or marble. He said earlier headstones were a lot more elaborate. “The trend is more back to the ornate, upright monument,” Johnson said.

“Cemeteries have their trends just like anything else.” Some of the newer headstones are very interesting. One has the entire family genealogy engraved on the monument.” Most of the ornate and large upright monuments are located in older sections of the cemetery. No gravesites in those sections are left. “Certain areas in the new parts of the cemetery will accommodate upright monuments,” Johnson said. “Flat monuments are allowed in all areas of the cemetery.” Burial plots are either 3 feet by 8 feet or 3½ feet by 10 feet. Flat or ground-level markers are allowed on the smaller plots. Upright monuments are allowed on the larger plots.

The district at one time had a “Potter’s Field” for the burial of people without families, indigents, transients, and people who could not afford a burial site. The county picks up the burial tab. “Those people are people too,” Johnson said. “Today we bury them along with the rest of the population.”

Machines now do the hard digging that Johnson used to do by hand. “We haven’t dug a grave by hand since the early 1970s.” Johnson said. After preparing a grave opening, Johnson and his crew will set up the chairs, spread the Astroturf, sweep off the headstone, place the flowers and fulfill any special request the family might have for the burial site. Following a funeral, they remove everything from the burial site, fill it in, and prepare for the next burial. Care of the grounds also has changed. “They used to burn off the weeds and tall grass,” Johnson said. “I remember living on Mariposa and seeing the smoke as it bellowed out over the cemetery. Today everything is mowed.”