For The Madera Tribune
Madera Cemetery District employees gather for a photo in front of the Veterans Memorial at Arbor Vitae Cemetery.
Madera cemeteries are being honored as runner-up to a very prestigious award.
“We are so excited at Madera Cemetery District,” said manager Belva Bare. “We are one of the three finalists for the American Cemetery of Excellence Award. I originally thought this was just the United States, but it seems that one of the contenders was in Chile. What an honor for Madera County!”
The other two cemeteries in contention for the A.C.E. Award were Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, and Parque del Recuerdo in Chile.
Madera Cemetery District has been named runner-up in the 2019 American Cemetery Excellence Award.
The story was featured in the American Cemetery and Cremation magazine for November.
Under the direction of its manager, the Madera Cemetery District is one of 258 public cemetery districts in the state. The district is comprised of five Madera county cemeteries.
Governed by an appointed board of trustees, the district’s boundaries encompass the majority of Madera county and include two cemeteries in Madera and one each in Oakhurst, North Fork and Raymond. Its directors serve four-year terms.
The present board of trustees is comprised of chairperson Lois Betty, vice chair David Nemeth and trustees Jim Harper, Candy Talley and Maurice Cappelluti.
Initially formed by the vote of local residents and property owners in 1945, two cemeteries were included in the original formation of the district. One formed in 1885 by the Ladies Social Aid Society of Madera-Fresno County is now known as the Arbor Vitae Cemetery (1301 Roberts Avenue).
The second cemetery formed in 1889 on land deeded to the district in 1946 by the Roman Catholic Monterey-Fresno Diocese. It is known as Calvary Cemetery (28447 Avenue 14).
In 1875, eight-month-old Frankie Nichols died in Fresno Flats. As there was no nearby cemetery, his father chose a beautiful site on an oak-covered hill and dug the first grave for his infant son. Now known as Oakhill Cemetery (40188 State Route 41) in Oakhurst. It has been under the umbrella of the district since 1955.
The Woodsmen of the World started a pioneer cemetery in Raymond in 1905. It was incorporated into Madera County in 1928 and the Raymond Cemetery on Road 607 in Raymond became part of the district in 1953.
In North Fork, the U.S. Forest Service issued a land-use permit for a 30-acre cemetery site in 1910. In 1957 upon the request of the North Fork community and the U. S. Forest Service, the North Fork Cemetery, 32823 Road 228, North Fork, was added to the Madera Cemetery District.
“The history of Madera Cemetery District dates back 75 years,” said Bare, “Throughout its history, our past and present boards of trustees, along with prior district managers Alan Brown, Wanda Kight and Barbara Manfredo’s vision is what has enhanced Madera Cemetery District into what it is today.”
The Madera District is one of the largest public cemetery districts in California, providing a beautiful
final resting place for those qualifying district residents and their families, said Bare. Cemetery districts are separate local governments found mostly in rural areas or suburban areas that were once rural.
“We manage the five cemeteries for Madera County by providing a range of burial options and handle services in a caring compassionate manner with the intent to maintain, improve and historically preserve the grounds for the benefit of Madera County residents and their families,” Bare said.
The Madera Cemetery District is a public cemetery independent special district, which is sanctioned under California law to serve a common community of interest.
The district is funded through its interment fees and a portion of local property tax revenue. Generally, only residents, taxpayers, former residents, taxpayers and their families of the district may be buried in one of its cemeteries. It is one of the largest public cemetery districts in California, providing a beautiful final resting place for those qualifying district residents and their families, said Bare.
“There are a lot of rules and regulations that the state requires to keep everything on the straight and narrow,” Bare acknowledged, “but we work together as a team to do what is best for the families we serve.”
“As a guardian of family and community heritage, the Madera Cemetery District provides a beautifully landscaped living memorial, quality care and exemplary service in perpetuity where families come to honor and celebrate life,” said Bare.
While operated by the district, each of the cemeteries has its own distinct personality, Bare points out.
Arbor Vitae Cemetery’s oldest burial record is that of Elizabeth Mace, who died in 1864. Its 32-plus acres offer a mausoleum, ossuary, niches and ground urn burials. It is also home to a beautiful interment arbor area for use during services.
Calvary Cemetery is the district’s largest property, with 20 acres developed and 30 undeveloped acres. Located in Madera, beyond in-ground burials, it offers families a mausoleum and niche areas for both above ground and in-ground use.
Oakhill Cemetery may be the most well known of the district’s cemeteries. Located on Highway 41 in Oakhurst, it is a natural stopping place for visitors on their way to Yosemite National Park. Its seven developed acres and 11 undeveloped acres feature The Little Church on the Hill, a California Historical Point of Interest. While located within the cemetery, the Little Church has its own nine-member foundation board, which is raising money to fund a restoration of the building, which is used for weddings and christenings, as well as a meeting hall.
Located in North Fork, North Fork Cemetery features five developed acres and 27 undeveloped acres. Nestled in the pines, it offers families ground and niche burials.
The smallest of the five cemeteries, Raymond Cemetery is just five acres and features many family areas.
The task of keeping the cemeteries running is accomplished with 20 full-time employees, two-part time employees and four temporary employees who work during the spring and summer months.
Bare, who has worked for the district for 28 years, was appointed district manager in 2012. She credits the team for not just meeting, but exceeding expectations every day.
“Most of our employees have been here for a minimum of 10 years, and we have people who have worked here for 25 years, 32 years, 38 years,” she said. “The reason they have stayed, I believe, is because this is more than just a job. We are here to serve the public. Each person here means something, and we take care of them as if they are family.”
The district’s grounds are regularly recognized in the top five in the state of California for public cemeteries, Bare said.
“Our employees take a lot of pride in what they do,” she said. “They always want to do the best for the families.”
Some of that comes from the open door policy Bare has established.
“I want our employees to come in and talk about any ideas they may have,” she said. “Those ideas are then brought to our board of trustees for evaluation ... and in some cases, implemented.”
Teamwork is an integral part of the fabric of the Madera Cemetery District. The district hosts a variety of veterans and other patriotic services throughout the year.
In addition, the staff has been involved in a number of other community projects, from building planters for an organization that helps the disabled to building a playhouse and tables for a local mission in Madera to providing food bags and gift cards to families in need.
As a public cemetery, Bare said it’s not Madera Cemetery District’s goal to compete against the private cemeteries, but instead to offer families a peaceful and relaxing place, a place to grieve and to spend time with a loved one.
“Our goal is to preserve their beauty, dignity, historical and cultural values, and, at the same time, offer affordable interment services for county residents,” Bare said.