Reno’s oldest cemetery is set to relocate its buried bodies in order to clear the land for potential development. The owner of Hillside Cemetery posted a notice earlier this month informing the public about the plans, a move that has triggered protest from community leaders and families of cemetery residents.
Hillside Cemetery sits on the western side of the University of Nevada, Reno campus, surrounded by fraternity houses and off-campus student housing.
The cemetery lacks a central water system and is covered with brown weeds and bushes.
Despite the cemetery’s run-down appearance, a group of community volunteers has been preserving and cleaning the cemetery for almost five years. The volunteers are organized by Fran Tryon, a retired music teacher who has researched many of the families and individuals buried in Hillside Cemetery and decided their bodies must be protected.
“I just think they are going about it wrong,” Tryon said. “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and what they’re doing right now is wrong. They caused the upheaval by putting up the signs and I think our community should be outraged.”
The volunteers recently formed a nonprofit organization in an attempt to preserve the history of the classic cemetery.
Tryon said the owners of Hillside Cemetery, Sierra Memorial Gardens, have not informed the families of people buried in the cemetery of their decision. She also said the families were disturbed after they saw the sign and do not want their relatives moved.
Sierra Memorial Gardens plans to move the bodies to the northern half of the cemetery in order to clear the southern half for potential development.
In 2001, a law passed in Nevada saying that a cemetery owner can declare the cemetery no longer “in accordance with the health, safety, comfort or welfare of the public” and that there is not enough funding to keep up the cemetery. The law passed at the request of Sierra Memorial Gardens’ lobbyists.
“The restoration of Hillside Cemetery will fulfill a vision that has been shared by the State of Nevada, institutions and individuals dating back
as early as the 1920s,” said Drew Lawton, owner of Sierra Memorial Gardens in a statement. “The restoration is under Nevada law and will be accomplished by archaeologists and other professionals and experts experienced in such relocation and restoration projects.”
UNR owned the cemetery before 1996 and had planned to build student housing on the land, but ran into legal and moral issues regarding removing the bodies from the ground. The university then sold the property in 1996 to the Lawton family, who own Sierra Memorial Gardens.
After the purchase, the family has since tried to disinter the bodies multiple times. Each time they were stopped by community advocates and family members.
“They’re calling it a restoration, and it is not a restoration,” Tryon said. “It is a dismantling because a restoration would bring the cemetery back to its original state.”
In 1868, where Hillside Cemetery stands now, stood Reno Cemetery where the first person buried was Menerva Morton, said Tryon. The last grave of the cemetery was dug in 1959.
Reno’s first settlers Plumb, Peckham, Marsh, and Mayberry were buried in the cemetery. Today those families have their names on popular streets in Reno and Sparks.
According to Tryon, the developer and owner of City View Terrace LLC offered to buy the cemetery land from Sierra Memorial Gardens last year.
“It bothers me that they are going to put the sale of this land in their own pockets. They are not going to share it with these families,” said Tryon.
Tryon believes the families of those buried in the plots of land on the cemetery own that land and City View Terrace LLC does not have the right to remove the bodies and take the land.
Over 1,400 people are buried in Hillside Cemetery. The southern side contains over 190 plots with potentially up to 18 bodies in each.
Activists and community members say it is not just a legal battle being fought between the families and Sierra Memorial Gardens, but a moral one.
The sign posted on the front gate of Hillside Cemetery says they plan to start disinterring the bodies by Sept. 30. Tryon hopes the community will step up to help protect this historical cemetery, as communities have protected the old Sacramento cemetery and the classic cemetery in Virginia City.
Tryon said Sierra Memorial Gardens has not been to any community meetings about the issue and has cancelled plans to meet with families and concerned volunteers.
“Somebody has to speak for the families, I will gladly be that person,” said Tryon.