Anita Gillis and El Campo Santo Cemetery

El Campo Santo Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in California and it’s surprisingly quiet given the number of tourists that pass by. Few actually enter the cemetery — most head for Old San Diego or one of the many Mexican restaurants that line the busy street.

This little cemetery is like something straight out of an episode of the Addams Family with a bit of cowboy movie blended in. Gothic revival wrought iron fences and simple white crosses mark the dusty red ground. Not much life can be found in the way of plants and flowers and those that exist are scrubby and rough.

The cemetery is hot… very very hot and a lone tree casts shade throughout the day.

The short stone wall that surrounds El Campo Santo isn’t the boundary, but rather circles a small portion of the original cemetery; there are more graves under the street and sidewalk. In 1993, officials used radar to determine exactly the location of bodies and added small plaques to mark their location. Urban legend has it that folks who park over any one of these graves later have difficulty starting their car or their car alarm goes off for no apparent reason.

The grave of Anita Gillis was the most fascinating to La Niña.

Anita Gillis

I remember the funeral procession of little Anita Gillis as it would across the Plaza on its way to the old church. The child lay in a tiny white coffin, which rested on a small white table. The cover was off, and the coffin and table were filled with flowers. Six little girls dressed in white with wreaths on their heads carried the table. The priest and two boys carrying crosses walked ahead, the mourners behind.

In early times, musicians playing the violin and accordion, and boys firing off firecrackers brought up the rear of the procession.

She was carried to the church. The coffin was placed under a small, white catafalque, draped in Spanish lace and surrounded by candles. A simple, solemn mass was said. She was carried to the old cemetery nearby and buried and a simple white wooden cross bearing her name etc was erected at the head of her grave.

Tales from California’s Oldest Town by Lilian Whaley

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