Amid drought, how do LA cemeteries save grass from turning brown?


Southern California’s drought restrictions have turned the grass brown at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

Three years ago, Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery on the border of Carson and Compton boasted 45 acres of vibrant green lawn. Today a serene stroll there is interrupted by the sound of crunching footsteps on dead, brown grass.

“You wouldn't want to have your mother buried here,” says cemetery manager John Michael Mintz. “If you'd asked me 10 years ago, ‘Would you bury somebody here?’ ‘Well yeah, this is a beautiful place.’ But it's gone to seed.”

The new drought rules mean Southern California’s grass only gets watered for a few minutes once or twice per week. That’s not enough to keep it alive and green. And most cemeteries have not been spared.

Mintz has been the manager at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery for 24 years. He says starting June 1, his water allotment has dropped from three days per week to two, each with 20 minutes of water. The cemetery can’t afford to put in a sprinkler system, so Mintz just hand waters when and where he can.

The result: a few square feet of green here and there amongst brown hills. And Mintz says visiting families are upset about it.

“As a matter of fact, people have gone to the Department of Consumer Affairs complaining that the cemetery is dry,” he says. “It’s worse for the Allen family. [They] come out here every week and see their son that’s buried here.”

Without a sprinkler system, most of the grass at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery doesn’t get watered during the allotted 20 minutes twice per week. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

If a cemetery can afford it, they can avoid water restrictions by getting their water from other, less-restricted, sources. That’s why thousands of gravestones at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, the largest single cemetery in LA County, are surrounded by hundreds of acres of bright green lawn.

Rose Hills cemetery waters its lawns with recycled water, which doesn’t have the same drought restrictions as tap water. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

“We can’t let this place turn brown,” says Bruce Lazenby, who’s in charge of business development there. “People want to come here. They come here to visit their loved ones, do memories [sic] or just to be comforted. So I think the park-like environment is what they expect.” 

Rose Hills is lucky enough to share a border with the LA County Sanitation District, which happens to operate one of the world’s largest wastewater recycling programs. And you can dump as much wastewater on your grass as you want. No limits. Lazenby says Rose Hills is one of their biggest customers.

“We shared a tank with them. They brought recycled water. And … five or six years ago, we went 100%, the entire property, all 700 acres or so of lawn, is all irrigated and landscape with recycled water,” he says. “Even our water feature, Sycamore Lake, is recycled water.”

The lake at Rose Hills Memorial Park is filled with recycled water from the tank on the hill. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

In fact, Rose Hills cemetery has so much recycled water, they’re expanding the lawns to make room for more graves.

“Without recycled water, we wouldn't have the same confidence level in our development,” says Lazenby. “We would be totally dependent upon our well water, which has a limit.”