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A new Calif. public cemetery may set aside space for local firefighters, cops

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner has proposed using a 10-acre portion of a planned cemetery for first responders who have served for 10 or more years


Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner speaks during an announcement requesting the county set aside 10 acres of a planned public cemetery at Gypsum Canyon for police and firefighters who worked in OC.

Photo/Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG

Alicia Robinson
The Orange County Register

ANAHEIM HILLS, Calif. — The expansive Anaheim Hills site where Orange County officials hope to include a state veterans cemetery could also become home to a dedicated space to bury local law enforcement and firefighters.

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner is pitching the idea of using a 10-acre portion of a planned public cemetery – it would be separate but adjacent to the one for veterans – to offer spaces to first responders who have served for 10 or more years, with at least half of that time in Orange County; their spouses could also be buried there.

Wagner said if the proposal goes forward, he believes it will be among the first of its kind in the nation. While many cemeteries include memorials to police and firefighters, an internet search for dedicated first responder cemeteries yielded few results – though at least one, in a small town near Rochester, New York, features a plaza and monument honoring first responders surrounded by reserved grave sites, according to its website.

A first responders area in the new public cemetery would be something “we want to show the world, because we’re going to have it out on that spectacular site out in Gypsum Canyon,” Wagner said, referring to the 283-acre site near the 91 freeway and 241 toll road interchange that was given to the county in 2014.

Both the veterans cemetery and the public cemetery are likely several years from opening.

OC officials are waiting for state legislators to fund a study of the veterans side and potentially a first phase of construction.

The Orange County Cemetery District will pay for the public side, and it can’t come soon enough. District General Manager Tim Deutsch said among the county’s three public cemeteries, new spaces for casket burials are available at only one, El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest, and what’s left may only last about three years.

Sales of burial plots – which are cheaper at public cemeteries than private memorial parks – have ticked up over the past few years, Deutsch said, adding, “we’ve had quite a bit of people, who because of the pandemic, are doing preparation for the future.”

Of the Gypsum Canyon property, about 100 acres would be set aside for veterans, and about 80 acres would be used for the public cemetery. Deutsch said even subtracting 10 acres for first responders, there should still be plenty of room to serve Orange County’s dead for years to come.

The industry average is about 1,000 casket spaces per acre, so even with some of the property going to cremation spaces, Gypsum Canyon could hold tens of thousands of public plots, Deutsch said. By comparison, the existing three public cemeteries are a combined 70 acres, and they’ve lasted the county more than 150 years (the earliest, the Anaheim Cemetery, saw its first interment in 1867).

“We’re very fortunate to have this land,” Deutsch said of the Gypsum Canyon parcel.

At Wagner’s press conference, local first responders including Anaheim Fire Chief Pat Russell and Orange County Assistant Sheriff Andy Stephens said they welcomed the idea of a cemetery space dedicated to police and firefighters. Nick Berardino, a longtime champion of the veterans cemetery project, also expressed his support.

Afterward, Tustin Police Department Capt. Stephanie Nichols said she hasn’t yet made plans for where she’ll eventually be laid to rest, but she liked Wagner’s proposal.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to give back to (first responders) for the years of service that they’ve given us,” she said.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider whether to recommend the cemetery district set aside the 10 acres of the public cemetery for local police and firefighters and their spouses. Deutsch said if supervisors request it, the cemetery district’s board of trustees will likely take up the issue soon.

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