View of Ararat Armenian Cemetery, Fresno

US Armenian Cemetery Operations Impacted by COVID-19

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FRESNO — While Armenians sometimes are buried in Armenian sections of American cemeteries or in general cemetery sections, there are also four Armenian-owned cemeteries scattered in different parts of the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected their operations just like that of other cemeteries, though none are located in the worst hotspots of the country. The largest Armenian cemetery is also the one that has been the most impacted.

Fresno’s Ararat Armenian Cemetery Association

Fresno has the oldest and largest Armenian cemetery in the United States. While it is run by one organization, the Ararat Armenian Cemetery Association, it has two parts with different names stretching over an expanse of approximately 16 acres. The Ararat Armenian Cemetery was started in 1885. Over the years more land was purchased, and in 1969 a nearby 10-acre plot was turned into the Masis Ararat Armenian cemetery.

Wall of Masis Ararat Armenian Cemetery, Fresno

Among its most famous tombs are that of writer William Saroyan (containing half his ashes) and of Armenian avenger Soghomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Young Turk leader Talat Pasha, an organizer of the Armenian Genocide. General Antranig Ozanian was buried there in 1927, though his remains later were transferred first to Paris and then to Yerevan. There is also an Armenian Genocide monument erected in 1968 with remains of an unknown martyr brought from the deserts of Der Zor in 1930 by Rev. Manasseh G. Papazian.

Executive Director and Administrator Sheri Manning-Cartwright stated that there are around 16,000 burials between the two cemeteries, and approximately 4,000 vacant spaces yet to be used. Annually there are between 80 and 100 burials conducted, of which a third take place in the old original part of the cemetery, and the rest in the newer Masis section.

She explained that to be buried in the two cemeteries, you must either be of Armenian descent or married to someone who is. The older section has been sold out since the 1950s so burials there are from families who have owned graves there for several generations but have not used them all yet.

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There is a mausoleum acquired as part of land acquired in the 1950s which Ararat maintains, but it is not Armenian.

She said that the cemetery association was not aware of any deaths due to coronavirus that led to burials in its land. The rate of burials remains constant, ranging from none to three a week, Manning-Cartwright added.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 has had its impact on the cemetery due to the rules on social distancing. Upon the direction of the Fresno County Department of Public Health, the gates were closed for a little over a month, from April 6 to May 15 of this year. Manning-Cartwright said that this was particularly hard on people, as it included holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day when people often would come to visit.

However, as a comparatively small cemetery, she said, people could have visited if they called ahead of time or even just showed up at the gates, as someone would run out and open them. The problem was to get the word to people that this was indeed possible, so a lot of people remained unaware of this option.

During the period of time the gates were closed, there was no order to wear face masks, though this became required once the gates were reopened. Manning-Cartwright said she herself would wear a mask, and would maintain her distance. People did not need to get out of their car, and if they did not know the location of a grave, she would walk them to it. She asked that people come in smaller groups and in fact, there were no attempts of larger groups to come. Typically, she said, it would be one person wanting to leave flowers on the grave of parents, or maybe a couple coming to visit their child’s grave.

She said, “It was very sad though. It was hard. We have families who come and visit weekly. We have families who come and visit on every holiday.”

During that roughly one-month period, there was a general limit of 10 people gathering, including in funerals, and that would include clergy. If both deacon and priest came, that only left room for 8 family members. Furthermore, Manning-Cartwright said, the group could only stay 15 minutes at the grave site. She exclaimed, “That is not enough time, especially if families wanted to see the casket lowered. We had to tell them, you’ll have to watch from your car. We felt that is following the rule but still letting the family witness the lowering.”

However, the cemetery had to do away with the practice of family members filling in the grave with dirt. She said, “That has been very hard on the families, and especially in some funerals the young men, the sons, grandsons and nephews, were devastated. They felt very strongly they wanted to do it.”

With the newer regulations, beginning at the very end of May, the number of people permitted at funerals was increased to 25, and the time limit extended to 30 minutes. With the larger number of people allowed, the canopy is now backed up further from the casket to allow the priest to take off his mask while speaking. However, this will be very hot in the sun for the priest, so in early June Manning-Cartwright said that the cemetery was going to come up with something to ameliorate the situation.

Families now did not have to go into their cars to watch the casket lowered, but still could not fill in the grave themselves. Chairs would be set up according to the social distancing rules, though people try to move them.

Manning-Cartwright repeated several times how difficult this period has been for the Armenian community, and consequently for her as well. She said, “I am told I get to be an honorary Armenian and I wear that with pride. The Armenian community here has welcomed me and I feel very connected to it. When you handle arrangements for people’s loved ones, you grow close to people. You care for them. There are a lot of families here I just adore.”

Holy Resurrection Armenian Cemetery of South Milwaukee

Armenians settled in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as early as 1910, and they established a church, Holy Resurrection Armenian Apostolic Church, in 1924. Their cemetery was opened in 1948. It is less than a mile from the church and next to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and the latter’s own cemetery, where Armenians used to be buried prior to its establishment.

Entrance sign to Holy Resurrection Armenian Cemetery of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin (photo Armen Hadjinian)

The cemetery was started by the church but became an independent entity, pastor Fr. Sahak Kaishian said, possibly for administrative or tax purposes. The church community still takes care of the cemetery, and the chairman of the local parish council, Armen Hadjinian, is also chairman of the cemetery board. It contains about 400 graves at present (for some tombstone pictures, see http://www.usgwarchives.net/wi/cemetery/southmilwaukee-armenianstharoutum.html), and has its own caretakers.

View of Holy Resurrection Armenian Cemetery of South Milwaukee (photo Armen Hadjinian)

Kaishian said that normally there were 5 burials a year, and there was no increase in burials this year due to the novel coronavirus. He said that no one from South Milwaukee’s Armenian community contracted the virus, as far as he was aware. There were only two or three burials in the last few months. The state restrictions, such as no church service, no wake and no more than 10 people at the gravesite were complied with, and when the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the governor’s stay-at-home order on May 13, this made it possible to also hold a wake for the last burial.

Hadjinian added that social distancing had to be practiced as part of the adherence to state laws during the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike other general cemeteries where there are Armenian sections, in Holy Resurrection, Hadjinian said, there are no other activities so it was easier to regulate the situation.

Hadjinian said that the local Armenians were all able to shelter in place and family members were looked after by relatives if need be. In general, South Milwaukee did not get hit as hard as many parts of the US, he said.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The newest Armenian cemetery in the United States is not in an area traditionally known for its Armenian population. Located in Baton Rouge, the cemetery belongs to St. Garabed Armenian Church of Louisiana, and serves the Armenian population of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Although there were earlier Armenian immigrants to these cities, the majority came from Syria and Lebanon starting in the 1970s.

Baton Rouge Armenian khachkar in cemetery of Saint Garabed Armenian Church, with Fr. Tateos Abdalian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America

According to Sarkis Moutafian, treasurer of the parish council of this church, there are roughly 80 Armenian families in the two cities. After the community constructed a church, which was anointed in 2006, and an assembly hall next to it, they decided to purchase cemetery land, which lies behind the parking lot of the church. According to the church website, Serop Kaltakdjian, Vasken Kaltakdjian and Boghos Moutafian were the main financial donors toward the purchase of the cemetery land.

Catholicos Karekin II came from Echmiadzin in 2007 to bless the cemetery. In 2010 a large khachkar (cross stone) was placed there in memory of the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

Moutafian said that at present the cemetery has somewhere around 10-12 graves and the lot is large enough to accommodate many more. No one was buried during the coronavirus period so the restrictions created by COVID-19 did not have to be dealt with. As far as visitation to the cemetery goes, there is a gate in front of it, and Moutafian said that all those with loved ones buried there have keys and can visit anytime they wish.

Ocala, Florida

There is a fourth Armenian cemetery in the United States located in Ocala. It is also of recent origin and is taken care of by the Armenian American Cultural Society of that town. Some of the founding members of that organization are buried in this cemetery.

This photograph of an entrance to the Ocala, Florida Armenian cemetery dates from August 22, 2009 (credit “No Guts No Glory” on FindaGrave.com), and the photographer attests that the view has not changed.

The cemetery apparently is connected to the sad tale of the two rival Armenian churches built in this town, St. Sarkis Armenian Church, which belonged to the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (consecrated in 1997), and Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church, which was a chapel connected with the Eastern Prelacy for a period of time, located at the end of a hall.

The cemetery gate in June 2020

Both churches no longer are operational but the cemetery lies in a plot of land between the two. The hall and the chapel which used to be the Holy Cross church belong to the independent cultural society. St. Sarkis Church is being rented out to non-Armenians at present.

A view of the cemetery and the former Armenian churches (June 2020)

The website Find A Grave presents photos of 11 graves located in the cemetery, which according to the photographer is the unchanged current number. The earliest grave pictured is from 2000 and the last one listed dates from 2016. According to Charles Takesian, one of the Armenian American Cultural Society members, three of the graves contain caskets and the others are cremation remains.

The Find A Grave website gives two names to the cemetery — Holy Cross Armenian Cemetery and Saint Sarkis Armenian Cemetery, while the gate bears the former name. It is not clear whether both names are still used.

The coronavirus pandemic does not seem to have affected the cemetery directly. There have not been any burials there during the period of its spread so far.

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