Russian headstones retain luster amidst sea of dilapidated U.S. veteran graves

Matt Saintsing
August 09, 2017 - 5:24 pm

(Courtesy Myrna Hayes)


At a historic naval cemetery in Northern California, the grave markers of U.S. Veterans are falling apart. But in the middle of the cemetery, four glistening crosses marking the burial site of Russian Navy sailors stand in stark contrast to the neglected American grave markers.

That’s because officials in Vallejo, California, which now controls land that was once the Mare Island Shipyard, do little to tend to the grave sites of U. S. Veterans in the 160-year-old Naval Cemetery. But in 2010, Russian diplomats replaced the tomb markers of the Russians buried there.

And doing so brought them the threat of legal action.

(Courtesy Myrna Hayes)

In August 2010, representatives of Russia’s consulate in San Francisco placed new, expensive granite headstones on the burial site of six Russian sailors who died fighting a fire in San Francisco in 1863. Their ship had paid a call to the port city at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln. During their stay, a fire broke out in the city's Financial District.  They died helping fight the fire.

Department of the Interior guidelines for National Landmarks note that grave markers in such sites can be repaired, but should rarely be replaced entirely.

Because the Russians had installed the new headstones – valued in total at almost $20,000 – without proper permitting, some in Vallejo proposed bringing legal action against the diplomats – an idea that in the end was not pursued.

The granite crosses still stand today, marking the Russian grave sites, surrounded by scores of crumbling, untended graves marking where U. S. Veterans and family members were buried between 1856 and 1921.

(Courtesy Myrna Hayes)

“This was boldly done without the permission of or the courtesy of informing responsible personnel who are charged with the care and maintenance of this, the oldest military cemetery in the Pacific,” Cason La Belle, a retired Navy captain wrote in a memo. “It is hallowed ground. Changes to it are not made unilaterally.”

In 1873, Congress legislated that headstones in military cemeteries nationwide were to be made of “durable stone of such design and weight as shall keep them in place when set.”

Because the cemetery is a national landmark, the U.S. Department of the Interior has specific guidelines for renovations. Grave markers can be repaired, but are rarely replaced entirely.