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Lakewood Memorial Park
If you've lived in Stanislaus County for any extended period of time, chances are Lakewood Memorial Park is a place you've had to visit. Cemeteries may not be considered pleasant places to visit, but this sprawling park northwest of Hughson is one of the nicest ones around.

It also has quite a history.

Lakewood Memorial Park started out as a five-acre cemetery, the Pioneer Cemetery. Early white settlers who died in the years following the Gold Rush were buried there. There are an untold number of unmarked graves in the original section as many of the early graves were marked by wood planks that were destroyed by the elements.

The earliest marked grave is that of Mary Hudelson, who died April 13, 1855. Other unmarked graves could be older.

A memorial on the site indicates that the cemetery served people of Empire City, once located on the south side of the Tuolumne River a half-mile west of the cemetery. Empire City was a bustling town of 3,000 residents by 1850, thanks to the gold miners who flocked to California. It was there that goods for the miners were shipped up the Tuolumne River by boat and offloaded for wagon freighters. Although Empire City became second county seat of Stanislaus County, it eventually died out. (The town of Empire was later established to the north).

Historical accounts indicate that Empire City may have been visited by explorer John C. Fremont, who earned the name "the Pathfinder" and who later went on to run for president against Abraham Lincoln. Fremont explored the area in the 1840s, a few years before the celebrated gold discovery at Coloma. Legend has it that there are 17-20 unmarked graves of soldiers from Fremont's company when he explored the area.

Disrepair to expansion

Later the cemetery's name was changed to the Empire-Hughson Cemetery. In 1912 five prominent citizens of the region organized an association to look after the cemetery. The new corporation purchased five acres for burials.

As a rural cemetery, it fell into such bad shape that an endowed care program had to be established.

Following the conclusion of World War II, burgeoning Stanislaus County required more burial space. In 1953 the cemetery became Lakewood Memorial Park as a non-profit corporation, then purchased an adjoining 70-acre peach ranch for conversion to a new burial ground.

In the 1960s a chapel was added to Lakewood, which was later expanded in 1982.

In 1981 the corporation sold the cemetery to Dan Lahey and was incorporated with Whitehurst California. In 1988, Whitehurst-Lakewood Memorial Park was purchased by the Loewen Group. The company bankrupted in 1999 and emerged in 2001 as the Alderwoods Group. In April of this year, Service Corps International took over.

Ceres' Robin Warn, the cemetery administrator, likes all the new changes, which include expansions for future burials.

"We have a lot of room for expansion," said Warn, who was office manager for 10 years prior to being made general manager in April.

The cemetery is nestled in a low spot near the tranquil Tuolumne River. Visitors have reported seeing deer prancing among the graves and other curious wildlife, such as foxes, up from the river bank.

Famous and not so famous

Cemetery records note that there are 38,900 bodies buried at Lakewood's 152 acres, divided up into 13 "gardens." The vast majority of them are unfamiliar names who have slipped into the past and out of anyone's memory. Still others hold celebrity status.

The remains of Chandra Levy are buried in the Jewish section of Lakewood. Levy, the Modesto intern, was the central figure of the scandal which brought Congressman Gary Condit's political career to an end.

The parents of Star Wars movie director George Lucas are buried at Lakewood.

The body of Florence Thompson, the subject of the famous photographic icon of the Migrant Mother, was brought to the cemetery after her death in 1983. Her worried and haggard countenance as a troubled migrant worker in Dorothea Lange's famous 1936 photo, has served as an icon of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Relatives of actor Jack Elam are resting there as well. Elam starred in a number of westerns and was known as the wild-eyed character of "Dr. Nikolas Van Helsing" in Cannonball Run.

Local celebrities are buried there as well. The body of Grace M. Davis, the namesake of the high school in Modesto, has been in an interior mausoleum since her death in 1971. Max Foster, the founder of Foster Farms, is buried in the North Highland Garden. Former Modesto mayor Lee Davies, and Supervisor Rolland Starn (Evergreen Garden) are buried there.

There is also a section where law enforcement officers are buried, including Sheriff's deputy Billy Joe Dickens, who was fatally gunned down in a 1970 Hughson bank robbery; and Ceres Police Sgt. Howard Stevenson, killed in a January 9, 2005 shoot-out in front of Dennis Liquors. Ceres patrol officer Ken Madewell, who died of cancer, is also buried on the site.

The body of Juanna Navarro, the Ceres Marine killed in Iraq, is resting at the Honor Guard, a section for veterans.

"We have indoor mausoleums and outdoor mausoleums," said Warn. "I think it's a really cool section of the park. It's got the urns with the cremated remains placed in them behind glass."

Customers from all around

Lakewood primarily serves the area but customers come from all around.

"We get Turlock. We get the west side a lot of times. It's like an oasis out here. And Ceres didn't expand on their cemetery until recently. It's just like the place to go."

While Lakewood may be considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the region, its rates reflect that.

"We're higher than anybody else and we feel like it's justified just because of our location and what we have to offer ... everything in one place, we're owned by a corporation."

Warn said that Lakewood being owned by a new corporation has its positives. She said the company has put on grief seminars for clients and is investing lots of money in expansion.

"They're putting more money back into their locations," said Warn.

Lakewood is planning to extend its Honor Garden, which is its veterans' section that has filled up fast.

On the southeast part of the cemetery, two new gardens are being constructed. North Restland Garden and Our Lady of Guadalupe gardens will be opened in a few months. The latter garden will be opened in phases, with 575 in the first.

"We're going to be opening up 3,000 with the new developments, which is great because our other gardens you can't get more than three sites together right now.

"This has been the second major expansion since I've been in charge here," said Warn.

The park hosted the 53rd sunrise service in its outdoor amphitheater.