WOODLAWN CEMETERY — When Cindy Tomlinson was named Woodlawn Cemetery administrator — “acting” last August, “permanent” this August — at Woodlawn she took charge of more than 60,000 people. Fortunately, most of them are dead.
Tomlinson is the first woman to run the public cemetery — some staff members call her “the First Lady” — and she’s also, more notably in today’s age, the first administrator to make it profitable for City Hall, she said.
Woodlawn Cemetery, Mortuary, and Mausoleum are publicly owned but are not a part of City Hall’s General Fund, she said. Last year was the first in recent history during which the cemetery administrator didn’t need to ask for City Hall subsidies, something she says is a result of good services leading to word-of-mouth advertising. This year, she said, it looks like they will be in the black again.
Tomlinson had no idea that her professional life would lead to a cemetery. She worked as an analyst for the Santa Monica Fire Department for 26 years, under six chiefs. She jumped to the Public Works Department as a senior analyst until her current position opened up last August.
She had to quickly get up to speed on the rules and regulations in the world of death. She got her funeral director’s license. Woodlawn is particularly challenging, and valuable to the community, because it has a mortuary, where the body is prepared and casketed. It is the only publicly-owned mortuary in the country, she said.
And the land has the type of charm that only a recently profitable, public cemetery can have, she said.
“You go to a Forest Lawn or a Rose Hills and it’s flat and there’s not a lot of trees and that’s because they want to make money,” she said. “This place, the character is just everywhere: Trees, big high stones, low stones, all cultures. We’re much less expensive than your traditional cemetery.”
The alleged gunman in the mass shooting that occurred earlier this year around the Santa Monica College campus is buried at Woodlawn, as are his father and brother. It was one of Tomlinson’s more challenging moments in the past year but, she said, Woodlawn does not exclude anyone.
“I know that we’re going to have people come here and probably voice their opinions about it but we’re a public cemetery and we’re open to everybody,” she said.
Tomlinson has had a lot of death in her life, her mother and brother died, and she said it’s made her well equipped to run a cemetery.
“Knowing how it feels makes me more conscious and sympathetic toward the families that come through the door,” she said. “A lot of them are planning for the first time. This is their first loss. So I’m able to be understanding when someone comes to me and says, ‘Mom died.’ I can truly look at them and say, ‘I understand.’”
Until recently, when they hired someone else to help her, she was on call 24 hours a day. Families have called her from the hospital at 2 a.m., distraught, with a dead relative and no idea what to do next. The personal relationships, she said, are her favorite part of the job.
As Tomlinson was showing off the mausoleum’s non-denominational stain-glass windows, Jennifer Candor Ries happens to walk through.
“Hi Cindy!” she says amidst the echoing marble.
“How are you, Jennifer?” Tomlinson responds.
Ries’ mother died in September and Woodlawn was one of her only affordable options. Her mother was an artist and Ries wanted to paint her casket. Tomlinson set her up in the maintenance area to paint it.
“It was a first for me,” Tomlinson, said laughing.
Ries painted a heart onto her mother’s casket.
“It’s like family here,” Ries said. “I don’t know if that would have happened at the other place. It was very sweet (at the other funeral homes she saw) but it was not my mother. It was a little anti-septic for her.”
This type of thing happens again and again at Woodlawn, Tomlinson said.
“I get to know so many people, their lives,” she said. “They have a service and they’ll be showing a slideshow and it’s just like wow. So even though I’m dealing with their death, I’m also learning about their life.”
The cemetery only has 400 plots left unsold, she said, and they expect those to be gone in the next five years. One of her big jobs is trying to procure more land. She’s looking at a stretch on 15th Street from Michigan to Delaware avenues.
As with her career, Tomlinson never expected she’d be drawn to a cemetery after her life either.
“I used to want to be cremated and scattered,” she said. “Now I’m not so sure, ever since I’ve been here. I guess because it’s just such a peaceful serene place. Now I’m thinking, maybe I want to be here, buried and resting instead.”