Most folks think of the cemetery being within the walls of the Mission itself, and indeed there are some early graves there. But according to clerical historian Father Zephyrin Engelhardt, a smallpox epidemic in the early 1860s filled the little church yard to capacity, forcing the expansion to a new cemetery atop a hill about 3/4 of a mile to the east. (Strangely, however, there are earlier burials at this site, beginning with the 1847 grave of one of the Forster children.)
It is this second cemetery that we visited this week. It's located near what is now the intersection of the Ortega Highway and Rancho Viejo Rd. It is a mishmash of unidentified graves with simple white wood crosses, hand-lettered grave markers made of every material imaginable, simple modern memorial plaques, and a few larger, more elaborate monuments. Big old trees provide shade. It is not open to visitors, but you can look through the fence.
Only families with direct ties to the Mission's history can be buried in this cemetery, which is now called the "Old Mission Cemetery." Look around and you'll see the names of Californios, pioneers, and Juaneno Indians. Until very recently, the families were not charged for burials here.
The Diocese of Orange took over this place, in April 2010, fired the guy who'd been in charge, and started charging for burials. At the same time, it was announced that space was running out. Perhaps as few as 10 spaces were still available. Perhaps none. The cemetery was closed, beginning in May, until it could be determined how much space might remain.
Next time you're in Capistrano, visiting the Mission or the downtown shops, be sure to cross over the I-5 Freeway and visit the Old Mission Cemetery as well. It's yet another fascinating symbol of Orange County's deep roots.
(Some historical details in this post come from Pamela Hallan Gibson's book, Dos Cientos Anos En San Juan Capistrano.)