While the headstones and tombs may look foreboding to outsiders, Mountain View Cemetery is a catalog of the history of Oakland. From the towering monuments of Gold Rush robber barons to gorgeous views of San Francisco Bay, Mountain View is more park than necropolis.
Several times each year, the cemetery hosts events open to the public; this year, it celebrates its 10th annual Holiday Circle of Lights show, which switched on December 1 and runs until January 1st.
Adjacent to Chapel of the Chimes mausoleum and columbarium on Piedmont Ave., the light display features a giant nutcracker, Santa’s workshop, multiple reindeer and several large poinsettias that ring the cemetery’s fountain.
Normally, the cemetery closes at sundown, but visitors are welcome to enjoy the lights from 5pm to 9pm until New Year's Day.
The brainchild of Doreen Herbruger, Mountain View’s customer service manager and special events coordinator, the Holiday Circle of Lights was created to bring more cheer to the darkest season of the year.
Herbruger said she wanted to do something exciting for the community during the holidays, and “didn’t want children to be afraid of the cemetery,” a 226-acre tract that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who designed the UC Berkeley Campus, Golden Gate Park, and NYC’s Central Park.
“We’ve been here one hundred and fifty years, and we wanted people to feel comfortable, especially during the holidays,” Herbruger said. In addition to the whimsical displays, of which she estimates there are about 30, Mountain View has three memorial trees where visitors can honor loved ones.
Herbruger said there are hundreds of memorial ornaments with handwritten messages on the trees this year. With approximately 3,000 visitors this year, she added that it’s important for the community to have a place to feel the spirit of the holidays and grieve at the same time.
“We’re more of a memorial park, and the memorial tree ceremony is sentimental to the community,” Herbruger said. “Some people bring their own ornaments for their loved ones, and we save all of them for people to come and collect after we take the trees down.”
In the decade since the light show debuted, the cemetery switched to LED lights and added new displays; eventually, Herbruger said she hopes to expand the display down the entirety of Piedmont Avenue. As with all events at Mountain View Cemetery, admission to the Holiday Circle of Lights is free.
Twice each month, docents lead cemetery tours: the next ones are scheduled for January 14 and 28. In the coming months, there will be a Black History Month tour and a Women’s History Month tour, as well as a Ching Ming Festival in April.
After strolling around the illuminated fountain and taking in the garlands and lights draped over the gothic church and funeral parlor, there are several nearby bars and restaurants on Piedmont Ave. where visitors can take off the chill.
Mountain View Cemetery is about a 30-minute walk from Rockridge BART and is accessible via AC Transit Line 12.