Beyond the Grave: How Old Tombstones Became Part of the Fabric of San Francisco

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The 122-year-old tombstone of Delia Presby lies on the sand at Ocean Beach in June 2012, apparently uncovered by wind and erosion. (Megan Farmer/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

At first glance, San Francisco is strangely devoid of gravestones. It’s been illegal to bury new bodies in the city for over 120 years. And, as most Bay Area residents already know, the city was emptied of the vast majority of its dead back in the 1930s, when bodies were moved en masse to Colma.

Twenty-six thousand occupants of the Odd Fellows Cemetery—today’s Rossi Park and surrounding areas—ended up in Greenlawn Memorial Park, for example. Those bodies are now buried in a part of the Colma cemetery not open to the public.

A woman in black Victorian mourning dress gazes down upon a graveyard full of marble monuments and gravestones.
Odd Fellows Cemetery as it was in the 1900s. The Columbarium on the right of the shot is the only thing that remains today. (OpenSFHistory / wnp15.208)
Workers in the process of converting Odd Fellows Cemetery into Rossi Playground in December 1933. (OpenSFHistory / wnp14.2426)

While almost all of San Francisco’s dead were moved to Colma, many of their headstones and mausoleums remained in the city. That’s because even when relatives of the deceased were successfully contacted, they frequently couldn’t afford to have grave markers moved. (The mass eviction happened during the Great Depression, after all.) The thousands of gravestones left behind were inherited by the Department of Public Works, who started using them in city infrastructure projects.

As a result, the north and west sides of San Francisco are still awash with tombstones. They ended up on that side of the city in large part because of where San Francisco’s four largest burial plots were originally located. The Laurel Hill, Masonic, Odd Fellows and Calvary cemeteries once dominated the area around Geary and Masonic. (Laurel Hill Cemetery alone covered 54 acres.)

Here’s where you can still find glimpses of what’s left of the grave markers in our midst.

Ocean Beach / The Great Highway

A small dog hangs out on part of an old mausoleum, half submerged in sand. The former burial chamber showed up at the intersection of Rivera St. and the Great Highway in 2012. (Megan Farmer/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

When the 35,000 bodies in Laurel Hill Cemetery were exhumed and removed, their once distinguished burial monuments were smashed up into more manageable slabs and transported to the beach. Some of the largest pieces were then piled up into fortifying, erosion-reducing diagonal walls along Ocean Beach. Some of the gravestones were also used as bedding in the Great Highway—the road the new walls were intended to protect.

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Entirely intact headstones with perfectly legible epitaphs have since been uncovered at sporadic intervals on the shoreline. In 1977, The Chronicle talked to beachgoers who were stunned to find headstones in the sand. In 2012, grave markers from 1876 and 1890 showed up on the beach within weeks of each other. Brace yourself after inclement weather, then—there’s undoubtedly more where these came from.

Buena Vista Park’s Gutters

(R, L) Pieces of headstones in Buena Vista Park's rain gutters, (C) How the gutters look from the path. (Rae Alexandra)

While many of the Ocean Beach tombstones stayed intact, the marble ones that made it to Buena Vista Park were smashed up into small fragments and used to line rain gutters. Tantalizing small portions of names and dates are still visible in places, though the vast majority of the stones were positioned with their epitaphs facing down.

While Buena Vista is the oldest park in San Francisco (it was established in 1867), the gravestone gutters were a direct result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s solution to the Great Depression in 1935. Roosevelt introduced the Works Progress Administration to improve and beautify public spaces while also providing millions of people with jobs—8.3 million people over eight years, in fact. It was some of those WPA workers who constructed the gutters.

To visit the former headstones, enter near the playground at Waller. The gutters run directly opposite and can be followed from there.

Aquatic Park’s Sea Wall

Remnants of gravestones and pieces of tombs seen next to Aquatic Park's seawall during low tide. (Rae Alexandra)

The WPA was responsible for more than just city maintenance in the 1930s. Workers also constructed schools, hospitals and recreation areas. Aquatic Park’s sea wall—to the left of the beach and on the walk towards the long, curved pier that helps keeps the waters calm—was one of these projects. And it utilized unclaimed gravestones from Odd Fellows Cemetery in order to save money on construction.

At low tide, the tombstones at Aquatic Park are remarkably visible once you start actively looking for them. What’s left of the rectangular gravestones stands out starkly against the Bay’s natural detritus.

The Wave Organ

Details of the Wave Organ clearly show large segments of old mausoleums and tombs. (Rae Alexandra)

Behind St. Francis Yacht Club, at the end of a jetty, a strange sculpture stands, amplifying the sounds of the waves below. The Wave Organ was designed by artist Peter Richards in 1986, constructed by sculptor and stone mason George Gonzales, and sponsored by the Exploratorium. (Both men had previously been artists-in-residence at the museum.)

The organ is made from cement tubes, 25 PVC organ pipes, found bricks and, yes, large chunks of abandoned turn-of-the-century crypts and mausoleums. Roman numerals are still visible in several parts of The Wave Organ.

Inscriptions of old roman numerals on the Wave Organ. (Rae Alexandra)

The walk along the jetty up to the sculpture is also littered with old graveyard remnants. Parts of gravestones and unusual corners of crypts and tombs are clearly visible on either side of the path.

Large pieces of old grave monuments are dotted along either side of the jetty approaching the Wave Organ. (Rae Alexandra)

The fact that there were still so many of these cemetery relics available in the 1980s to construct The Wave Organ demonstrates just how much was left behind in the 1930s.

Marina District’s Yacht Harbor

The white portions of the wall at the Marina's yacht club are likely made up of old gravestones. (Rae Alexandra)

In November 1934, piles of discarded gravestones arrived in the Marina District and construction crews began turning them into a sea wall for the yacht harbor. Photos from the time show workers organizing small uniform rectangles of white slabs. The white stones in the harbor wall still stand out next to the bricks and darker stones.

Not all of the abandoned gravestones in San Francisco found themselves utilized in such a fashion. Over the years, random tombstones have been uncovered in a variety of unexpected places. In July 1977, a group of Miraloma Park children called the police after they found a collection of turn-of-the-century headstones while playing on Mount Davidson. In 1998, a rototiller working at Turk and Arguello hit the gravestone of a saloon owner named Pierre Giraud who had died in 1878, aged 39. And in 2017, electricians working on an Iris Avenue home in Laurel Heights found a 155-year-old headstone etched with the names of an entire family, including an infant son.

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Though few graves remain in the city—the Columbarium and cemeteries at the Presidio and Mission Dolores are all that’s left—the memories of the evicted dead are harder to scrub from the city. Their memorials, after all, make up the very fabric of it.