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Why Are There So Many Graves in Colma? And So Few in San Francisco?

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Workers remove bodies from a San Francisco graveyard.  (Colma Historical Association)

This article was originally published Oct. 26, 2017.

When you drive around the tiny town of Colma, just south of Daly City, you can’t help but notice a certain redundancy of scenery.

Tombstones. A florist …

More tombstones … another florist.

What Las Vegas is to gambling, Colma is to death.


Nearly three-quarters of the 2.2-square-mile town is zoned for cemeteries — of which there are 17.

Colma is the last place you want to be when the zombie apocalypse goes down.

The town’s population is 1,431, says Pat Hatfield of the local historical association.

“Of the living …,” I clarify.

She nods. “Above-ground residents, we call them. Maybe a million and a half underground, so we’re a little bit outgunned.”

In many parts of Colma, neat rows of gravestones are visible for as far as the eye can see.
In many parts of Colma, neat rows of gravestones are visible for as far as the eye can see. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

The association’s headquarters sits quietly between two cemeteries. It doubles as a museum, with binders on display for each of the town’s final resting places. Flip through and your eye catches on bold-letter names like Joe DiMaggio and William Randolph Hearst. When death got the drop on Wyatt Earp, the legendary Old West lawman was buried in Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery. (Here’s why.)

On the other hand, if you want to browse graves in San Francisco, your choices are limited.

There’s San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio, but that’s technically on federal land.

The lone cemetery in the city proper is at Mission Dolores. But the cemetery is just one-sixth its original size, says Andrew Galvan, the Mission Dolores curator. Eleven thousand dead people were buried there from 1782 to 1898.

All right. That accounts for thousands of expired locals.

Where’s everybody else?

San Francisco Graveyards of the Past

San Francisco was once full of cemeteries.

“In the Gold Rush days they decided to build cemeteries in the western part of the city, where nobody would ever want to live,” says Michael Svanevik, a San Mateo County historian who’s the go-to guy on this topic.

Four huge cemeteries — Laurel Hill, Calvary, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Masonic Cemetery — were established on land the University of San Francisco occupies today. These cemeteries took up between 60 and 70 square blocks. Golden Gate Cemetery, out by Lands End, took up a similar swath of space.

An 1873 map shows the ‘Big Four’ cemeteries in San Francisco. (David Rumsey Map Collection) (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

As San Francisco’s population rapidly grew, homes were built on all sides of the cemetery complex. Streetcars had to navigate around these islands of the dead to transport residents to work and back.

“This now became very valuable land, and people turned against the cemeteries,” Svanevik says.

Just when you think the living have a hard time holding onto their place in San Francisco, imagine how the dead fared.

Golden Gate, or City Cemetery, shown in an 1876 map by William P. Humphreys & Co.
Golden Gate, or City Cemetery, shown in an 1876 map by William P. Humphreys & Co. (David Rumsey Map Collection) (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

Public Opinion Turns

By 1880, San Franciscans had grown disenchanted with its burgeoning population of dead folks.

Headlines like “Cemeteries must go!” began to show up in local newspapers, and residents became concerned over hysterical claims about health hazards.

“Scientists warned that throat maladies constantly assume a malignant type … when the patients are exposed to a wind that blows from a crowded cemetery,” wrote Svanevik and co-author Shirley Burgett in their book “City of Souls.”

In 1901, San Francisco banned any new burials within city limits, part of what Svanevik and Burgett call a relentless assault on the city’s “belt of death.” For several decades, what to do with the cemeteries was a hot-button issue.

With no endowments to pay for upkeep, cemeteries like Laurel Hill pictured here, fell into ruin. (Colma Historical Association)
With no endowments to pay for upkeep, cemeteries like Laurel Hill, pictured here, fell into ruin. (Colma Historical Association) (CREDIT)

Those who coveted valuable graveyard land could rely on at least one legitimate talking point: The cemeteries had become a real mess.

After San Francisco ended new burials, there was no money to care for existing cemetery grounds, and many graveyards fell into ruin. Statues and gravestones were toppled. The valuable bronze doors on private mausoleums were stolen. People would reportedly wander in and get drunk, or have late-night sex orgies.

“Entire skeletons were carried away to be used as Halloween decorations,” says Svanevik.

He’s even met people who report playing soccer with skulls.

Colma: The Incorporation

The first to move out of San Francisco were two Jewish cemeteries, Hills of Eternity and Home of Peace. In the 1880s, they abandoned the plots of land that now make up Dolores Park for the open farm area of Colma. A few years later, the San Francisco Archdiocese, running out of room in San Francisco, established Colma’s Holy Cross Cemetery.

As space for San Francisco burials grew tighter, more of San Francisco’s cemetery associations looked south, purchasing large plots of Colma’s farmland.

Until the 1880s, two Jewish cemeteries stood where Dolores Park is today. (Colma Historical Association)
Until the 1880s, two Jewish cemeteries stood where Dolores Park is today. (Colma Historical Association) (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

In 1924, 14 cemetery associations incorporated the town of Lawndale (Colma’s original name). It is the only city incorporated for the sole purpose of preserving and protecting the dead, says the historical association’s Pat Hatfield.

The founders had good reason to be explicit about the new town’s purpose. After all, many of the remains that came to Colma had been moved several times. A body could have first been buried in the Gold Rush cemetery, only to be moved to Yerba Buena Cemetery, on to City Cemetery by the Legion of Honor, and finally to the cemetery complex where USF now stands.

“They didn’t want living people in Colma,” says Svanevik. “Every time somebody came forth and wanted to open a store, the town council voted it down, unless it was a floral shop or something associated with a cemetery.”

San Francisco: And Then There Were Five

By the 1920s, the only San Francisco cemeteries remaining were the so-called Big Four as well as the one at Mission Dolores. In the face of public hostility, the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries agreed to move to Colma, but 17 families went to federal court to block the Masonic move. Those bodies were transferred only after sale of the land was approved in a 1930 Supreme Court ruling.

Calvary cemetery from above in the 1930s. (Colma Historical Association)
Calvary Cemetery from above in the 1930s. (Colma Historical Association) (San Francisco Public Library)

The Catholic Church successfully made the case that the Mission Dolores cemetery should be allowed to stay for historical reasons. Andrew Galvan of Mission Dolores says just 60 bodies were moved to Colma between 1930 and 1932.

The Catholic Church also balked at uprooting Calvary Cemetery. The archdiocese didn’t like the idea of giving future plot owners in other cemeteries the idea that nothing is sacred or permanent — not even the place where you are laid to rest.

But eventually they relented, which left one cemetery — Laurel Hill. The rectangle of graves bounded by California, Geary, Parker and Presidio streets was the lone holdout.

Anti-cemetery activists made three unsuccessful attempts at ridding the city of Laurel Hill by putting the issue before voters.

In 1937 they tried once more.  The official argument against the measure alluded to the many notable pioneers buried in the cemetery.  “Gratitude and common decency should permit these dead to rest in honored peace,” it said.

On the pro-eviction side, proponents included photos of the decrepit graveyard marred by tumbled tombstones, above captions such as “Is this ‘respect for our dead’?” 

This time, the measure to evict passed.

Removing the Bodies

Exhumation and transportation of the bodies was a very sophisticated operation.

If the casket was in good shape, they moved it with the body. If the casket had deteriorated, the bones were placed in boxes. Remains were required to be brought by hearse on the same day as exhumation, says Svanevik. The Catholic Church also required a priest to witness the exhumation of any bodies from Calvary Cemetery.

“Condition of remains disinterred varied from ‘dust’ to almost perfectly embalmed bodies, the latter resulting from filling of cast-iron caskets with groundwater acting as a preservative,” wrote William Proctor, in a 1950 San Francisco Department of City Planning report. “The smell of death was often present, even though the remains had been laid to rest from thirty to seventy years previously,” the head of the disinterment told Proctor.

Workers remove bodies from the Odd Fellows cemetery. (Colma Historical Association)
Workers remove bodies from the Odd Fellows Cemetery. (Colma Historical Association)

About 130,000 bodies were disinterred from the “Big Four” cemeteries and moved to Colma. Most were reburied in mass graves, with a single monument to mark their presence.

For the 55,000 Catholic pioneers who were moved from San Francisco to Holy Cross in Colma, no marker identified them at their new resting place until 1993.

Where the Tombstones Went

When the San Francisco cemeteries were moved, the bodies were transported for free, but survivors had to pay if they wanted to keep the tombstones. Many survivors couldn’t be found, and the majority of tombstones did not make the trip to Colma. Instead, they were sold for a few pennies each to be used in public works, says Svanevik.

Some lined the gutters, which you can still see, in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. Others were spread around the city.

“Priceless crypts, tombs and private mausoleums were unceremoniously dumped in San Francisco Bay to create breakwaters at Aquatic Park and Saint Francis yacht club,” wrote Svanevik and Burgett in “City of Souls.”

And discarded tombstones were used to build a seawall along the Great Highway. They still resurface from time to time, as they did in 2012 at Ocean Beach.

Some Left Behind

“They missed a lot of the bodies,” says Alan Ziajka, the University of San Francisco’s official historian, speaking of the mass transfer to Colma. “No one knew that until 1950, when we put up our first major building after the Depression.”

That was Gleeson Library, which like much of the university was built over what was once Masonic Cemetery. At least 200 bodies were found during excavations, when a backhoe churned up a whole mausoleum. Since then, every time a major excavation has occurred on campus, remains have been found.

A work crew breaking ground on the Hayes-Healy residence hall in 1966 “came upon so many bones and skulls that they refused to continue working until the human remains were moved from the site,” Ziajka wrote in his book, “Lighting the City, Changing the World, a History of the Sciences at the University of San Francisco.”

In 2011, when excavations began for the university’s John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation, roughly 55 coffins, 29 skeletons and several skulls were unearthed.

Legion of Honor: Where Bodies are Buried

One of the most startling cemetery discoveries came in 1993, when the Legion of Honor was undergoing seismic renovation. As the dig began, about 750 bodies were discovered from the Golden Gate Cemetery, also called City Cemetery, which was used from 1868 to 1909. About 18,000 people were buried there.

A diagram of where human remains were found during a seismic renovation at the Legion of Honor in 1993. ( From ‘Health and Disease in 19th Century San Francisco,’ published in Historical Archaeology, 2005.)

The L.A. Times reported that remains included “a man who had a third arm buried with him, several medical-school cadavers and two coffins containing remnants of denim with rivets stamped Levi.”

One person who got a close-up look at the Legion of Honor remains was photographer Richard Barnes. His exhibit on the discovery has traveled around the country.

“I think the juxtaposition with the grand temple of art is pretty interesting,” Barnes says. “The idea of preservation of the past and what that represents. Whose past is honored and secured and whose is expendable?”

Barnes told SF Weekly in 1997 that the original Legion of Honor contractors, working in the early 1920s, “just plowed through burial sites, and plumbers laid pipes right through bodies and skeletons.”

“They threw headstones off the cliff into the ocean,” he says.

From the Richard Barnes exhibit "Still Rooms & Excavations" (Richard Barnes)
From the Richard Barnes exhibit ‘Still Rooms & Excavations’ (Richard Barnes)
Remains found during renovation at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, 1993. From the Richard Barnes exhibit "Still Rooms & Excavations." (Colma Historical Association)
Remains found during renovation at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, 1993. From the Richard Barnes exhibit ‘Still Rooms & Excavations.’ (Colma Historical Association)

The Lincoln Park Golf Course was also built where Golden Gate Cemetery once stood.

From the  course’s website:

“What is presently the eighteenth fairway of the golf course was a burial ground, primarily for the city’s Italian community. The area that now constitutes the first and thirteenth fairway was the Chinese section of the cemetery and the high terrain at the fifteen fairway and thirteenth tee was a Serbian resting place.”

Can It Happen Again?

Some find the odyssey of San Francisco’s dead prior to the 20th century unnerving. Who knew that after you die, your body could be so peripatetic?

San Francisco is a testament to the reality that your remains may not remain … or that they may remain when they’re not supposed to — and you’ll get a building on top of you to boot.

Ensuring that your final resting place is really your final resting place was the very idea behind establishing Colma as a modern-day necropolis.

Yet even in Colma, the sanctity of the grave is not what it used to be. The needs and whims of the living have encroached over the years. For example, Sunset View Cemetery, a burial ground for paupers, in 1951 became a golf course. (Photos of the defunct cemetery at the San Francisco Public Library.)

“The question I get so frequently is: ‘Is Colma safe?’ “says Svanevik. “I want to say Colma is safe, but I’ve noticed since 1970 the largest auto row south of San Francisco is in Colma. They have a Home Depot. At one point a portion of Greenlawn cemetery was cut away to make a movie theater.

“I can stand in Colma cemeteries today and hear a PA system say, ‘Your car is ready to be serviced.’ ”

And so it goes …


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