You might think San Francisco, with its liberal hippie history, welcomes a plethora of diverse people who co-exist peacefully. However, I’m here to report that San Francisco excludes one group from its city limits: the deceased.
No cemeteries are allowed. The remains of even life-long San Franciscans can never rest within their hometown.
Yes, it’s true that the Presidio National Cemetery and the Mission Dolores Cemetery still exist — but they don’t allow new internments. You can also visit a columbarium (defined as a public storage space for cinerary urns), which stood abandoned from 1935 until the 1980’s. Restored and open for inurnments, the deceased, however, aren’t allowed to stay.
As an alternative, San Francisco stiffs can reside two miles away in The City of Souls, also known as Colma. Yes, proponents for the lush environment of Colma say there’s something here for everybody. They point to the Italian cemetery, Japanese, Serbian, Jewish, Nonsectarian, and even a pet cemetery. But are the deceased really content within the rows and rows of regimented headstones? And what about the conformity of living in a city that has 2 million deceased, but only about 2,000 living residents?
When Cemeteries Replaced Graveyards
You may argue that San Franciscans are actually behind the times in comparison to, say, the Parisians. While the church graveyard played an integral part of European city life from around the 7th century onward, European cities also kicked their dead out between the 18th and 19th centuries. Population growth during the Industrial Revolution created an intense need for extra space. Concern over public hygiene, the lack of space in Church graveyards, and the growth of atheism all played a role in phasing out the graveyard. Instead, municipally controlled or privately owned cemeteries were erected away from city centers.
In truth, San Franciscans lagged by a century. After the population explosion of the Gold Rush, the city-dwellers wanted a sprawling metropolis, so on March 30, 1900 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed Health Ordinance No. 25, which banned burials within the city limits. Thereafter and for over four decades, San Franciscans eliminated cemeteries throughout the city, including:
- 20,000 bodies from Masonic Cemetery in the early 1930’s;
- 25,000 bodies from Old Fellows Cemetery in 1935; and
- 35,000 bodies from Laurel Hill Mound Cemetery in 1947.
Estimates say that San Franciscans relocated more than 125,000 bodies by the time cemeteries had vanished in the late 1940’s. (See Trina Lopez’s “History of SF Cemeteries.)
The issue of cemeteries seemed to have been swept away with the sixties, but in 1994 the Legion Of Honor wanted to build a subterranean gallery for its European art collection. When builders broke ground, they reported finding isolated bone scatter.
Local historians investigated and found that the Legion of Honor existed above what once had been the Golden Gate Cemetery. Established in 1868, burials were halted in 1898. After 1908, the city converted the space into a fine arts museum and a golf course — however, no records of body relocations were ever found.
In 1994 Archeologists excavated more than 800 bodies from underneath the Legion of Honor, but they believed more bones rested in the ground, perhaps at least a thousand. In spite of their protests, building managers became frustrated with the slowness of the project and told construction workers to ignore the bones they found and simply continued building.
Throughout San Francisco today a trained eye might be able to spot both chips and boulders that once were headstones. Take a walk up Buena Vista Park along Haight Street to find some of these pieces.
If you’re an independent film lover, you can watch a fine documentary on this topic by Trina Lopez, called A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries.
To find out more about Colma, check out the City of the Silent.