Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, the incorrupt nun of Missouri, showed little sign of decomposition when she was exhumed from her grave 4 years after her death.
Colma has more than 1.5 million residents and almost all of them are deceased. The “Cemetery City” has been home to San Francisco’s dead for over a century.
“It’s great to be alive in Colma.”
That’s the motto of the “City of the Silent,” the town of Colma where the living are drastically outnumbered by the dead. The town’s population is 1,700, but its 17 cemeteries contain more than 1.5 million burials.
So where did all the dead people come from?
In 1900, San Francisco was crowded by the dead. According to Colma historian Pat Hatfield, miners during the gold rush flocked to the area, bringing with them disease.
The death toll rose, and the city’s 27 cemeteries were overflowing. An 1880 article called the dead “tyrants” for taking up the best building land in the city.
By the early 1900s, San Francisco’s cemeteries were not only full, there were falling into ruin.
“In that time, the once-pristine San Francisco graveyards degenerated from backdrops for the cherished 19th-century activity of ‘promenading’ and became weed-choked eyesores,” Joe Eskenazi wrote. “City dogs made off with bones protruding from the earth; high school fraternities held elaborate, drunken initiation ceremonies and crafted massive bonfires out of fence stakes serving as grave borders; hobos cracked open crypts and took up residence; vaults were plundered; and everyone’s mother told them to avoid wandering into a makeshift den of rapists, pedophiles, ‘ghouls,’ or amorous couples out for a quick one.”
A ordinance was soon passed prohibiting the construction of any new cemeteries. The conditions of the existing cemeteries were still a problem, so those were evicted from the city limits in 1914. In defense of this legislation, Mayor Jim Rolph said “The duty of government is more to the living than to the dead.”
Workers exhume bodies from the Odd Fellows Cemetery, Dec. 26, 1933. This is now the location of the Rossi Playground. The Columbarium in the background still stand today.
According to filmmaker Trina Lopez, while many of the smaller cemeteries cleared out early, the “Big Four” cemeteries (Odd Fellows, Masonic, Laurel Hill, and Calvary) were mired in legal battles for some time. The process of moving those graves began in the 1920s and was completed in 1947.
Remains were all removed by hand.
“Condition of remains disinterred varied from ‘dust’ to almost perfectly embalmed bodies,” William A. Proctor wrote in 1950, “the latter resulting from filling of cast-iron caskets with groundwater acting as a preservative. The superintendent of the disinterment proceedings told the author that his was an interesting job, but that in some cases it was not ‘pretty.’ The smell of death was often present, even though the remains had been laid to rest from thirty to seventy years previously.”
Families could pay for private interments for their loved ones if they chose. Otherwise, the remains were relocated to mass graves in Colma.
Gravestones were only moved if someone paid for the relocation. Unclaimed markers and monuments were used for Public Works projects such as sea walls, breakwaters, and the gutters and retaining walls of Buena Vista Park.
“Priceless crypts, tombs and private mausoleums were unceremoniously dumped in San Francisco Bay to create breakwaters at Aquatic Park and Saint Francis yacht club,” Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett wrote in their book City of Souls.
New vaults in Colma’s Holy Cross Cemetery await human remains from Calvary c.1920
“Most burials and cremations of San Franciscans now are conducted in the adjoining ‘cemetery town’ of Colma, formerly called the Town of Lawndale,” Proctor wrote. “Colma was founded and incorporated by cemetery associations’ representatives (the cemeteries owning three-fourths of the land within the town’s limits) expressly to maintain the town as a ‘memorial city.'”
Today, the vast (and foggy) necropolis of Colma continues to serve as the burial ground for San Francisco’s dead. Its residents fondly refer to the cemeteries as their “parks.”
An estimated 75 new “subterranean residents” arrive in Colma daily.
But wait…not every grave was actually moved.
Remains found beneath the Legion of Honor Museum, 1993. Photo by Richard Barnes
During renovations of the Legion of Honor Museum, construction workers unearthed the remains of an estimated 700 bodies from what had been City Cemetery. The burials were estimated to date from between 1868 and 1906.
From the San Francisco History website:
“In the summer of 1993, during renovation and expansion of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, “about 300 corpses from the Gold Rush era—two of them still clutching rosaries, others were wearing dentures and Levis—were unearthed from what appears to be an old pauper’s graveyard. Some experts say another 11,000 bodies might lie underneath the museum grounds” according to a Los Angeles Times article (12 November 1993, A-23). The City Planner’s office has copies of the excavation activities. According to the archeaologist, there were over 700 individual coffin burials. All the remains and artifacts were turned over to the Coroner’s office (Medical Examiner). The Medical Examiner’s office had the remains reburied at the Skylawn Cemetery in San Mateo, and the artifacts were given to the City Museum. Most of the finds were centered around the Legion of Honor’s courtyard. The archeaological firm proposed a more extensive dig, but the Museum felt it was out-of-scope of their activities, so they said no. Another interesting item was that an early resident, recalling the construction of the museum, mentioned that remains were found and put into a pit in one of the corners of the building, although she couldn’t recall which corner. So, it appears that remains are still there, somewhere.”
The L.A. Times reported that among the finds were several medical school cadavers, as well as a man who was buried with a third arm.
“When the Legion of Honor was built — from 1920 to 1924 — the original contractors just plowed through burial sites,” SF Weekly wrote, “and plumbers laid pipes right through bodies and skeletons.”
“It was one of the spookiest archaeologist jobs I have worked on,” archaeology Paula Frazer told SF Weekly in 1997. “A lot of the burials had clothing, had hair. Some of the people were even mummified. It was a pretty intense dig. There were a lot of women and babies. There were a few Chinese, not many, it was mostly Scottish, Irish, French…who worked on building all the brick buildings around S.F.”
The Girl in the Coffin
In 2016, renovations uncovered a grave beneath a San Francisco home. Inside, workers found a metal Victorian coffin and the remarkably well-preserved body of a young girl who died 145 years earlier.
The house was built over what had been the Odd Fellows Cemetery, and this child had obviously been left behind when the other bodies were removed.
Vigorous research by volunteers for the nonprofit Garden of Innocence group through burial records, plot maps, old photos and other sources eventually helped identify the girl as Edith Howard Cook.
Young Edith was born on November 28, 1873 to Horatio and Edith Cook and died just short of her third birthday of marasmus, a form of severe undernourishment which may have been caused by an infectious disease.
A local Odd Fellows group sponsored Edith’s reburial among the rest of the relocated Odd Fellows in Colma’s Greenlawn Memorial Park.
How many other forgotten graves still remain forgotten beneath San Francisco?
Pets Rest, Colma’s pet cemetery