“It’s great to be alive in Colma.” That’s the motto of the California town that is home to more than 1.5 million residents…and almost all of them are dead.
In “the City of the Silent,” as Colma has come to be called, the living are drastically outnumbered. While the town’s population is a mere 1,700, its 17 cemeteries contain 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.
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 can be seen in the background.
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 finally began in the early 1930s and was completed in 1947.
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 and breakwaters.
Describing the desolate, plundered land that remained in an article for SF Weekly, Joe Eskenazi writes:
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. 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.
New vaults in Colma’s Holy Cross Cemetery await human remains from Calvary c.1920
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.
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 beneath San Francisco?