Cemeteries have always fascinated me and I visiting them frequently: the sprawling necropolises of Forest Lawn in Glendale, Pére Lachaise in Paris, Woodlawn in the Bronx. Intimate ones like the pioneer graveyards in Weaverville and Columbia. While some people apparently find burial grounds morbid or macabre, I feel them to be filled with magic and mystery. It’s a bit like time travel: ow we honor our dead offers insight into how we lived.
I knew that San Francisco’s cemeteries had long ago been moved to Colma, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I uncovered the surprising story. Among the excellent sources are John W. Blackett’s website San Francisco Cemeteries, Deanna L. Kastler’s short article in the Winter 1992 issue of the Argonaut, and Trina Lopez’s 45-minute documentary, A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries.
Of the City’s early burial grounds I had visited the churchyard cemetery next to Mission Dolores (after all it appeared in Vertigo) and the military cemetery in the Presidio and learned that Dolores Park was once two Jewish cemeteries: Hills of Eternity, owned by Congregation Sherith Israel, and Home of Peace, owned by Congregation Emanu-El.
The San Francisco Public Library buildings (both old and new) were built on the site of the old Yerba Buena Cemetery, which had been abandoned in the late 1850s. Not to say that any uninterred bodies remain, but what I perceive to be a toxic energy field in that area reminds me of the movie Poltergeist, in which the ghosts invade a suburban housing development, discovered to have been built on the site of an old graveyard in which the bodies were never removed.
I didn’t realize that Lincoln Park was the site of City Cemetery, Potter’s Field and later Golden Gate Cemetery, the largest in the city. In 1993, during renovations and expansion of the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum, hundreds of bodies were discovered. Supposedly reinterred in Colma, the headstones had been removed, leaving unmarked graves. They’re still there, sleeping under the oblivious golfers and museum-goers.
Much of the middle of San Francisco’s 49 square miles, now termed the Inner Richmond, was dominated by the “Big Four” cemeteries developed in the 1860s: Odd Fellows, Masonic, Laurel Hill, and Calvary. I have several maps framed on my living room wall showing big swatches of green where the cemeteries spread.
The cry “Remove the cemeteries” began in the 1880s, by 1900 the graveyards were filled and deteriorating, and in 1902 burials were prohibited within the city. In the 1920s bodies from Mason and Odd Fellows Cemeteries began to be removed to Colma and in the 1930s and ‘40s Laurel Hill and Calvary remains were transferred. The headstones were used for a variety of building projects including Buena Vista Park, the Wave Organ on the breakwater near the St. Francis Yacht Club, and landfill at Aquatic Park and Ocean Beach.
The newly available real estate was used to develop the campuses of St. Ignatius College and San Francisco College for Women (now both part of University of San Francisco), Laurel Heights neighborhood, Rossi Playground, Jordan Park, and many other civic projects. One of the few remnants of this history is the San Francisco columbarium, whose verdigris neoclassical dome floats above the Pier One on Geary Boulevard. But more about that another time…