The Strange, Grim Tale of Colma, Califorinia

Colma, a tiny incorporated town of less than two square miles, is located on the San Francisco peninsula, just south of the city of San Francisco proper. It has the strange distinction of its living residents being outnumbered by the dead by over 1,110 to 1. A 2010 census placed the town’s population at 1,270, while its cemeteries hold more than 2,000,000 bodies. It's known as the City of the Silent, and has the humorous slogan 'It's great to be alive in Colma!' But how on earth did this city of the dead come to be?

Likely to no one’s surprise, it was a financial decision that drove the creation of Colma as we know it today—one all about skyrocketing land values in San Francisco. Even before the catastrophic earthquake of 1906, San Francisco had banned the construction of new cemeteries. But as the residents rebuilt following the devastation and land was in ever greater demand, the city passed a law in 1912 evicting all the dead from within the city limits. Needless to say, this decision wasn’t without controversy. The Catholic Church opposed the removed of remains from the Calvary Cemetery because the dead were interred on hallowed ground. Still others objected to the indignity of exhuming a number of the city’s pioneers and founders who were buried at the Lauren Hill Cemetery. Finally, the law was upheld. But where do you move nearly 160,000 bodies and how do you carry out this feat? The answer in the end was Colma, a tiny community just south of the city built along the El Camino Real, or the King’s Highway, and the associated railway line.

Digging up the dead at the Old Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco, Calfornia.

Digging up the dead at the Old Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco, Calfornia.

It was a task that took decades, from the 1920s to the 1940s. Odd Fellows Cemetery held 26,000 dead and it took more than 6 years to move them all to Greenlawn Memorial Park, as well as the 40,000 remains transferred from the Masonic Cemetery to Woodlawn Park. World War II interrupted the moving of 35,000 sets of remains from Lauren Hill Cemetery to Cypress Lawn in Colma. The remains had to be held in the Cypress Abbey Mausoleum since building the mausoleum meant as their final resting place was delayed by the war. But it was moving the remains of the 55,000 Catholic souls from Calvary Cemetery to Holy Cross that proved to be the most daunting as the Catholic Church would only support the transfer if each deceased was moved one at a time, properly screened for privacy, and with a priest in attendance. Only when this proposal was approved would the Archdiocese allow the removal of the remains starting in 1937.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma, California

Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma, California

However, due to incomplete buried records, some of the oldest interred inhabitants of San Francisco were missed when the previous cemetery grounds were utilized to build colleges, parks, businesses, and housing. The Golden Gate Cemetery, founded in 1868, was turned into the Lincoln Park Golf Course and the associated Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. During a retrofit of the museum in 1993, over a thousand coffins and sets of remains were unearthed. None of the city’s death records survived the earthquake and the raging fire that followed, but it is estimated that potentially up to 16,000 dead are still interred on the Lincoln Park property. With time, they could be discovered, but who they are will forever be a mystery. Care was taken to bury the dead as best as could be deduced from the remains themselves: Those holding rosaries were transferred to the Catholic cemeteries, while those identified as Chinese were buried in the Green Street Mortuary.

Buena Vista Park gutter, created from an old gravestone

Buena Vista Park gutter, created from an old gravestone

It’s a strange tale of the power of greed balanced by the human need to respect those who have passed on before us. Sadly, following the removal of the remains, the original tombstones and much of the cemetery art—including Neoclassical, Gothic and Egyptian statuary—were either crushed as material for gutters or a breakwater near the St. Francis Yacht Club, or were simply disposed of by dropping them into the bay. In addition, during moving of the remains, many were buried unidentified in mass graves or were buried under the wrong name, their true identities lost forever. However, many notable persons are buried in Colma, including Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hurst, Levi Strauss, and Joe Dimaggio.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library (Odd Fellow Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery) and Chinasaur