The deceased greatly outnumber the living in the Necropolis of Colma
By Charles Russo
The ravens wanted me out of the graveyard. Indignant to my presence, they protested with shrill shouts and sharp squawks, fluttering about in agitation from headstone to tree limb.
The cemetery was massive, and I struggled to find my destination. Passing by a pair of weathered old tombs, I tried to assess my location, and then reminded myself to tread lightly in crossing over the graves.
I had been in the necropolis for a few hours, and the dead were legion all around me, many of them residents here for more than a century. I had decided to seek out some the most famous (and yes, infamous) among them. I found Old West legend Wyatt Earp, and then baseball icon Joe DiMaggio. At the moment though, I was searching for Joshua Norton, the 19th Century eccentric from San Francisco who declared himself, “Emperor of the United States.”
The three historical figures had little in common, except for their final resting place — six feet below, here in the necropolis of Colma, a literal “City of the Dead” that has long maintained its intended purpose as one of the most unique cemetery complexes in the nation.
Above and below
There’s a one-mile stretch of El Camino Real, between Lawndale Boulevard and F Street in Colma, which can feel like the Las Vegas strip of cemeteries. The road is populated on both sides by huge stretches of sprawling acreage beset with every size, shape and style of tombstones. The graveyards have their own names, layouts and specific features, which then imbues them with their own singular sense of atmosphere and identity.
To the south lies Cypress Lawn Cemetery, one of the biggest of all the graveyards, with sprawling “campuses” on both sides of El Camino. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst is buried here on the eastern portion, as is baseball phenom “Lefty” O’Doul. Across the street to the west, Cypress Lawn boasts a massive mausoleum with spectacular stained glass windows that run throughout the interior.
To the north, there are a series of Jewish cemeteries: legendary Bay Area rock concert promoter Bill Graham can be found in Eternal Home, while Levi Strauss — the inventor of Levi’s jeans — is located in Home of Peace. But in looking around, there seems to be a graveyard for everyone: Greek, Italian, Catholic, Japanese, Serbian. Others are non-denominational and quite diverse. At Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery, large sections of century-old tombstones with European names suddenly gives way to huge clusters of Chinese grave sites. Eastward over the hill it is more eclectic still, as a groundskeeper weed-wacks the lawn of a roadside graveyard with tombstones bearing the images of cats and dogs, at Pet’s Rest Cemetery.
Interspersed between all of these locations is a variety of different florist shops, boasting colorful displays out front and advertising their daily sales.
Collectively then, Colma is a place that lives to serve the deceased.
“There’s about 1600 people above ground,” Historical Society secretary Richard Rocchetta explains, “and about one-and-a-half million below ground in the town of Colma… give or take.”
That’s a ratio of about 10,000 dead souls to every living one, which is quite a disparity, though ultimately how it was intended.
When the dead were priced out of San Francisco
At the start of the 20th Century, San Francisco began to pass ordinances against any future burials within the city limits. Realizing that land was both limited and extremely valuable, city officials began to think of ways to relocate the graveyards.
In 1912, Mayor James Rolph declared the existing cemeteries within the city to be public health hazards and prone to vandalism. He employed this line of reasoning to formally call for their removal from the city, and the issue soon grew contentious as others saw a thinly-veiled land grab in the works. The matter soon became a huge issue of citywide debate as civic officials and graveyard owners went to war over the dead for years.
Eventually the city officials won, and Colma was incorporated in 1924,with 13 new graveyards to establish it as a cemetery town. The relocation of San Francisco’s dead to Colma, was a long (and inexact) process which took until 1941 to complete.
Today, there are only 2 cemeteries within the city of San Francisco (at Mission Dolores and in the Presidio). Colma, meanwhile, has 17 of them.
Life in honor of death
After visiting the grave sites of some of Colma’s most famous residents, I make my way to Woodlawn Memorial Park, at the northern end of town, where I find a wonderfully surreal scene playing out in honor of the dead.
The Chinese festival of Chung Yeung and the Mexico holiday of Dia de los Muertos are both being celebrated — in honor of their deceased ancestors — at the same time, in the same vicinity within the cemetery. At one point as a mariachi band is deep into their song, a lion dance team emerges banging drums and cymbals (as well as lighting firecrackers) with a small group of Buddhist monks following right behind. Soon, it is cacophony of songs and chants, drums and horns all for the same purpose.
I turn to a cemetery employee and ask if they do this every year. “Yes, but it’s just a coincidence that they fall on the same day this year,” he explains with a laugh. “It’s different cultures, but in the end, it has the same meaning, to come and honor the dead.”
Despite their distinctly different rituals and heritage, the two groups are soon mingling over horchata and dumplings. It’s a scene uniquely fitting of the necropolis, since death, after all, is universal.
For more information on the necropolis (as well as detailed maps of notable grave locations), visit the Colma Historical Society at 1500 Hillside Blvd., in Colma. 650–757–1676