Celebrity graves, ornate mausoleums & a pet cemetery: Get to know the Peninsula’s century-old necropolis.

A view into the Italian Cemetery of Colma. (Photo by Charles Russo)

I had the entire pet cemetery to myself.

And contrary to all horrifying Stephen King notions of that scenario, it was actually really nice—just late day tranquility amid a lawn full of tombstones shaped like dog bones.

RIP Gosha…at Pet’s Rest Cemetery in Colma. (Photo by Charles Russo)

In fact, everywhere I went while touring the graveyards of Colma—the Peninsula’s sprawling necropolis—things were quiet, exceptionally social-distanced and emanating All Hallow’s atmosphere.

Formed in 1924 as a city of cemeteries, the town of Colma incorporates a total land mass of just two square miles with about 1600 living residents and more than 1.5 million deceased inhabitants (which span 17 different graveyards…18 if you include the pet cemetery).

If you’ve never explored the graveyards of Colma, 2020 is a great year to do so. As Covid-era Halloween seems scary for all the wrong reasons, the essential business of cemeteries means that they are open and mostly oriented outdoors. Better yet, there’s just a lot of really cool things to see in Colma, from celebrity tombs to elaborately designed mausoleums…to hamsters on headstones?

So take a look here at some of the main highlights of what our 6–5–0 necropolis has to offer, and then plan a visit. (Just wear a mask…and don’t forget to leave a quirky tribute at the grave site of the Emperor of the United States.)

Interior views of the elaborate stained glass windows within the mausoleum at Cypress Lawn Cemetery. (Photo by Charles Russo)

The mausoleum of Cypress Lawn Cemetery

High on the list of must-see highlights in Colma are the stunning stained-glass corridors of the Cypress Lawn mausoleum.

Take the road up from the southern entrance (past the main parking lot) at Cypress Lawn to the first building at the top of the hill. And then just wander the corridors of the mausoleum, where you’ll find a series of highly detailed stained-glass windows which run the length of the ceiling throughout many of the halls.

On weekdays, the mausoleum is typically very quiet and devoid of any visitors. Combine that with some late day sun hitting the stained glass and you have a private showing to what is arguably one of the great under-the-radar sightseeing gems of the Bay Area.

Some of the many graveyards in the city of Colma: (clockwise from top) The main entryway to the Serbian Cemetery; a view from the office building of the Japanese Benevolent Society; The Hills of Eternity Jewish Cemetery. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Diverse in death

As the intended burial place of San Franciscans and many residents of the Peninsula, Colma’s cemeteries logically reflect the ethnic diversity of the Bay Area: there are four different Jewish cemeteries (Hills of Eternity, Salem Memorial Park, Eternal Home and Home of Peace), the graveyard of the Japanese Benevolent Society, the Serbian Cemetery, the very large Italian Cemetery and Mausoleum, Greek Orthodox Memorial Park and the Chinese Cemetery (Holy Sun Memorial).

In addition, Colma has some very large graveyards which house a more general, non-denominational population.

All of these locations have their own particular landscape, aesthetics and architecture, making them each a unique place to explore.

A few of Colma’s most famous residents: (far left) Wyatt Earp, the western Marshall (and gambler) known for participating in the OK Corral shootout; (center) Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of the United States” has a plot facing his beloved San Francisco; (right) the grave of legendary baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio is adorned with baseballs by his fans. (Photos by Charles Russo)

Celebrity graves

As long as you’re in the necropolis, why not visit some of the notable locals who have made their final resting place in Colma? There are lot!

Take a look:

  • First off, there is some Hall of Fame calibre baseball talent to be found in Colma. The Yankee Clipper, yes…the iconic Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery and is visited often by baseball fans of various team allegiances (his teammate Frankie “the Crow” Crosetti is buried there too!). SF Giants legend Willie McCovey was recently buried at Cypress Lawn in 2018, and old school great (and SF native) “Lefty” O’Doul is located there, as well.
  • Find the tombstone of the famed Deputy Marshall of Tombstone: Wild West lawman/gambler/saloon owner Wyatt Earp is buried next to his wife at Hills of Eternity.
  • Visit one of our favorite figures in Colma—Phineas Gage, the 19th Century railroad foreman who became nationally known after surviving a freak accident in which…wait for it…an iron rod was driven completely through his skull. Say hi to old Phineas at Cypress Lawn.
  • Abigail Folger, the coffee heiress and tragic victim of the Manson family murders is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery.
  • Look out for notable power players of San Francisco history: legendary music promoter Bill Graham is located at Eternal Home Cemetery; newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst is at Cypress Lawn; denim jean designer Levi Strauss can be found at Hills of Eternity. Also, numerous former mayors including Ed Lee, Joseph Alioto, James Rolph and George Christopher (the city’s last Republican mayor) are all in Colma.
  • Above all, don’t sleep on the patron saint of all that is wonderfully weird in the Bay—yes, the one and only Emperor of United States (and Protector of Mexico) Joshua Norton I is buried is at Woodlawn Cemetery. Pay tribute by bringing him a beer or a yo-yo or something.
Scenes from Pet’s Rest—Colma’s only pet cemetery. (Photos by Charles Russo)

Hang with the cool cats at Pet’s Rest

As mentioned earlier, Colma’s one pet cemetery will—despite being a graveyard—lift your spirits. Why? Because the love and devotion of the families who buried their pets there is readily on display in every direction. Pet’s Rest has been operating since 1947 and the range of story and sentiment surrounding the animal graves there is well worth the visit while in town.

Better yet, there’s an amaaazing mural which posits a Saint Bernard as the holy gatekeeper of animal heaven (see above). Hallelujah!

The huge sprawling graveyard of Cypress Lawn Cemetery. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Beware the Colma gargoyle (and other haunts)

Most of the graveyards close daily by 5pm, so experiencing the graveyards is largely a daytime endeavor. Even still, the necropolis is not without it’s share of spooky urban legends, such as the myriad accounts of a gargoyle-like creature that hops between tombstones at night. Or the bloody zombie-type figure that was once spotted by a night-shift police officer before quickly vanishing.

Of course, those are just the rumors, perhaps spurred on by big bouts of fog and spooky cemetery atmosphere. Many real crimes have taken place around Colma over the years, as well. There was the bludgeoned corpse of a Russian prostitute discovered in the Serbian graveyard (still an unsolved crime). Or the female body discovered in a tree wrapped in a rug near one of the city’s largest graveyards. Other odd stories abound: A suicide on a relative’s grave, animal parts found in cemeteries, evidence of late night seances…what else would you expect from a thriving necropolis?

A mariachi band plays during Dia de los Muertos celebrations at Woodlawn Memorial Park, in 2017. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Rituals for the dead

The graveyards of Colma often hold different holiday festivals, remembrances and other cultural tributes to the dead. Check their websites seasonally for event listings.

Anxious to see one? Woodlawn Memorial Park holds its annual Dia de los Muertos celebration on November 1st, beginning at 10am.

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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