by Janice Bressler
Every so often in San Francisco, a tombstone is found on the beach, or a coffin is unearthed during a construction project. This city, as many longtime residents know, was once crowded with cemeteries – most of which were dug up decades ago and moved to neighboring Colma.
But few people have dug as deeply into the stories behind San Francisco’s lost cemeteries as filmmaker Trina Lopez.
Lopez, a professor in the cinema department at City College of San Francisco, spoke about this dark chapter of city history at a recent meeting of the San Francisco History Association, after a screening of her documentary on the subject – “A Second Final Resting Place: the History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries.”
That history begins in the mid-nineteenth century during the Gold Rush era. San Francisco’s population was exploding and soon there was a corresponding need for more burial places. Four large cemeteries – often referred to as the “Big Four” – were built in the westernmost part of the City on undeveloped land that was then far from the urban center. The Laurel Hill, Calvary, Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries took up between 60 and 70 square blocks of land in the Richmond District.
Today, those same acres serve as the sites for Rossi Playground, University of San Francisco and the University of California, Laurel Heights campus, as well as other business and residential buildings.
Another huge graveyard, City Cemetery (also called Golden Gate Cemetery), was built even farther west on land that today’s residents know as Lands End, the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum and Lincoln Park Golf Course. But in the late 19th century, as the City continued to grow and development pushed westward, many began to demand that the dead make way for the living.
On March 30, 1900, the SF Board of Supervisors passed Health Ordinance #25, which banned any further burials within city limits, effective August, 1901.
Heated debate continued over what do with the many graveyards that already existed and occupied increasingly valuable real estate. Many supported preserving the cemeteries in the name of honoring the past and the sanctity of a soul’s final resting place. But those in favor of evicting the dead raised fears about alleged health hazards and also pointed to the disrepair and deterioration of many of the cemeteries. In the end, the push for development ruled the day and advocates for moving the graveyards
In the early 20th century, measures were passed to evict nearly all of San Francisco’s cemeteries. A coalition of cemetery associations incorporated the town of Colma (then called Lawndale) as a home for San Francisco’s unwanted dead.
The president of Colma’s present day historical society, Pat Hatfield, who was interviewed in Lopez’s film, says that to her knowledge this country has never seen, before or since, a transplantation of graves on the magnitude of the one from San Francisco to Colma.
During the late 1930s and 1940s, all of the Big Four cemeteries were destroyed and an estimated 125,000 exhumed bodies were moved to Colma.
Lopez’s research has exposed some disturbing aspects of that move. Thousands of San Franciscans who were reburied in Colma found their second final resting place in mass burial sites, without an individual headstone or grave marker to identify them by name.
Cemetery historian Ron Fillon, also interviewed in Lopez’s film, explains that although efforts were made to locate the families of those slated to be reburied in Colma and give them a chance to arrange for a private reburial, many descendants were not interested or simply could not be found. Instead, the granite tombstones and marble sculptures that had filled the cemeteries became rubble, sold off cheaply to serve as landfill, to bolster sea walls or line the paths and gutters of the city’s parks.
For her film, Lopez also tracked down elderly residents who grew up in the Richmond District and remember walking through and even playing in the graveyards of the cemeteries. One recalled that as a child growing up in the years leading up to World War II, she and her friends used the nearby cemeteries as a playground. There were hills to roll down and even a little lake to wade in.
Another remembers playing around grave sites that were being excavated in the late 1930s and that during a game of chase, one of her friends fell, without serious injury, into an open grave.
By the end of the 1940s, the Big Four cemeteries were gone.
The only remaining cemeteries in the City today are the historic graveyard at Mission Dolores and the SF National Cemetery in the Presidio (which is on federal, not city, land). Although the City unearthed and moved an estimated 125,000 bodies, additional bodies have been discovered in the years since.
In 1994, when the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was undergoing seismic renovation, close to 800 bodies were discovered in the ground underlying the museum. Although project archeologists had expected to find a few bones or an isolated grave, no one expected to find the hundreds that were exhumed during that project.
Further, there were many bodies that were left in place due to the museum’s concerns with project delays. There is no official count of the number of bodies that were left there, but some archeologists speculate that there may be hundreds.
The bodies removed during the Legion of Honor’s retrofit project are buried now under a single black grave marker in a San Mateo cemetery. The marker reads: “Here rest San Franciscans, 19th century pioneers, native sons and daughters, removed from City Cemetery, Lincoln Park and reinterred 1994.”
For more information about Trina Lopez or her film, “A Second Final Resting Place: the History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries,” go to the website at http://www.trinalopez.com.