City of Souls Real estate has never been a hotter—and these days, pricier—commodity in San Francisco. Even back in the late 19th century, when a robust young city was experiencing booming growth, it was decided that land was just too scarce and too valuable to waste on the dead.
First came a decree forbidding burials within city limits, and later an ordinance evicting cemeteries. Between 1923 and 1941 laborers disinterred hundreds of thousands of San Francisco graves and moved them south to the town of Colma. This 2-square-mile municipality subsequently became known as the “city of souls,” the only place of its kind in the world. Today more than 1.5 million souls are laid to rest in Colma, and many residents are employed in the funeral industry.
San Francisco's first recorded burial took place in 1776 at the Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores). The U.S. Army established a military cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1854. These are the only two burial grounds remaining of the more than two dozen that existed at the turn of the 20th century. Relocating the city's four largest cemeteries—Calvary, Laurel Hill, Masonic and Odd Fellows—reclaimed 160 acres of land.
Many heirs and the Catholic Diocese opposed the desecration of hallowed ground, however. Of special concern were the graves of city pioneers, war veterans and statesmen. Legal challenges dragged on for decades, and in some cases it took that long to locate relatives of the deceased, as so many official records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Wealthy families could arrange for private burials, but thousands ended up in mass graves. Unclaimed headstones became recycled stone for public works projects; in Buena Vista Park it's still possible to discern faint epitaphs embedded in the storm drains. For photographers wondering what to do with vacation days, you can spend an afternoon tracking down these unique street features that speak to San Francisco’s hidden history.
In 1993, crews working on a major seismic strengthening construction project at Legion of Honor unearthed some 300 corpses dating to the gold rush era. A Serbian burial ground lies beneath the 13th tee at the Lincoln Park Golf Course. The Richmond neighborhood and the campus of the University of San Francisco both stand on old graveyards. The San Francisco Columbarium, built in 1898 as the centerpiece of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, survives as a repository for cremated remains. This domed Beaux Arts building holds thousands of urns—a few bearing famous names—and niches are still available.
Today Colma's cemeteries attract the curious as well as those paying their respects. Like the original sites in San Francisco, most are laid out by nationality or faith. They include two Chinese cemeteries, one Japanese, two Jewish, one Italian, one Serbian, one Greek Orthodox, one Catholic, four nondenominational—and one for pets.
Colma's Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, which inherited 35,000 graves from San Francisco, is noted for its park-like, beautifully landscaped grounds and elaborate mausoleums. Here are grandiose monuments to Andrew Hallidie, inventor of the cable car; mining tycoon James C. Flood; and the family of William Randolph Hearst.
Colma is the final resting place for Joe DiMaggio, buried at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, and Wyatt Earp, who lies with his third wife, Josephine, at the Hills of Eternity Jewish Cemetery. Joshua A. Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, rests in peace at Woodlawn Cemetery; an estimated 30,000 people attended the funeral of “Emperor Norton I” in 1880.
Colma is 9 miles south of San Francisco, off I-280 at the Daly City exit. Cemeteries are open daily to the public, and driving tour maps are available from the Colma Historical Association at 1500 Hillside Blvd.; phone (650) 757-1676. The association's delightfully ironic motto: “It's great to be alive in Colma.”
San Francisco, CA
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Members save 5% or more and earn Marriott Bonvoy™ points when booking AAA/CAA rates!The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square
335 Powell St. San Francisco, CA 94102
State and county sales taxes total 8.5 percent in San Francisco. A hotel room tax of 15 to 15.5 percent also is levied.
California Pacific Medical Center, (415) 600-6000; Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, (415) 353-6000; St. Mary's Medical Center, (415) 668-1000; Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, (415) 206-8000; University of California San Francisco Medical Center, (415) 476-1000.
749 Howard St San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone:(415)391-2000
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 13 miles south near San Bruno off US 101 (Bayshore Freeway); it receives flights from some 50 airlines as well as private charters. Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 3 miles northwest of downtown San Jose. Oakland International Airport (OAK) is off I-880 about 10 miles south of downtown Oakland.
Hertz, with locations at the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports, offers discounts to AAA members. Phone (650) 624-6600 for the San Francisco airport location, (415) 771-2200 for the outlet at 325 Mason St., (510) 633-4300 for the Oakland airport location, (408) 938-6000 for the San Jose airport location, or (800) 654-3080.
For schedule and fare information phone Amtrak at (800) 872-7245.
Greyhound Lines Inc., (800) 231-2222, departs from Bus Deck Level Three of the Salesforce Transit Center, 425 Mission St.
Taxis in San Francisco are metered, with fares averaging about $3.50 for the first one-fifth mile and 55c for each additional one-fifth mile or minute of waiting time. Either phone for a cab or wait at a hotel taxi stand (hailing one on the street often takes time and persistence). Limousine service ranges from $60-$80 per hour.
San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) provides public transportation consisting of buses, streetcars, light rail, trolley buses and cable cars. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects San Francisco with East Bay cities, and passenger ferries link the city with the northern Bay Area.