The people of New Orleans are on intimate terms with death. It surrounds you, hanging in the air, buried within the thick spongy heat, seeping from the molds of decaying buildings, floating on the corrupt waters of the Mississippi. It is a formidable, living presence -- that Louisiana death -- and it makes itself known. When the swamp on which New Orleans was built exerts its dominion over the land, the water rises and so do the dead. In recent memory, corpses floated through the streets until they were claimed by loved ones. Now, enormous cement hoods insulate the grave sites. When the water rises, the coffins bob to the surface and pound against the concrete epidermis until the swamp waters recede. The eerie cacophony is the delight of Arcadian guides.
Perhaps this close proximity to death allows the people of New Orleans to feel comfortable with their mortality. Folks regularly handle their deceased, shifting and stacking bodies in the family crypt, turning old caskets into plant boxes. At dusk, children play hide-and-seek in crumbling cemeteries. Old women slip between tombs during the heat of the day to soak their heads under faucets fixed for gravediggers.
In the 1800s, San Francisco was similarly drenched in decomposition as the gold rush introduced thousands of men to hasty extinction. Bodies were piled willy-nilly in what is now North Beach, until they putrefied and the stench began to creep. Then the grazing sheep were kicked off the land and the bodies were moved, but the "official" cemetery, which should have lasted 40 years, filled up in less than 10. Other cemeteries were built, but even then, San Francisco property was more valuable than its history, and bodies were frequently exhumed without informing bereaved families. In 1913, the governing officials of San Francisco made it illegal for any legally lifeless body to be interred within the city limits. Everybody had to pick up and move south or suffer the indignity of a mass burial. Colma was born.
Colma is an authentic necropolis, created for one purpose only. It has no grocery store, school, church, or barbershop. The dead outnumber the living thousands to one, and, according to City of Souls: San Francisco's Necropolis at Colma by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett, it is the only town of its kind in the world.
For Joe Carroll, board member of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, it's a great excuse for a historical group ride, and seemingly a natural for Night Crawler -- except for the bike-riding, of course.
The BART ride to Daly City is a far cry from the funeral trains of the early 1900s -- those decorously maudlin cars curtained in black velvet and yellow fever that ran from San Francisco to Colma's Holy Cross Cemetery several times a day -- but given the early morning hour, I feel appropriately miserable. Nearly 40 people are gathered in the BART station -- macabre college students, shiny-faced bike enthusiasts, and chatty members of the Mile High Singles Club (club, not dating service, mind you).
Carroll passes out graham cracker treats made by his mother, and conversations veer toward the inevitable.
"I've never been to a funeral," admits 28-year-old Ben Discoe, "but I've seen Harold and Maude. My father's a Japanese Buddhist priest, so he's big on cremation."
"My grandmother's ashes were FedEx'd from Manhattan to Long Island," chuckles Cassandra Thomas, a 24-year-old urban studies major at Stanford. "They arrived in a tin can. We don't have the attachment to our dead that other cultures seem to have."
"I like the pet cemetery," says Joe Hospodor, an 8-year-old Los Gatos resident who has ridden tandem with his father through the graveyards of Colma on another occasion. "There's a dog buried there called Tarzan the Puddyman."
Hospodor cracks an 8-year-old's grin and adjusts his riding gloves. "The ride's not too hard," he assures me.
The hill is murder. I am grateful only that the organizers won't have far to drag my lifeless form before a proper burial might be performed. Thankfully, Bike Dave -- our mobile bicycle mechanic and roving two-wheel ambassador -- circles back and forth along the route, picking up strays.
On top of the hill, overlooking the rolling hills of Colma, we are offered tantalizing tidbits: Palm fronds represent victory over death; cypress trees are an ancient Roman symbol of mourning; foo dogs protect Chinese graves; an hourglass with wings indicates resurrection; pinwheels allow the spirit to catch the wind; Molloy's Tavern, built in 1880, is the only place in Colma to find tangible spirits.
Dropping down the long hill into Colma, I am struck by giggles at the sight of an "All roads lead to Colma" bumper sticker. Colma residents are proud of their strange little town. The neighbors are quiet, they assure me, no trouble at all. While only 20 percent of deaths nationally result in cremation, cremation requests jump to 60 percent in the Bay Area (70 percent in Marin). Still, there are 16 cemeteries within the 2.2 square miles of Colma's city limits.
In the Japanese Cemetery, I am told it's "better to be red than dead," as the name of living grave owners are painted in red, while the deceased get whitewashed; all stones face east, to be warmed by the morning sun. In the Italian Cemetery and Mausoleum, rows of tiny gravestones engraved with lambs indicate the final resting place of a family's children, oftentimes all of them deceased within months of one another. While Cypress Lawn Memorial Park is the most structurally impressive burial place -- the very wealthy filling their private family mausoleums with enough marble and stained glass to choke your average $300,000 flat -- and the Holy Cross Cemetery is the largest and boasts the most famous people -- Bela Lugosi, Sharon Tate, Rita Hayworth, Jimmy Durante -- it is the Olivet Memorial Park that leaves the greatest impression. Here are the ashes of Ishi, the last California Yahi Indian, who was captured in 1911 and put on display at the University of California, San Francisco until he died several months later. Olivet also boasts special sections for Marine Cooks and Stewards, Alaska Fishermen, Knights of Pythias, Manzanita Tribe, Sailors Union of the Pacific, and a touching Baby Land littered with toy trains and curling photographs.