Gardens of the Dead

A field between a Best Buy and Home Depot in Colma hides thousands of unmarked graves.

This mall-adjacent farm is “a very unconventional piece of cemetery property.” (Photo by Bob Calhoun)

It’s a scene of contrasts, if not out-and-out incongruities. Farmers in straw hats tend to rows of lush green crops as the shadow cast by Colma’s mammoth Home Depot creeps over the field. A Best Buy can be seen in the distance, and Ross Dress for Less and Ulta Beauty beckon from across the street. But underneath the rows of flowers these farmers cultivate lie generations of San Francisco’s dead.

A gate warning of a guard dog separates the farm from the rest of the adjacent Greenlawn Cemetery, one of the many graveyards that make the town of Colma into the Bay Area’s necropolis. The only marker indicating that this field is also a gravesite is an imposing, 25-foot-tall stone column standing in the middle of a large patch of grass. The top of the column is uneven and jagged, as if it had broken off during a move. An inscription reads, “Odd Fellows Cemetery Association Founded 1865.”

The land around the monument is a flat field. The bodies beneath it arrived after more than 26,000 graves were exhumed from the old Odd Fellows Cemetery on San Francisco’s Lone Mountain at Geary and Arguello boulevards in 1933, and trucked over to Colma during the mass exodus of the dead from S.F. city limits. The bodies under the rows of crops closer to the Best Buy are from “a different time in our history when the city would send us bodies” says Danae Doukas, a counselor at Greenlawn.

“That area has nothing to do with the cemetery,” Doukas continues. “It’s not anyone’s business to know.”

When asked if Greenlawn profits from the field, Doukas says it does not. Before the farming operation started, sometime around 2000, the field on Colma Boulevard was overgrown with weeds. Today, a Latino family maintains the five-acre farm in an arrangement with Greenlawn that both parties find mutually beneficial, and which is allowed under cemetery zoning regulations.

But the oddness of the farm piqued the interest of Alex Snyder, a planner for the SFMTA who does historical consulting on the side.

“It’s a very unconventional piece of cemetery property,” Snyder says by phone. “It really is.”

He first became aware of this farm over a graveyard after performing the map work that helped identify Edith Howard Cook (1873-1876), the “mystery girl” who died at age 3 and whose sealed glass coffin was found under a house in San Francisco during garage renovations in 2016.

“I had a lot of unanswered questions even as we wrapped up the Miranda Eve (aka Edith Howard Cook) investigation, and that manifested itself in a number of side projects that were related to that,” Snyder says. “One of them being the Odd Fellows plot at Colma.”

For his research on who made it to the Odd Fellows plot, Snyder tracked down the removal register the Odd Fellows Cemetery Association submitted to San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, as well as the Odd Fellows’ August 1933 order for 25,645 grave markers from W.S. Dickey Clay Manufacturing Co. Decoding the maze of box numbers and arcane notations is already difficult, but glaring inaccuracies made it even more so.

“Edith Cook was supposedly sent to Cypress Lawn [another cemetery near Greenlawn], and so was her father, and we know that she didn’t leave the cemetery,” Snyder says.

Elissa Davey, the founder of Garden of Innocence — an organization that led the project to identify and rebury Edith Howard Cook — wants a more fitting memorial for the 26,000 people interred in the Colma field.

“All we would really like to see is a path running alongside the Home Depot wall, with access to be able to walk out there to pay honor to those people that are in that field,” Davey tells SF Weekly. “We want to memorialize that field.”

Greenlawn doesn’t currently have any plans for the site, however, and these rows of flowers may be the best memorial San Franciscans of centuries past can hope for. Nearby, the corporate boom continues: The Serramonte Mall on the other side of Interstate 280 will soon add another 200,000 square feet of retail space, and a new Black Bear Diner is going in just around the corner.

Check out more stories about what happens to San Franciscans when they die:

Human Burial Ceremonies Are Now Rocket Science
Elysium shoots your loved ones’ ashes into outer space.

A Grave Undertaking
Moving 150,000 graves from San Francisco to Colma in the early 1900s was a dirty job, but the political fights were even dirtier.

Ashes to Ashes
Cremation is on the rise as local prices for funerals and graves skyrocket.

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