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.

San Francisco has no active cemeteries today — but we used to. The city was once home to two dozen for humans, plus one for pets. In the early 1900s, all of the human bodies were exhumed by hand and moved, primarily to Colma, a gruesome process that took nearly 40 years and pitted generations of politicians against San Francisco’s most powerful families and political interests.

The land on which City Hall and Civic Center BART now sit was San Francisco’s first graveyard, Yerba Buena Cemetery. If you live in NoPa or near the University of San Francisco campus, you almost certainly live on top of a former graveyard. Even Dolores Park used to be two separate Jewish graveyards, although they were among the first to move south.

In the early 1900s, cemeteries weren’t safe or sanitary places. Coffins were rarely used, and bodies were left to rest in places other than cemeteries: Human remains were frequently discovered by kids playing knick-knack paddy-whack.

As the city grew, developers looked at these acres of graveyards and saw dollar signs. A 1914 election mailer calculated the value of San Francisco graveyard land at $7 million — or $90 million today.

This set off a debate between the ambitions of the living and reverence toward the dead. Battle lines were drawn between wealthy local families and recent transplants with no kin buried here. The cemetery-rich Richmond District was ground zero for the debate, and where new residents with last names like Crocker and Sutro felt graveyards drove down property values.

In March 1900, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance called “Prohibiting the Burial of the Dead in the City and County of San Francisco” that outlawed any more burials within city limits. By 1914, the board declared these cemeteries “a public nuisance,” ordering them shut down and the bodies removed.

A few cemeteries complied. The corpses of Wyatt Earp, Levi Strauss, and Emperor Norton were exhumed and sent south to Colma — then called Lawndale. But the biggest, fanciest graveyards refused to move. These cemeteries were owned by the local orders of the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, and the Catholic Archdiocese. If you think these were powerful organizations in the early 1900s, you’re correct.The well-funded institutions circumvented the Board of Supervisors and got the cemetery ban on the 1914 ballot.

“All the ground within San Francisco is required for living inhabitants!” declared Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph as voters went to the polls. But people voted with their churches and lodges, and that graveyard ban went down, 62-38.

Still, those burial plots weren’t getting any nicer — plus caskets were being looted for the corpses’ jewelry and valuables. Poor people squatted on cemetery lands, and the media used anti-homeless sentiment to stoke cemetery opposition. “Vaults Now Headquarters for Dope Fiends” screamed one headline of the day.

The Odd Fellows and Freemasons finally began clearing out their cemeteries in the 1920s. Because Department of Health regulations demanded that bodies be moved the same day they were exhumed, lines of hearses held funeral processions to Colma every day for years.

Some archival Planning Department documents describe the grisly reinterment process.

“It was not ‘pretty,’ ” wrote city planner William Proctor in a 1950 analysis. “The smell of death was often present, even though the remains had been laid to rest from 30 to 70 years previously.”

The original caskets were not moved to Colma along with the bodies. A corpse’s final resting box depended on the condition of the human remains. If they could fit in a shoebox, then a shoebox was what they used. The boxes’ cost “varied from $.08 to $2.75,” according to Planning Department documents.

The Catholic church, meanwhile, still refused to move its graves. It argued that Calvary Cemetery was consecrated ground, and removing the remains would constitute sacrilege. Forcing decades of lawsuits and ballot measures, the Archdiocese vowed to fight for its cemetery forever.

It almost did. Voters finally approved the removal of all San Francisco cemeteries in 1937 and the church had to comply.

“Disinterring was done carefully, by hand labor, at Calvary,” according to city documents. “Remains [were] placed in redwood boxes of varying sizes, depending on whether they consisted of ‘dust,’ skeletons, or well-preserved remains. Screens were erected to prevent the intrusion of curious onlookers.”

Headstones weren’t moved to Colma, either; they were used to build structures at Marina Yacht Harbor and Buena Vista Park.

The last bodies were moved out in 1948, 34 years after the supervisors had originally demanded. But, in a move reminiscent of Poltergeist, not all the bodies were moved: Presidio’s Lincoln Park Golf Course still has corpses buried beneath it. “Today, players of golf make merry over the remains of the dead, unhonored and unsung,” complained the Richmond Banner in 1924. And those remains remain there — and hidden across the rest of this city — to this day.

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.

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

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

Related Stories