Ye Olde Cemeteries of SF, Part III: The Big Four

May 6, 2021

San Francisco’s largest cemeteries were clustered together on the Western side of the city, in an area called Lone Mountain. This complex was established in 1850, when the city sold a large parcel of land to private developers for the purpose of operating cemeteries. Four cemeteries were created on this parcel of land. They would eventually be known as The Big Four (You may have heard of the other Big Four – the railroad barons of the same era – Crocker, Stanford, Hopkins, and Huntington. There’s a restaurant in Nob Hill named after them and true story I ate KANGAROO there once.)  These were the first private, non-sectarian burial grounds in the city, and they filled up fast. Individually, they were the Masonic, Calvary, Odd Fellows, and Laurel Hill Cemeteries. Like the other cemeteries we covered, they didn’t last long. The city crowded in on them as they became decrepit and overgrown, and they were moved out by the mid twentieth century. In the grand tradition of San Francisco cemeteries, a lot of bodies were left behind. Welcome to Poltergeist Town! 

Lone Mountain circa 1867 [source: OpenSFHistory / wnp37.00670.jpg]

Lone Mountain

In 1854, the Masons purchased 38 acres to build the Masonic Cemetery. The Masons (Freemasons) are an international fraternal organization - and they build a lot of cemeteries. You’ll find Masonic cemeteries everywhere across America. If you read the Internet you also know that they secretly control money and the government and are part of the Illuminati AND run by reptilian lizard people but the takeaway here is CEMETERIES. 

In 1860, the Catholic Archdiocese bought 49 acres of the Lone Mountain complex and established Calvary Cemetery. Before Calvary, Catholics in San Francisco were buried in the churchyard at Mission Dolores, the old known burial ground in the city. The first Archbishop of San Francisco, Joseph Alemany, consecrated the ground at Calvary. Alemany is kind of a famous name around here, and NOW YOU KNOW WHY.

Also in 1860, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows purchased 38 acres of Lone Mountain and built their own cemetery. Like the Masons, the Odd Fellows are a fraternal order, but they had more of a mutual-aid vibe. Odd Fellows started as a benevolent society when there were few social programs to help widows, orphans, and sick workers. Part of the aid they provided was burial services - that’s why you’ll see a lot of Odd Fellows cemeteries around, too.

The remainder of Lone Mountain became Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1867. “Lone Mountain” was a spooky and desolate name (TO BE CLEAR I LOVE IT), so the grounds were named “Laurel Hill” after a cemetery in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill was one of the first park-like burial grounds established as part of the Garden Cemetery Movement in America. This movement was beginning to take hold in the West, and developers in San Francisco hoped to emulate it with OUR Laurel Hill. 

The Garden Cemetery Movement was an architectural trend that turned burial grounds into bucolic public spaces. For most of recorded time in Europe, the dead were buried in churchyards --  small, consecrated plots adjacent to the church (Mission Dolores is a churchyard). As cities grew and population increased rapidly during the nineteenth century, these churchyards were no longer large enough to hold the dead. They became a nuisance, overflowing with bodies and contaminating the urban space. 

The Garden Cemetery Movement was the Victorian solution - large, park-like “rural” cemeteries on the edge of town. These spaces offered curated gardens and sculpture, and were essentially the first urban parks. They were as much for recreation as they were for the burial of the dead. Laurel Hill San Francisco, like Laurel Hill Philadelphia, was non-sectarian, meaning no religious body oversaw it. In theory anyone could be buried there, but in practice it was probably mostly white Protestant folks who could afford it. At the time, Lone Mountain was at the edge of San Francisco, but the city would close in on it soon enough, and newer public parks (like Golden Gate Park) would take its place for recreation. 

Masonic Cemetery circa 1900 [source: OpenSFHistory / wnp27.2462.jpg]

Just like Yerba Buena and City Cemetery, however, these graveyards would not last very long in San Francisco.  They filled up very fast, and westward development encroached rapidly on their space. By the early 20th century, Lone Mountain was no longer the outskirts of town. Residential and commercial activity was booming, and residents wanted the land for the living. In 1900, a long battle began to evict the dead and use the land for them, instead. 

A Downward Spiral

The Big Four fell into massive disrepair in what is kind of a chicken and egg problem. In 1900, the city ordered all burials to stop. That meant no new business for any of these cemeteries. At this time, there was no such thing as perpetual care funds or trusts - money came in through burials, and when those stopped, so did the cash. As the cemeteries ran out of funds to maintain them, they fell into disrepair. As they began to look worse and worse, clamor to remove them increased. 

AND YEAH DID THESE CEMETERIES LOOK BAD. First of all, the 1906 earthquake fucked the place up. Statuary broke, tombs cracked, stones tumbled over. As care decreased, weeds sprouted, vandalism occurred, and people started using the cemeteries for less than pious activites:   bootlegging, sex, fraternity rituals, bonfires, and plain old outdoor living. As respect for the spaces decreased, so did the vandalism:  wings, arms, and legs were smashed off of statues and littered the ground, whole statutes were broken and carried off for personal use. Tombs were broken into and left open, doors stolen, parts of coffins left behind, and BONES STREWN ABOUT. 

That’s right! Tomb robbing led to open graves and grave detritus strewn about the cemeteries: 

Coffins were taken from mausoleums and bones strewn about. Entire skeletons were carried away to be used as Halloween decorations or, despite their apparent protestations, presented to high school and college biology and anatomy teachers. . . Children hiking the cemeteries became accustomed to discovering gruesome relics such as bones protruding from the ground. Some actually engaged in kickball contests with human skulls. On foggy nights college fraternities found the desecrated cemeteries a made-to-order venue for macabre initiation rites, drinking bouts, and sexual orgies. Anguished neighbors complained of hideous laughing and eerie screams emanating from the darkened graveyards.” (Svanevik and Burgett

Calvary Cemetery circa 1865 [source: OpenSFHistory / wnp37.01364.jpg]

In Trina Lopez’ excellent documentary, “A Second Final Rest,” she interviews folks who lived and worked in the graveyards when they were at their worst. One woman told of playing in an opened crypt in Masonic Cemetery and FINDING A MUMMIFIED BABY. Others told of “ghoulish things”  they found at Laurel Hill - tattered old clothing (FROM GRAVES), discarded shoes (ALSO FROM GRAVES). During WWII, searchlights were staged at Lone Mountain. Soldiers were stationed in the cemetery when the city would periodically perform blackout drills and use the searchlights to watch for Japanese planes.  Trina interviewed one of these men. He was a local and didn’t mind being in the graveyard during a blackout, but he said the “Southern guys” got spooked, and “a lot of them didn’t go for that cemetery duty.” It proooobably didn’t help that as he told Trina, every once in a while dogs would DIG UP HUMAN BONES AND CARRY THEM AROUND. Thank you for your service, sir. Seriously. 

Some of these stories were probably exaggerated or spread by the anti-cemetery league (anytime someone mentions SEXUAL ORGIES I am immediately suspicious), but the conditions were objectively NOT GREAT and helped fuel the fight to remove the cemeteries, permanently.  The first calls for removal started way back in 1895 at the behest of the Richmond District Improvement Association. The city was expanding westward, and the Midwinter Exposition had just been held in Golden Gate Park. As the Outside Lands improved, residents began to fill in. The Board of Supervisors began the process to forbid further burials in 1897, passed a resolution in 1900 that took effect in 1902. 

Ellis Act these motherfuckers!

Around this time, city planners began to look outside of San Francisco for space - just south of the city limits to Colma. Colma is a modern Necropolis, or city for the dead. As San Francisco banned burials and closed cemeteries, new ones sprouted up in Colma. This move was led by the Jewish cemeteries, who moved their dead from the Mission and City Cemetery in the 1880’s. The Catholic Church established Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma in 1887, and Italian, Japanese, and Odd Fellows associations established burial grounds there around the turn of the century. In 1887, a funeral train began running on a regular schedule to accommodate burials and visitation. 

Remember, when the burials stopped, so did the profits. The worse the cemeteries looked, the more developers eyeing the land stepped up their efforts to remove them. In 1905, Mayor James Phelan commissioned planner Daniel Burnham to develop a “City Beautiful” plan to improve San Francisco’s urban design. Burnham’s vision included wide boulevards, circular intersections, and hilltop monuments. It did NOT include a large plot of cemeteries in the middle of town. The 1906 earthquake derailed the Burnham plan, but the Board of Supervisors was still determined to get rid of the Big 4. In 1914, they declared the cemeteries a public nuisance and gave plot owners fourteen months to move their dead. 

Odd Fellows cemetery circa 1885 [source: OpenSFHistory / wnp26.342.jpg]

Phelan’s successor, “Sunny” Jim Rolph took a more conservative approach to the cemeteries. He put the removal measure on the ballot, and in 1914 it lost.  In 1921, California passed the Morris Act, which allowed cemetery owners to move remains if the majority of plot owners consented. In 1923, Masonic Cemetery sued and the Morris Act was overturned. In 1923, a new Morris Act passed allowing the city to use its police power to move remains after burial had been prohibited. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors then passed resolutions condemning each of the Big 4 as public nuisances and ordered them to be removed. Meanwhile, a second ballot initiative to remove the cemeteries failed - the public was still on the fence about the issue. Litigation continued until 1937, when the final ruling allowing removal was issued, the same year that the public voted yes on the third ballot initiative put before them. The cemeteries must move to make way for the living. 

Masonic and Odd Fellows Cemeteries saw the writing on the wall and began moving their dead in the 1930s. Masonic sold its property to Saint Ignatius College, which would later become University of San Francisco. They moved 14,300 bodies to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma. The remains were marked with a memorial to the San Francisco Pioneers. The Odd Fellows removal process seems more shady.  They ran an advertising campaign to find descendants, but were unable to locate next of kin for the vast majority of the remains. They didn’t take much care to hide the process - canvas sheeting was held up some times, but other times disinterment took place in plain view. As Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett describe,  “an army of diggers was hired to locate bodies. Stories persist that remains were often uncovered in full states of preservation.” Remains were transported IN MOVING VANS to Greenlawn Cemetery in Colma. Records at Greenlawn show 26,000 buried in mass graves, removal accounts list 28,000.  Like its predecessor in San Francisco, Greenlawn had no endowment or care fund. There is only one marker, the land is overgrown and fenced off and it remains that way today. The Odd Fellows did keep a small parcel of land and the Columbarium, which is still active today.

Laurel Hill Cemetery circa 1930s [source: OpenSFHistory / wnp37.02893.jpg]

In 1937, Calvary and Laurel Hill ceased opposition and began to remove their dead. Disinterment at Calvary was the most orderly and thorough removal process among the Big 4. The Diocese wasn’t fucking around:  all removals were screened from public view, done by hand, with a priest supervising at all times. Remains were removed by hearse, driven to Colma, and reburied the same day.  Records indicate that 55,000 remains were disinterred, and  39,307 were reinterred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The Church made extensive efforts to locate next of kin, presumably with the aid of parish records and the reach of the massive Catholic bureaucracy. According to public documents, many families had remains reinterred in family crypts, vaults, or plots, which is probably where the other 16,000 went. Detailed records were kept at all times. In 1993, Holy Cross installed a marker at the “Calvary Mound” to mark those remains. 

Laurel Hill was the last cemetery to go. The owners desperately wanted to preserve the history there, but the city had already moved on. Garden cemeteries had fallen out of fashion by this point, replaced by more sombre “lawn park cemeteries,” and the decrepit cemetery couldn’t compete with Golden Gate Park, less than a mile away. Cemetery administrators offered to donate the land to the city to create a tourist destination; they tried to donate the statuary and headstones to historical societies and next of kin, but no one wanted them. The fancy marble and granite tombs and markers ended up on public works projects, and Laurel Hill’s dead were transported to Cypress Lawn in Colma. 

Disinterment at Laurel Hill did not begin until 1940, and WWII slowed things down. 38,000 bodies were moved, many held in temporary storage while the war raged on. Reasonable care was taken to remove the bodies - they did a better job than Odd Fellows, but not as great as Calvary. The cemetery tried their best to locate next of kin, but only 1,000 of the bodies were privately moved. The process was performed behind a screen, and remains were put into redwood boxes of varying sizes, along with any jewelry or keepsakes buried with them. Remains were transported to Colma on the same day. After the bodies were removed, the entire tract was retrenched to check for stragglers - 189 additional bodies were found, but other sources report that a total of 3,000 people have not been accounted for. 

A quote from the time illustrates the, uh, atmosphere at Laurel Hill during the removals: 

“Condition of remains disinterred varied from ‘dust’ to almost perfectly embalmed bodies, the latter resulting from filling of cast-iron caskets with groundwater acting as a preservative. The superintendent of the disinterment proceedings told the author that his was an interesting job, but that in some cases it was not ‘pretty.’ The smell of death was often present, even though the remains had been laid to rest from thirty to seventy years previously.”

Overall, removal of The Big Four took years to complete. Here’s a list of where the cemeteries were and what replaced them:

Unlawful Detainers and PROBABLY ghosts

If you follow this channel you know what’s coming next: the removals were not super thorough, aka  some bodies were left behind. Construction on the former cemetery complex routinely turns up folks that they missed in the removal process! Because of course it does, this is Poltergeist Town!

University of San Francisco, on the site of the old Masonic Cemetery, is LOUSY WITH BODIES. According to historians there, the first major construction on the site in 1950 uncovered 200 bodies, and every time they excavate on property, they turn up more. Construction of the Hayes-Healey residence hall in 1966 uncovered so many bones and skulls that workers refused to continue. In 2011, building a science center on campus turned up 55 coffins, 29 skeletons, and several skulls. That’s kind of a lot!!

Workers Digging in Odd Fellow Cemetery 1931 [source]

On the site of the Odd Fellows cemetery, a home remodel project uncovered a beautifully preserved casket with a young girl buried in it. The girl was only about three when she died, and the lead casket was so well sealed that she was remarkably preserved, despite being in the ground for almost 150 years. A non-profit group called Garden of Innocence raised funds to re-bury the girl and crowd-sourced an effort to identify her. Using the serial number on the casket, forensic genealogy, and DNA testing, volunteers identified her as Edith Howard Cook, born in 1873. She died of marasmus at only age three, poor thing. We know she came from a wealthy family and was well cared for, based on handling of her little body. She had lavender braided into her hair and rested in a nest of eucalyptus leaves, a red rose in her hand. She was re-buried in Colma, which is probably where her family eventually ended up. Ericka Karner, the homeowner who found Edith during her remodel, said that ghostly children’s footsteps in her home stopped after the girl was reburied. She told the LA Times “I’m not sure where I stand on where the soul goes, but my hope is … if she was still hanging around here figuring out where she needs to be, that her being identified will give her a little peace and she’ll potentially go off and be with her family, where she needs to be,” Karner said. “We felt that if anything, she was a friendly spirit. If she wants to stay and play, we’re totally OK with that!” 

I remember this story well - I think it’s part of what got me started on this cemetery quest. I was so fucking mad that when *I* started *my own* backyard renovation they only found some rotting plastic hair curlers with gross old lady hair still stuck in them. I felt the same way when I watched The Dig on Netflix this week. I WOULD ALSO SETTLE FOR AN ANGLO SAXON BURIAL SHIP FULL OF GOLD, OK??? To be fair, it did help to launch the career of a small time blog about dead and creepy shit in San Francisco, so thank you Poltergeist Town. Working in corporate was boring!!!


City of Souls, San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma, Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett

Unmaking Historical Spaces: Urban Progres and the San Francisco Cemetery Debate, Tamara Venit Shelton

“A Second Final Rest,” Trina Lopez

How San Francisco Evicted Thousands of Dead People, Gary Kamiya for the San Francisco Chronicle 

Found SF: The Old Cemeteries of San Francisco 

San Francisco Genealogy Cemetery Site 


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