The Lost Cemeteries of San Francisco

What do you mean, they never moved the bodies?

Find out what happened to the cemeteries of San Francisco: where they were, why they were moved, and how the hell did so many get left behind?

You guys have seen Poltergeist, right? It’s basically the best horror movie ever made that Gen X were allowed to watch as kids. It came out in 1982 and it was rated ***PG*** and it scared the ever living shit out of an entire generation. My parents wouldn’t let me watch Desperately Seeking Susan because it was PG-13 and had some quasi-sex stuff in it (dude, I loved Madonna at that age and I’ve never been so mad at my mom) but POLTERGEIST WAS OOOOKKKK. A movie with a killer clown, a killer tree, and a TV that sucked a kid into the great beyond. I feel like that was 800 times more traumatic than seeing people make out or a boob slip or whatever sin got Madonna’s movie banned in my house.

The premise of Poltergeist is that developers built a subdivision over a graveyard, causing some weird shit to happen in the Freeling family house.  These capitalist bastard builders cut a few corners and removed the gravestones but NOT THE BODIES and those dead people haunt the shit out of the family that lives on their land. As they should.

Fun fact: During the climax of the movie, Diane Freeling (the mom) is trapped in a muddy pit dug for a swimming pool that fills up with skeletons. They’re popping up all over the place, some in coffins, and it’s a pretty fucking harrowing scene. It turns out that the prop guys USED REAL HUMAN SKELETONS INSTEAD OF FAKE ONES BECAUSE IT WAS CHEAPER. Go back and watch that scene again now that you know this. It’s even better.

At any rate - this city, San Francisco? Same same. Burial grounds have been started, closed, and moved all over this town, and sometimes they did a good job, but many times they did not. That means forgotten remains have been terrifying construction workers since about 1912. Spoiler alert - a lot of them are actually still down there.

A 1907 map of San Francisco, zoomed in to the top western portion of the city showing the old cemetery locations. City Cemetery to the far Northwestern corner, the Big Four concentrated above the panhandle of Golden Gate Park (Laurel Hill Cemetery at the most Northern, Calvary Cemetery center and East, Odd Fellows Cemetery to the West of Calvary, and Masonic Cemetery to the South of Calvary), and Yerba Buena Cemetery to the south of the panhandle.
Location of some of SF's cemeteries, circa 1907 (image credit to the Prelinger Library by way of Spots Unknown)

Back in the Buena Vista post, we talked about the history of cemeteries in San Francisco. TL; DR -- All cemeteries were moved after burials were banned within city limits in 1902. It took almost fifty years to move the remains, and almost all of them went to Colma. There are only two cemeteries remaining in San Francisco. One is a tiny plot adjacent to Mission Dolores (though up to 5,000 Native Americans are said to be buried beneath the church property) and the other is the federally maintained San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio.

Of course, this post wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if all of the human remains had been carefully and thoroughly removed in a responsible manner. As it turns out, you can’t sink a shovel in this town without hitting some old timey coffins, maybe a skull or two.

There are three major areas where human remains were found during modern construction projects - meaning AT LEAST three sites in the city where the workers pulled a Poltergeist and moved the headstones, but not the bodies. These sites are Yerba Buena Cemetery (now Civic Center), Lone Mountain (now University of San Francisco), and Golden Gate or City Cemetery (now the Legion of Honor and the Golf Course). There is one site, Mission Dolores, where the dead but unmarked make themselves known the best possible way. That’s what they call A TEASER, you guys, and I’m gonna make you wait til the very end to find out.  


Part I: Yerba Buena Cemetery

Yerba Buena Cemetery was the first public burial ground in San Francisco. It was located roughly between Larkin, Market, and McAllister Streets, in what is now Civic Center. The site was established in 1850, just one year after people from all over the world started flocking to, and dying, in San Francisco. Prior to the establishment of Yerba Buena, residents were using “impromptu” burial grounds, which are just as yikes as they sound.

A detail map of 1869 San Francisco. The area of Yerba Buena Cemetery is highlighted in the area that is now Civic Center.
Location of Yerba Buena Cemetery. Photo credit: Goddard, George H. City and County of San Francisco 1869, borrowed from the David Rumsey Map Collection.


Alas, Yerba Buena wasn’t in business for very long. The land was valuable, and the topsoil was sandy and would frequently blow off, exposing coffins (NOT GOOD). Early newspaper articles report that 7,000-8,000 people were buried there when the city decided to move it. In 1860, city authorities raised $10,000 via tax levy to move the bodies, but reporters at the Daily Alta doubted that it was enough money to complete properly. According to the Chronicle, “The city was supposed to move the bodies to City Cemetery, near Golden Gate Park. It’s unclear whether officials shirked their duty or simply didn’t find the deep graves, but plenty of people got left behind.”

And YEAH, did people get left behind.

A black and white photo of steam shovel operator Joseph Bush posing with a gravestone that was uncovered during excavation for the Federal Building in Civic Center, March 6 1933.  He is a fair skinned man in a newsboy style hat, kneeling in the dirt in dusty clothes, holding up a stone grave marker for the camera. The marker says “Sacred to the memory of Joseph Hicks of Boston MA. [He has] died November 2, 1850. Aged 19 years.” The rest of the marker is illegible.
Steam shovel operator Joseph Bush posing with gravestone uncovered during excavation for Federal Building in Civic Center Mar 6. 1933 (image credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY)

Archaeologist Stuart Guedon told the Chronicle, “All of the bodies presumably had been removed before construction started on the San Francisco’s original City Hall in the early 1870’s. It turns out that some corners had been cut, specifically the corner of McAllister and Hyde streets. . . They actually built City Hall right on top of these bodies.” That would be the original City Hall, built in 1870. The site later housed the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum, and pretty much every time work was done on those buildings, bodies and coffins were found. Newspaper reports from 1889 to 2001 detail these “surprise” discoveries.

There’s no clear accounting of what happened to all of the folks buried at Yerba Buena. They were supposed to go to City Cemetery. City Cemetery reports 4,118 buried in 1882, after Yerba Buena was closed. But estimates put the total number of dead at Yerba Buena somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000, which means that roughly 3,000 bodies are unaccounted for.

We know from newspaper accounts that plenty of bodies were left behind, a la Poltergeist,  because they kept popping up during construction. In 1889, the Daily Alta reported that seventy bodies were exhumed during the construction of the New City Hall. In April 1908 the Chronicle reported that workmen found 16 bodies while digging ground for the new library and placed them in a box to be picked up by the coroner’s office. THE SKULLS WERE STOLEN and “it is presumed that they were taken by medical students, or ghouls.” DO NO HARM, AMIRITE? I mean, I guess it’s better than using them for Halloween decorations.

Construction work in the area in 1932 turned up a grave marker, and in 1934 workers found skeletal remains, pine coffins and old money. In 2001, builders found ninety seven bodies from the Gold Rush era when renovation work began on the Asian Art Museum - the third public building on the site. The remains were later interred at Cypress Lawn in Colma, after a stern warning from Rose Pak that vengeful ancestors would haunt that shit unless they were properly handled and recognized.

A cartoon of two panels. The caption reads: “Site of our new city hall was a cemetery thirty years ago.” The first panel shows two figures - one in a dress, one in a suit, standing on a hill among square monuments - this panel says “Site of the City Hall in 1868.” The second panel shows completed city hall buildings on flat ground - this panel says “The same site 1898.” The cartoon is from a 1898 issue of the San Francisco Call newspaper.
Image: San Francisco Call, 1898

I gotta go with Rose on this one - we are still being haunted by our origin story. San Francisco a boom town. It grew out of a lawless dirt patch in a stampede for riches that left a trail of chaos and death in its wake. Every couple of decades the newest thing comes along and another boom cycle starts and busts, leaving some level of wreckage behind. Right now we’re dealing with a massive displacement of the middle class as the most recent cohort of tech companies strip mine this town for talent and real estate. Literal billions are being made overnight but Civic Center - the site of the old Yerba Buena Cemetery and now our city government -  is better known for its filthy streets and suffering homeless. We step over the people and needles and the shit on the streets just like we walk on the graves of the forgotten, while City Hall looks on.

OH, WAS THAT TOO DARK FOR YOU? Well just wait until we get to the next graveyard in the series - City Cemetery. The story of that removal makes this one look like a model of efficiency and morality, and as the skeletons grow in volume, so does my INSUFFERABLE PONTIFICATING. I’m sure you want to stay tuned for that one.

Part II: City Cemetery/Golden Gate

Did you think the story was over for the poor souls moved out of their resting place in Yerba Buena Cemetery? HAHAHAHA IT WAS NOT. Because guess which other cemetery was moved/not moved/built over? City! Or Golden Gate, as it was later called. This is Poltergeist Town, not Respectful Burial Practices Town.

A detailed map of 1869 San Francisco highlighting the location of City Cemetery at the most Northwesterne edge of the city, where Cliff House and Lands End is now.
Location of City Cemetery. Photo credit: Goddard, George H. City and County of San Francisco 1869, borrowed from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

The Old Cemetery

City Cemetery opened in 1868, at roughly 33rd Avenue and Clement out to the ocean. At that time, the area was the Wild West of San Francisco - I’m sure city leaders expected it to be remote for a long time. With the hindsight of history, however, we know that boomtown San Francisco would never be contained. Our lust for land and space to build continues to this day.

An enlarged section of a map showing the layout of City Cemetery and the most Northwestern edge of San Francisco where it meets the ocean. The cemetery map shows the paths of the graveyard, and the plot areas and their numbers, with the bottom left corner marked US Reservation.
Cemetery Map. Image source: https://www.sfgenealogy.org/sf/history/hcmcit.htm

City started out as a municipal burial ground, which meant it was not affiliated with a church or organization. Anyone could be buried there, and part of its grounds were designated as a Potter’s Field, or indigent burial site. City is the Mythical American Melting Pot Cemetery - it’s where everyone who couldn’t get a space in one of the Big Four was buried. There are Italian, French, Jewish, German, Slav, Orthodox Greek, African American, Japanese, and Chinese folks buried there. In 1887, the cemetery housed 11,771 and almost half (6454) were indigent. At last count in 1893, there were 18,000 people interred there, 11,000 of whom were indigent. The first burials at City came from Yerba Buena Cemetery, which was moved in 1860.

It doesn’t seem to have been well maintained. Newspaper accounts from the time describe it as “neglected and forlorn.” Dan Fillion’s excellent site contains a passage from the Examiner in 1891 describing rows of sunken graves with rotting wooden headboards. Trash was everywhere, there were no trees, no greenery. Despite its spectacular location overlooking the Golden Gate, it was bleak and dreary and PRETTY FUCKING GRIM.

A cemetery map key that corresponds to the City Cemetery layout map above. The key reads: “The figures give the location of sections to be found on the map. Western end of cemetery to be used as a government fort.” The sections are labeled and numbered thus: Caledonia Club -3. Chinese - 7, 8, 9. French Benevolent Society - 4. German Benevolent Society - 2. Germania Club - 2. Grand Arm of the Republic - 2. Greek - 9. Improved Order of Red Men - 6. Italian Benevolent Society - 1, 4. Jewish Congregation - 2, 7. Knights of Pythias - 1. Master Mariner’s Society - 3. Old Friends’ Society - 1. Russian Society - 9. Seaman’s Friend Soc. (Ladies) - 6. Scandinavian Society - 4. Slavonic Mutual Ben. Society - 9. St. Andrew’s Benevolent Soc’y - 3. The caption below reads: “San Francisco Cremation Society, 413 Bush Street.”
Cemetery Map Key. Image source: https://www.sfgenealogy.org/sf/history/hcmcit.htm

Much like its predecessor Yerba Buena, City Cemetery was not long for this town. In the 1890’s, only about twenty years after it first opened, officials moved to close the cemetery and take the land. In 1887, the Committee responsible for City Cemetery recommended that interments stop. In the 1890’s, efforts were underway to condemn the land to create a military battery and a park in its place.  A key voice in favor of removal was the Real Estate Exchange, who saw the value of nearby land rising once the unsightly graveyard was gone. In 1908, San Francisco began asking the benevolent societies to remove their graves and relocate them, and in 1909 the land was turned into a park. In 1910, the land was converted to a golf course, and in 1921, the Legion of Honor came along.

Also much like Yerba Buena Cemetery, many of the bodies were NOT ACTUALLY MOVED.  In fact in this case, it seems like most of the bodies are still there. That’s right folks, on the ninth hole at Lincoln Park Golf Course - you’re teeing off on top of the dead. You know what else is right there on the site of City Cemetery? The Legion of Honor, where workers found hundreds of bodies as they built and repaired the building.

The Legion of Honor

Have you been to the Legion of Honor? It’s a beautiful, classically designed museum modeled after the eighteenth century French Hotel de Salm.  It sits on a bluff that overlooks the ocean, and is now planted with a beautiful cypress forest. It’s full of sculpture and art and I actually wanted to have my wedding there! Unfortunately we got married in February (I WAS IN LAW SCHOOL OK I NEEDED TO GET IT OVER WITH) and the museum required the ceremony to take place outside - which was not going to happen in the winter. Fog, wind, maybe some rain! Gravedigger weather for sure. I guess drinking champagne and listening to a DJ among the antiquities in a basement chamber dug out of a Gold Rush Era Cemetery is cool but not getting MARRIED in there??

Now 2020-me feels like I missed an excellent branding opportunity. At the time I was more interested in passing Wills and Trusts (trust me when I say BARELY) than partying amongst the neglected dead. But now I see we could have done a whole thing with this. A spiritualist to bless the union? We could have served tiny coffin-shaped cookies instead of cake? ALL V TASTEFUL AND APPROPRIATE and definitely would have made it past the vetting team of my mother and husband. Anyway, hindsight is 2020 lol.

A black and white photo from 1923 of the Legion of Honor museum under construction. The building is in the far distance surrounded by scaffolding. Two men in suits stand in the foreground on bare dirt/sand, looking back at the construction. To the right is an old car on a makeshift path made of wooden planks.
Legion of Honor construction, 1923. Image source: OpenSFHistory / wnp30.0332.jpg

Because as I mentioned, the bodies are STILL THERE. In 1921, workers building the Legion of Honor came across a METRIC FUCKTON OF GRAVES. The Museum, commissioned by sugar baroness Alma Spreckles, was dedicated to the memory of the WWI dead (IRONY!). The Daily News reported that workers uncovered 1,500 bodies in coffins, pulling out as many as four or five bodies an hour as they laid the foundation for the structure. The firsthand accounts are horrifying:  “I visited Lincoln Park. Just as I arrived one large and two small skeletons were ripped out of one grave. . Wrapped about them were shrouds. . . There were plenty of bones not completely covered by the dirt. Along the ledge just where the hill drops abruptly were many coffins-- cut in half by the steel teeth of the excavating machines.” According to this account, “No provision was made for the reburying of the bodies.” When interviewed, the foreman said “The men don’t like them. Won’t touch the bones. The only thing we can do is scrape them over and cover them up again.”

Sixty nine years later, those remains and more were found when the Legion of Honor started work to retrofit the museum. They expected to encounter “some” human remains, not a fully intact cemetery of almost 800 bodies AKA ANOTHER FUCKTON. This time, however, news crews, photographers, and archaeologists were on hand to document the findings and we know a lot more about it. Under the central courtyard, workers found part of a mass grave, which archaeologist Miley Holman called a “charnel heap.” That heap may have been left over from the casual way the 1921 crew desecrated the graves and shoved them off to the side in piles. Holman told the Chronicle that he could tell by “changes in the color of the sand that in the 1900s ‘somebody with a steam shovel’ dug up the bodies that lay at the site.” In another interview, he confirms that the museum’s builders “did a sloppy job.” All of this tracks with the 1921 accounts.

As workers found more and more bodies, construction slowed down, and archeologists scrambled to collect as much information as they could while the graves were open. The remains were mostly elderly white folks in “simple redwood coffins.” Their remains “show fractures, skeletal trauma, arthritis and other ailments reflecting the hard life of working-class San Franciscans of the time.” These were the indigent dead of Victorian San Francisco. Photographer Richard Barnes was hired to document the excavation, and his images captured the haunting juxtaposition of the subterranean finds against the classical architecture of the Legion of Honor. Archeologists also unearthed artifacts like guns, combs, coins and buttons, which they catalogued and studied.

Not everyone was thrilled to discover an entire damn cemetery under the construction site. Museum Director Harry Parker told the Chronicle that the delays would cost $50,000 a month:  money that was a mix of donated and public funds. He is quoted as saying that the finds are “interesting but not exactly King Tut’s tomb.” As in 1921, museum officials and builders didn't really want to deal with this. In 1993, however, with the press and public watching, the Legion turned the remains over to the Medical Examiner’s Office, and reburied them at Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo.

This is when the public and the press put together the story that the dead at City Cemetery were never moved. Archaeologist Miley Holman told the Chronicle, “We thought they’d come through in 1900 and removed the bodies, but they apparently simply kicked over the headboards.”  The number of graves found just on the plot of the Legion of Honor - in 1921 and 1993 - support this idea. And if none of the bodies were moved from the parcel above the Legion of Honor, how can we expect that any of the bodies under Lincoln Golf Course were moved? We can’t. We have to assume they are still there. Maybe not all twenty thousand, the benevolent societies may have moved their graves, but most of the indigent dead, certainly.

Remember, a large number of the folks buried at City Cemetery came from Yerba Buena Cemetery. These bodies were moved once, then moved again, then built over, and each time the city promised that the removal was decent and complete. These are already the bodies that no one wants; immigrants, poor people, religious minorities. It gets clearer by the minute that the city still doesn’t fucking want them. To this day, the bodies of the men and women who built this city lie anonymously under a golf course and museum.

Same old, same old

It’s not hard to see this as a parable for modern San Francisco. These days, it feels like a tale of two cities:  very poor and very rich. The middle class has been fleeing for decades, rent and housing prices are astronomical, and the population of homeless and housing insecure residents grows everyday. We are the most expensive place to live in the US outside of Manhattan. Tent cities line the streets of almost every neighborhood, while we continue to break records for the number of billionaires per capita.

Here at the Legion of Honor you can see that in stark relief:  a temple to elite cultural study, funded by industrial barons, towers over and obliterates the lives of the men and women who labored to create this city. Their lives were disposable, their contributions erased. These folks were so poor that their bodies were moved twice, then forgotten. They never even had proper headstones, but the building that displaced them houses “interesting” history from “classical” cultures - preserved in temperature controlled chambers, behind glass.

Richard Barnes, who captured the dig in black and white photos, wrote “The Palace of the Legion of Honor is a site steeped in memory, and the excavation of the ground beneath is rich in its implications. Here the preserved heritage is an imported European art history that displaces an ambiguous, disregarded social history.”

Special thanks to Alex Ryder and John A. Martini - local historians who have done excellent research on this site.

Part III: The Big Four

Odd Fellows, Masonic, Calvary and Laurel Cemeteries

A detail of a 1869 map of San Francisco showing the location of the Big Four cemeteries. North of the panhandle of Golden Gate Park we see them in a block. Laurel Hill is the North edge of the block, with a gap of residential blocks below. Then Odd Fellows to the West, Calvery stretching from the block's center to the East, and Masonic to the South.
The locations of the Big Four Cemeteries. Photo credit: Goddard, George H. City and County of San Francisco 1869, borrowed from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

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!

An 1867 photo of Lone Mountain showing a hill sloping upward, covered in low scrub brush. In the foreground is a single white wooden cross. A larger cross can be seen on the summit of the hill in the distance.
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.

A photo of a graveyard, with some monuments toppled over. Lone Mountain and its summit cross can be seen in the background .
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)

A photo of a hill covered in grave markers - there are some larger monuments, but mostly small white wooden crosses. They are crowded together haphazardly.
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.

A photo of an orderly cemetery on a hill. Areas are clearly demarcated by elegant stone fencing in good repair. Cypress trees run along the hill top. There are tidy gravel paths throughout.
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.

A photo of a hillside with grave markers being swallowed by vegetation. There is a lot of tall grass and scrub brush, and some cypress trees in the distance. Many markers are starting to lean as if they are about to fall over. The paths are obscured by dirt and overgrowth.
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:

Graphic reads: “Odd Fellows: Bounded by Fulton, Arguello, Parker and Geary. That area is now Rossi Park and residential homes. Masonic: Bounded by Fulton, Balboa, and Masonic. That area is now USF and residential homes. Calvary: Bounded by Balboa, Masonic, Geary, and Broderick. That area is now USF, the Anza Vista residential neighborhood, Geary Street business and TARGET! Laurel Hill: Bounded by Arguello, California, Presidio, and Euclid. This is now the Laurel Heights neighborhood, Laurel Village, and the UCSF/Kaiser medical complex.”

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!!

A photo of many workers waist deep in the dirt excavating graves. The ground is covered in mounds of dirt, pieces of wooden paneling, and leaning grave markers. It is a chaotic scene.
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!!!

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