When I first moved to San Francisco, I was totally absorbed in suddenly being in feature films. I went from Bernal Heights to North Beach, were the film I was working on was being edited and edited and edited, and back again. It took years before I began to know other neighborhoods of the city. I noticed that there were no cemeteries, with the exception of the military one in the Presidio and the tiny graveyard next to Mission Dolores. I found out that the cemeteries were all in Colma, a small town south of San Francisco where the dead outnumber the living by a factor of thousands to one.
Only when I started to read about San Francisco’s history did it occur to me to wonder if the city fathers had banned cemeteries in the city from the very beginning (which would make them the most foresighted bunch in the history of humans) or just what happened.
Like every other developing city in 19th century America, San Francisco had cemeteries very early on and, inevitably, they had to be moved as the city expanded. San Francisco had an additional problem in that the amount of real estate was limited by the fact that it is bounded by water on three sides. Finally, in the early 20th century, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance forbidding burials in San Francisco. Then, in the 1930s and the early 1940s, the residents of all the cemeteries in the city (with the exception of the two mentioned) were evicted, hauled in trucks to Colma, and re-interred.
If the dead person’s descendants could be found and if the family had the money (this was the Depression) a plot and a headstone could be purchased. Otherwise, the migratory dead were buried en masse. I was reminded of this recently when I went on a tour of Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery. In addition to the graves and family vaults of various notables, including Joltin’ Joe Di Maggio, there was a large plot of grass adorned with a single modest monument to the 39,000 dead who had made the trip to this hillside in Colma.