Morbid History – The Moving Of San Francisco’s Cemeteries

Photo of workmen removing bodies in 1933.

Photo of workmen removing bodies in 1933.

San Francisco is a small city where land has always been valuable. To deal with a growing population, and a lack of space to build new housing, it was decided that all of the cemeteries located in San Francisco would be moved south to the town of Colma. Only three places of burial in San Francisco were left intact and are still available to visit; the burial ground at the Mission Delores, the military cemetery at The Presidio and the Neptune Society Columbarium.

Big Four cemetery map located in what is now the inner Richmond district.

Big Four cemetery map located in what is now the inner Richmond district.

There used to be many cemeteries in San Francisco, however the most famous of them were collectively known as the ‘Big Four’. These were the Masonic in the south, Calvary in the east, Odd Fellows’ in the west and Laurel Hill in the north. They were all grouped together on the edge of what is now the Inner Richmond district. In 1902 Inner Richmond property owners began to complain about the cemeteries driving down their property values so they started a campaign to move the cemeteries out of the area. Personally, I think they were greedy bastards because the cemeteries were there before they bought their properties. I mean, it’s like buying a house near an airport then wanting the airport closed because it’s making too much noise.

After years of litigation the bodies started to be removed in 1929 down to Colma. The gravestones were more often than not dealt with as scrap because in order for a family to have it moved with the body they would have to pay for it themselves. That’s awfully unfair considering that they aren’t the ones who wanted the bodies removed in the first place! Many of the gravestones were just dumped into the ocean while others were broken up and used for the construction of gutters in Buena Vista Park. It took until after WWII to supposedly move all of the bodies out of San Francisco’s cemeteries. But this wouldn’t be a Morbid History post without something gruesome to add would it?

Grave found at Legion Of Honor during renovations.

Grave found at Legion Of Honor during renovations.

Not all of the bodies were removed! That’s right, there are people right now living on the top of thousands of corpses. It’s like something directly out of Poltergeist! After the 1989 earthquake renovations were being done to the Legion Of Honor in Golden Gate Park when builders discovered hundreds of bodies in the foundations! Golden Gate Cemetery used to be located there and the I suppose that removing the bodies wasn’t done as thoroughly as thought! How morbidly cool is that! Also, when the old main city library building was being converted into the new Asian Art Museum workers found 19 bodies! I used to go to that library all the time when I was growing up so to think that I was treading above a bunch of old graves! Neat!

Besides all of the official cemeteries that were located in San Francisco people were also just buried in simple wooden coffins in the sand dunes that once covered the entire west end of the city. So, all of the houses in the Sunset and Richmond districts could be sitting on top of unmarked graves. That makes me shiver in delight! On an interesting note my grandmother, who was born and raised there, remembers the hearses that drove the bodies out of the city. So, the next time you are in San Francisco remember all of the people still buried there whom you may be walking over!

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