This section does not provide comprehensive information on San Francisco's cemetery history, but instead addresses frequently asked questions following screenings of A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco's Lost Cemeteries. Click on links provided on this page and on the "Links" page for additional information on the topic.
Have cemetery removals similar to the ones in San Francisco happened in other cities?
Cemetery removals have happened all over the world, but are usually spawned by individual circumstance, rather than by laws systematically passed that ban cemeteries from an entire jurisdiction. The city of Paris relocated the bones of approximately six million dead to the Catacombs during the 1700s and 1800s. One major distinction is that Parisians did not vote on whether or not to preserve the cemeteries, while San Francisco citizens voted on the issue four times, albeit only after the city had already banned burial and cremation within city and county limits (San Francisco's city and county borders are the same). Also, most remains from San Francisco cemeteries were kept intact if conditions allowed, rather than just preservation of bones.
What were the "Big Four" cemeteries?
The "Big Four" cemeteries were Odd Fellows', Masonic, Laurel Hill, and Calvary. They were located in the Inner Richmond area of San Francisco, and surrounded Lone Mountain, with Odd Fellows' to the west, Masonic to the south, Laurel Hill to the north, and Calvary to the east. These are the cemeteries on which A Second Final Rest concentrates. While many other cemeteries came and went before the "Big Four" were removed, the "Big Four" were the ones most directly affected by legal battles and referenda that finally banished almost all cemeteries from San Francisco. They were removed from San Francisco between the early 1930s and 1947. All bodies were exhumed and relocated by 1941, but lack of manpower due to World War II prevented the complete removal of monuments from Laurel Hill until 1947.
What happened to the bodies once they were removed from the cemeteries?
The vast majority of bodies were moved to mass gravesites in Colma, a small town known as "The City of Souls", just a few miles south of San Francisco. Colma has the peculiar distinction of being home to approximately 2,000 living and 2 million deceased individuals. Colma has seventeen cemeteries, including a pet cemetery.
Did either the City of San Francisco or the cemeteries pay for relocation of bodies if families did not want their deceased loved ones put in a mass grave?
No. Anyone wanting to have decedents privately reburied had to pay for it themselves. The "Big Four" cemeteries have mass grave sites in Colma cemeteries: Laurel Hill's site, called Laurel Hill Mound, is in Cypress Lawn Cemetery; Calvary's is in Holy Cross Cemetery; Odd Fellows' is in Greenlawn Cemetery, and Masonic's is in Woodlawn Cemetery. There is also a small mass gravesite with approximately 100 bodies in the Japanese Cemetery.
Were bodies in the cemeteries removed in an orderly and respectful fashion?
Presumably, the bodies removed from Odd Fellows' and Masonic cemeteries were exhumed in an orderly manner, but because these two cemeteries were removed in the 1930s, several years before bodies were removed from the larger and more prestigious Laurel Hill and Calvary cemeteries, the regulations governing their disassembly were not as comprehensive as they were for the latter two, and almost no details of their removal conditions exist. Laurel Hill and Calvary cemeteries made great efforts to locate survivors and/or plot owners before disinterment, and Cypress Lawn and Holy Cross maintain fairly detailed records for those reburied in their mass gravesites.
The Board of Trustees of the Laurel Hill Cemetery Association signed a contract with the Cypress Lawn Cemetery Association and the Cypress Abbey Company for removal of bodies to Cypress Lawn Cemetery. Approximately 35,000 bodies were removed over a sixteen-month period, with sites being disinterred blocked from public view by six-foot tall windscreens. Remains were placed in reinterment boxes of various sizes, depending on the condition of the remains. Each box had a metal identification tag affixed to it. All bodies disinterred one day were transported to Cypress Lawn and reinterred in Cypress Abbey Company's mausoleum the same day. Laurel Hill Cemetery Association originally planned to reinter the remains in a new mausoleum, but because of the start of World War II in 1941, construction was delayed for six years. After the war, construction prices had risen enough that proceeds from the sale of Laurel Hill Cemetery land were no longer sufficient for mausoleum construction. Eventually, the Association settled on the burial mound plan that included an elaborate monument.
The Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco oversaw the removal of Calvary Cemetery remains to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. A priest was in attendance at all phases of body removal and transport, and an inspector from the Department of Public Health was on hand for disinterment. Relatives could watch the disinterment if they wished. As with Laurel Hill removals, screens were erected, remains placed in boxes according to condition, and bodies disinterred on one day transported to Holy Cross and reinterred the same day.
(Information from Location, Regulation, and Removal of Cemeteries in the City and County of San Francisco by William A. Proctor, Department of City Planning, City and County of San Francisco, August 1950.)
Did either the City of San Francisco or the cemeteries pay for the relocation of tombstones?
No. Anyone wanting to preserve the tombstone of a loved one had to pay for the relocation of it. The San Francisco City and County cemetery removal ordinance of 1937 (after which time Laurel Hill and Calvary cemeteries were removed) mandated that grave markers and monuments could remain on cemetery property for ninety days after bodies were removed. Those not claimed were turned over to the City and County Department of Public Works, which used them for a variety of purposes, including sea wall construction at Aquatic Park, creation of a breakwater/municipal yacht harbor in the Marina District, lining for rain gutters in Buena Vista Park, and erosion prevention material at Ocean Beach. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article dated May 17, 1946, an organization called the Laurel Hill-Anza Vista Development Company hired contractor Charles L. Harney to haul away monuments from Calvary and Laurel Hill Cemetery sites. Harney then accepted the SF Park Commission's bid of 80 cents a ton to dump the monuments into San Francisco Bay, where they remain.
Were records kept of where bodies were moved to?
Yes, but much of the recordkeeping was left up to the cemeteries themselves. Cemeteries in Colma with mass gravesites containing bodies moved from San Francisco have records. They vary greatly in their thoroughness. San Francisco has been referred to as a "genealogist's nightmare", due not only to the loss of information on the city's deceased that resulted from the various cemetery removals, but also from the destruction of vital records at City Hall in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.
Did bodies removed from San Francisco get moved anywhere else aside from Colma, California?
While the majority of bodies from the San Francisco cemeteries were moved to the mass gravesites in Colma, any next of kin could privately reinter decedents wherever they chose. Many were moved to cemeteries in Oakland, California.
Why is Mission Dolores Cemetery still intact?
Mission Dolores is the birthplace of San Francisco. It was built in 1776 and is the oldest building in the city. Because the location is of such historical significance, the cemetery has, at least in part, been preserved. It is not by chance that remains of individuals of historical significance have been preserved in the today's reduced version of the cemetery, while those of commoners and indigenous people who originally dwelled in the area are not well represented. Many of the indigenous people were likely not buried on the consecrated ground of the mission if they did not convert to Christianity, but on the perimeter of it. See Ron Filion's page on Mission Dolores for some intriguing bits on the cemetery's history. According to a map at the California Historical Society's North Baker Research Library, Mission Dolores Cemetery is nowapproximately one-third of its original size.
Why are the Presidio military cemetery (San Francisco National Cemetery) and the Presidio pet cemetery still intact?
The two cemeteries were located on federal land, and not subject to local laws. The Presidio was decommissioned as a military area in 1994, and has been part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1994. The San Francisco National Cemetery is managed by the United States Department of Veteran's Affairs. The nonprofit organization Swords to Plowshares is the official caretaker of the pet cemetery. A monument commemorating a merchant marine cemetery that was once located behind the Marine Hospital (and later the Public Health Service Hospital, at Lake Street and 14th Avenue) was erected in 2011. The cemetery, which had approximately 500 people buried there, had previously been covered under several feet of sand and a parking lot.
Why is the Columbarium still allowed to take cremated remains?
Once part of the Odd Fellows' Cemetery, The San Francisco Columbarium was, for unknown reasons, neither dismantled nor maintained after the bodies were removed from the surrounding cemetery in the 1930s. Over time, the Columbarium passed through various hands and fell into disrepair until the early 1980s, when it was purchased by the Neptune Society. It has been meticulously restored since this time. While there are laws banning burial of bodies and cremation within city limits, there is no specific ban on the housing of cremated remains. The Columbarium provides the main, if not only, secular location where one's remains can be housed in San Francisco legally and for public visitation.
What happened to the cemetery that was at the present-day site of Dolores Park?
The present-day location of Dolores Park was once the site of both Nevai Shalome (Home of Peace, Peaceful Abode) and Giboth Olam (Hills of Eternity) cemeteries. The cemeteries were owned by Congregation Emanu-El and Congregation Sherith Israel, respectively. Lacking space on which to expand, the congregations bought property in Colma and moved the bodies in the San Francisco cemeteries there by 1900, before San Francisco banned burials and cremations. Today, there are three Jewish cemeteries in Colma -- Home of Peace Cemetery and Emanu-El Mausoleum, Hills of Eternity Cemetery and Mausoleum, and Salem Memorial Park and Garden Mausoleum.
Was there a cemetery where San Francisco City Hall is today?
Yes. From 1850 to 1871, Yerba Buena Cemetery, the first city-sanctioned cemetery in San Francisco, occupied a triangular swath of land bordered by Market, McAllister and Larkin streets. Today, the new San Francisco Public Library building and the Asian Art Museum (the original San Francisco Public Library building) also occupy this land. Many of San Francisco's first cemeteries were consolidated into this one location after residents complained of the unsightly appearance and unsanitary conditions of the city's spontaneously established graveyards in the Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and Russian Hill neighborhoods.