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Some History of West Coast Cemeteries
April 17, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
This comes from a good friend, Derek Blount.  If you like the history of cemeteries, you will enjoy this article.  There are parts that are rather sad due to the disrespect some have had for cemeteries, but the history of early cemeteries is very interesting.

As part of our series Bay Curious, we are answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. This one comes from Matt Brown and Katherine Murphy, who both had questions about Colma.

When you drive around the tiny town of Colma, just south of Daly City, you can’t help but notice a certain redundancy of scenery.

Tombstones. A florist …

More tombstones … another florist.

What Las Vegas is to gambling, Colma is to death.

Nearly three-quarters of the 2.2-square-mile town is zoned for cemeteries — of which there are 17.

Colma is the last place you want to be when the zombie apocalypse goes down.

The town’s population is 1,431, says Pat Hatfield of the local historical association.

“Of the living …,” I clarify.

She nods. “Above-ground residents, we call them. Maybe a million and a half underground, so we’re a little bit outgunned.”

In many parts of Colma, neat rows of gravestones are visible for as far as the eye can see.
In many parts of Colma, neat rows of gravestones are visible for as far as the eye can see. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

The association’s headquarters sits quietly between two cemeteries. It doubles as a museum, with binders on display for each of the town’s final resting places. Flip through and your eye catches on bold-letter names like Joe DiMaggio and William Randolph Hearst. When death got the drop on Wyatt Earp, the legendary Old West lawman was buried in Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery. (Here’s why.)

On the other hand, if you want to browse graves in San Francisco, your choices are limited.

There’s San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio, but that’s technically on federal land.

The lone cemetery in the city proper is at Mission Dolores. But the cemetery is just one-sixth its original size, says Andrew Galvan, the Mission Dolores curator. Eleven thousand dead people were buried there from 1782 to 1898.

All right. That accounts for thousands of expired locals.

Where’s everybody else?

San Francisco Graveyards of the Past

San Francisco was once full of cemeteries.

“In the Gold Rush days they decided to build cemeteries in the western part of the city, where nobody would ever want to live,” says Michael Svanevik, a San Mateo County historian who’s the go-to guy on this topic.

Four huge cemeteries — Laurel Hill, Calvary, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Masonic Cemetery — were established on land the University of San Francisco occupies today. These cemeteries took up between 60 and 70 square blocks. Golden Gate Cemetery, out by Lands End, took up a similar swath of space.

An 1873 map shows the ‘Big Four’ cemeteries in San Francisco. (David Rumsey Map Collection) (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

As San Francisco’s population rapidly grew, homes were built on all sides of the cemetery complex. Streetcars had to navigate around these islands of the dead to transport residents to work and back.

“This now became very valuable land, and people turned against the cemeteries,” Svanevik says.

Just when you think the living have a hard time holding onto their place in San Francisco, imagine how the dead fared.

Golden Gate, or City Cemetery, shown in an 1876 map by William P. Humphreys & Co.
Golden Gate, or City Cemetery, shown in an 1876 map by William P. Humphreys & Co. (David Rumsey Map Collection) (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

Public Opinion Turns

By 1880, San Franciscans had grown disenchanted with its burgeoning population of dead folks.

Headlines like “Cemeteries must go!” began to show up in local newspapers, and residents became concerned over hysterical claims about health hazards.

“Scientists warned that throat maladies constantly assume a malignant type … when the patients are exposed to a wind that blows from a crowded cemetery,” wrote Svanevik and co-author Shirley Burgett in their book “City of Souls.”

In 1901, San Francisco banned any new burials within city limits, part of what Svanevik and Burgett call a relentless assault on the city’s “belt of death.” For several decades, what to do with the cemeteries was a hot-button issue.

With no endowments to pay for upkeep, cemeteries like Laurel Hill pictured here, fell into ruin. (Colma Historical Association)
With no endowments to pay for upkeep, cemeteries like Laurel Hill, pictured here, fell into ruin. (Colma Historical Association) (CREDIT)

Those who coveted valuable graveyard land could rely on at least one legitimate talking point: The cemeteries had become a real mess.

After San Francisco ended new burials, there was no money to care for existing cemetery grounds, and many graveyards fell into ruin. Statues and gravestones were toppled. The valuable bronze doors on private mausoleums were stolen. People would reportedly wander in and get drunk, or have late-night sex orgies.

“Entire skeletons were carried away to be used as Halloween decorations,” says Svanevik.

He’s even met people who report playing soccer with skulls.

Colma: The Incorporation

The first to move out of San Francisco were two Jewish cemeteries, Hills of Eternity and Home of Peace. In the 1880s, they abandoned the plots of land that now make up Dolores Park for the open farm area of Colma. A few years later, the San Francisco Archdiocese, running out of room in San Francisco, established Colma’s Holy Cross Cemetery.

As space for San Francisco burials grew tighter, more of San Francisco’s cemetery associations looked south, purchasing large plots of Colma’s farmland.

Until the 1880s, two Jewish cemeteries stood where Dolores Park is today. (Colma Historical Association)
Until the 1880s, two Jewish cemeteries stood where Dolores Park is today. (Colma Historical Association) (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

In 1924, 14 cemetery associations incorporated the town of Lawndale (Colma’s original name). It is the only city incorporated for the sole purpose of preserving and protecting the dead, says the historical association’s Pat Hatfield.

The founders had good reason to be explicit about the new town’s purpose. After all, many of the remains that came to Colma had been moved several times. A body could have first been buried in the Gold Rush cemetery, only to be moved to Yerba Buena Cemetery, on to City Cemetery by the Legion of Honor, and finally to the cemetery complex where USF now stands.

“They didn’t want living people in Colma,” says Svanevik. “Every time somebody came forth and wanted to open a store, the town council voted it down, unless it was a floral shop or something associated with a cemetery.”

San Francisco: And Then There Were Five

By the 1920s, the only San Francisco cemeteries remaining were the so-called Big Four as well as the one at Mission Dolores. In the face of public hostility, the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries agreed to move to Colma, but 17 families went to federal court to block the Masonic move. Those bodies were transferred only after sale of the land was approved in a 1930 Supreme Court ruling.

Calvary cemetery from above in the 1930s. (Colma Historical Association)
Calvary Cemetery from above in the 1930s. (Colma Historical Association) (San Francisco Public Library)

The Catholic Church successfully made the case that the Mission Dolores cemetery should be allowed to stay for historical reasons. Andrew Galvan of Mission Dolores says just 60 bodies were moved to Colma between 1930 and 1932.

The Catholic Church also balked at uprooting Calvary Cemetery. The archdiocese didn’t like the idea of giving future plot owners in other cemeteries the idea that nothing is sacred or permanent — not even the place where you are laid to rest.

But eventually they relented, which left one cemetery — Laurel Hill. The rectangle of graves bounded by California, Geary, Parker and Presidio streets was the lone holdout.

Anti-cemetery activists made three unsuccessful attempts at ridding the city of Laurel Hill by putting the issue before voters.

In 1937 they tried once more.  The official argument against the measure alluded to the many notable pioneers buried in the cemetery.  “Gratitude and common decency should permit these dead to rest in honored peace,” it said.

On the pro-eviction side, proponents included photos of the decrepit graveyard marred by tumbled tombstones, above captions such as “Is this ‘respect for our dead’?” 

This time, the measure to evict passed.

Removing the Bodies

Exhumation and transportation of the bodies was a very sophisticated operation.

If the casket was in good shape, they moved it with the body. If the casket had deteriorated, the bones were placed in boxes. Remains were required to be brought by hearse on the same day as exhumation, says Svanevik. The Catholic Church also required a priest to witness the exhumation of any bodies from Calvary Cemetery.

“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,” wrote William Proctor, in a 1950 San Francisco Department of City Planning report. “The smell of death was often present, even though the remains had been laid to rest from thirty to seventy years previously,” the head of the disinterment told Proctor.

Workers remove bodies from the Odd Fellows cemetery. (Colma Historical Association)
Workers remove bodies from the Odd Fellows Cemetery. (Colma Historical Association)

About 130,000 bodies were disinterred from the “Big Four” cemeteries and moved to Colma. Most were reburied in mass graves, with a single monument to mark their presence.

For the 55,000 Catholic pioneers who were moved from San Francisco to Holy Cross in Colma, no marker identified them at their new resting place until 1993.

Where the Tombstones Went

When the San Francisco cemeteries were moved, the bodies were transported for free, but survivors had to pay if they wanted to keep the tombstones. Many survivors couldn’t be found, and the majority of tombstones did not make the trip to Colma. Instead, they were sold for a few pennies each to be used in public works, says Svanevik.

Some lined the gutters, which you can still see, in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. Others were spread around the city.

“Priceless crypts, tombs and private mausoleums were unceremoniously dumped in San Francisco Bay to create breakwaters at Aquatic Park and Saint Francis yacht club,” wrote Svanevik and Burgett in “City of Souls.”

And discarded tombstones were used to build a seawall along the Great Highway. They still resurface from time to time, as they did in 2012 at Ocean Beach.

Some Left Behind

“They missed a lot of the bodies,” says Alan Ziajka, the University of San Francisco’s official historian, speaking of the mass transfer to Colma. “No one knew that until 1950, when we put up our first major building after the Depression.”

That was Gleeson Library, which like much of the university was built over what was once Masonic Cemetery. At least 200 bodies were found during excavations, when a backhoe churned up a whole mausoleum. Since then, every time a major excavation has occurred on campus, remains have been found.

A work crew breaking ground on the Hayes-Healy residence hall in 1966 “came upon so many bones and skulls that they refused to continue working until the human remains were moved from the site,” Ziajka wrote in his book, “Lighting the City, Changing the World, a History of the Sciences at the University of San Francisco.”

In 2011, when excavations began for the university’s John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation, roughly 55 coffins, 29 skeletons and several skulls were unearthed.

Legion of Honor: Where Bodies are Buried

One of the most startling cemetery discoveries came in 1993, when the Legion of Honor was undergoing seismic renovation. As the dig began, about 750 bodies were discovered from the Golden Gate Cemetery, also called City Cemetery, which was used from 1868 to 1909. About 18,000 people were buried there.

A diagram of where human remains were found during a seismic renovation at the Legion of Honor in 1993. ( From ‘Health and Disease in 19th Century San Francisco,’ published in Historical Archaeology, 2005.)

The L.A. Times reported that remains included “a man who had a third arm buried with him, several medical-school cadavers and two coffins containing remnants of denim with rivets stamped Levi.”

One person who got a close-up look at the Legion of Honor remains was photographer Richard Barnes. His exhibit on the discovery has traveled around the country.

“I think the juxtaposition with the grand temple of art is pretty interesting,” Barnes says. “The idea of preservation of the past and what that represents. Whose past is honored and secured and whose is expendable?”

Barnes told SF Weekly in 1997 that the original Legion of Honor contractors, working in the early 1920s, “just plowed through burial sites, and plumbers laid pipes right through bodies and skeletons.”

“They threw headstones off the cliff into the ocean,” he says.

From the Richard Barnes exhibit "Still Rooms & Excavations" (Richard Barnes)
From the Richard Barnes exhibit ‘Still Rooms & Excavations’ (Richard Barnes)
Remains found during renovation at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, 1993. From the Richard Barnes exhibit "Still Rooms & Excavations." (Colma Historical Association)
Remains found during renovation at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, 1993. From the Richard Barnes exhibit ‘Still Rooms & Excavations.’ (Colma Historical Association)

The Lincoln Park Golf Course was also built where Golden Gate Cemetery once stood.

From the  course’s website:

“What is presently the eighteenth fairway of the golf course was a burial ground, primarily for the city’s Italian community. The area that now constitutes the first and thirteenth fairway was the Chinese section of the cemetery and the high terrain at the fifteen fairway and thirteenth tee was a Serbian resting place.”

Can It Happen Again?

Some find the odyssey of San Francisco’s dead prior to the 20th century unnerving. Who knew that after you die, your body could be so peripatetic?

San Francisco is a testament to the reality that your remains may not remain … or that they may remain when they’re not supposed to — and you’ll get a building on top of you to boot.

Ensuring that your final resting place is really your final resting place was the very idea behind establishing Colma as a modern-day necropolis.

Yet even in Colma, the sanctity of the grave is not what it used to be. The needs and whims of the living have encroached over the years. For example, Sunset View Cemetery, a burial ground for paupers, in 1951 became a golf course. (Photos of the defunct cemetery at the San Francisco Public Library.)

“The question I get so frequently is: ‘Is Colma safe?’ “says Svanevik. “I want to say Colma is safe, but I’ve noticed since 1970 the largest auto row south of San Francisco is in Colma. They have a Home Depot. At one point a portion of Greenlawn cemetery was cut away to make a movie theater.

“I can stand in Colma cemeteries today and hear a PA system say, ‘Your car is ready to be serviced.’ ”

And so it goes …

Got a question you want KQED’s Bay Curious team to investigate? Ask!

Why Are There So Many Dead People in Colma? And So Few in San Francisco? 17 December,2015Jon Brooks
Abandoned Places, Abandoned Records
March 20, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
This is not the first article I have read about abandoned funeral homes or even churches or cemeteries. 
http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2016-jan-inside-an-abandoned-downtown-funeral-home  What disturbs me is that so many of these places can be the source that may solve a mystery or two for genealogists.  Old businesses, old buildings, old records--all provide significant information that help us construct our ancestors' lives.  A record book, at one time, in Woodmere's records gave places of birth.  There were a couple where a state or country was not given, but instead, for place of birth it said 'Atlantic Ocean.'  What a find if one had been searching all over for a birth record.  It may be up to us to rescue these records (following the proper procedures)--they can be donated to museums, libraries, historical societies, etc.
Woodmere Photographs Stolen
February 4, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
It is a very sad day when photographs of the cemetery displayed in its buildings are stolen.  Fortunately, they are duplicates but for someone to have the audacity to take something that does not belong to them and to deny others seeing what the cemetery looked like so many decades ago is very disgusting.  To have to lock everything down is absurd.  Who knows who took them?  Was it the person who inquired about the history of the cemetery?  Was it the person who is writing about a somewhat famous person buried here and stole them for their book?  I get inquiries all the time about Woodmere and its history but to steal something that is a pictoral history of this historic cemetery is so appaling.  So if you see these photographs (originally in black frames) or if you were the one who did it, please have the decency to put them back. 
A Funny Item in the Detroit Free Press
January 24, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
"A suicder at Laporte made a will leaving "his darned old wife the rope with which he hung himself."  The Detroit Free Press, February 8, 1873
1941 Death Certificates
January 23, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
At www.seekingmichigan.org, the 1941 death certificates are now available.
Handwriting Help
January 23, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
Trying to read old documents in a foreign language can be frustrating but rewarding when one is finally able to decipher the words.  There is a tutorial by Brigham Young University that can help in this area.  Go to https://script.byu.edu/Pages/home.aspx and click on the language with which you need help. 
LDS Library, Salt Lake City
January 22, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
If it has been over a year that you have visited the LDS library in Salt Lake City, you will be pleasantly surprised at the changes they have made when you first walk in.  The information desk has been moved to the left and the space behind the former information desk has been remodeled.  There are still many, many computers but the area has been designed to get people hooked on doing genealogy who have not been interested in doing so.  They will officially open this area February 6, 2017.  While there, they will help you get started in your journey and they have added some really cool things like a green screen.  You can stand in front of the green screen after finding a photograph of the homeland of your ancestors.  They will take your photograph then to make it look like you are standing in that country.
Everything else has remained the same.  And the missionaries/librarians are just as helpful as ever.  While there, I found out that they have loaded some software on every computer, such as Legacy 8, so you don't even have to bring your own laptop.  Just put your files on a thumb drive and take it with you--it doesn't get much easier than that.  Also, a few tidbits I found out from one of them is that even though they had received permission to microfilm the thousands of rolls of film, to put them online required getting permission all over again.  Just think about the time that took them to make this available for free for us to search (now, go do some indexing for them as a way to say 'thank you').  There are still some signatures they need to get to make all of their records available but they are working on it.
One librarian told me about archion.de which is a catalog of church records for the Lutheran churches in Germany.  Part of the website will translate into English but you might need some help from someone who can read German to navigate this website.  But it is a great resource.  I was also told that German churches which are now in Poland, have their records in the archives in Berlin.  That is one resource where they are trying to get permission to put these records online.  But remember, if you go directly to the LDS library in Salt Lake City, those films are available and you can still order the films to come to your local FHC. 
Also, for those looking for death certificates for Michigan, you are aware of www.seekingmichigan.org where you can find Michigan death certificates for 1897-1940.  1941 should be popping up shortly.  However, if you search a name for someone who died, say in 1970, you will see a film number.  I don't know if they will transfer those films to local FHCs but they are available at the LDS library.  I got quite a few this trip which saves waiting for them to show up on www.seekingmichigan.org or paying over $30 per certificate.
If you have never been to Salt Lake City, it is a worthwhile trip.  You can stay at the hotel right next to the library (Salt Lake Plaza) which is now owned by the Mormon church.  Also, there is a great museum in Salt Lake City within walking distance of the library, the Leonardo.  Every year they have a special exhibit.  I have seen the Dead Sea Scrolls, an exhibit on mummies, and this year, they had a special exhibit on flight.  There is also an indoor/outdoor mall which has some typical stores such as Apple, Nordstroms, Macy's, Papyrus, etc. and a food court and a couple other restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory.        
23andMe Results
January 9, 2017 By: Gail Hershenzon
I received my 23andMe DNA results in a matter of three weeks.  They do send a lot of reports--some of which mean absolutely nothing and have no value to me.  However, it confirmed what I already know but it did add a few tidbits that will help me with my research when I go to Salt Lake City in a couple weeks (Janiuary-February is a great time to use the library there--they have fewer visitors at that time than during the spring or summer so access to printers and librarian help is ideal).  I had discounted leads to those with the family name that were in places I didn't think my ancestors could possibly have been, but now I will check those again to see where that leads me.  Was it worth $200?  I guess but I think I would have stumbled upon my ancestors' connections without it.  They gave me lot of reports with information I already knew--"There's a good chance you are fair skinned." (I am.)  "There's a 73% chance you have red hair."  (I do.)  They do have a list of possible relatives but many of them listed are anonymous and most have surnames of Smith, Jones, and other common names which I have yet to find in my search.
Late notice but at the Wayne Public Library on January 11, a presentation by Tyler Moll, a Wayne Historical Museum Intern and Easter Michigan History Graduate, will be sharing how to research the history of your home of neighborhood.  Call the library at (734) 721-7832.

23 and Me
December 5, 2016 By: Gail Hershenzon
So after Christmas shopping for everyone else, I decided that this year I would treat myself to a present.  After resisting the temptation for a long time to have DNA testing done, I just placed my order with "23 and Me."  I waffled between the $99 and the $199 packages but decided to splurge on the $199 one.  Knowing that sometimes when one goes the cheaper route, there is buyers' remorse.  We are living in a time when what today's genealogists have are privy to was never even dreamed of twenty years ago.  And I think of a Mrs. Jaeger in Ohio, who in the 1930s stated she had traced her family all the way back to Adam--and she did not have have the tools we have available today.  Whether she was telling the truth is debatable but maybe, if someone out there has been on the fence like I was about spending so much money on testing, this is the time to reconsider.  It may open more opportunities than we could possible dream of.       
Another Preservation Project
November 5, 2016 By: Gail Hershenzon
Another preservation project is to save the Thayer School in Northville Township.  Read below for more information.
The Friends of Northville Township Historic District Commission (FNTHDC), a 501.c.3 organization, is holding a fundraiser on Saturday, November 12, 2016 at the Northville District Library, 212 West Cady Street, Northville, MI, from 6:30-9:30pm. The FNTHDC is attempting to raise funds for the restoration of Thayer School House, with the ultimate goal to provide school children with an educational experience and the public a special place to meet.
    Thayer School sits at the corner of 6 Mile and Napier Roads. Built in 1877, it is the only remaining one-room schoolhouse in our township and the original educational facility for settlers of Northville Township. It is one of the few one-room brick schoolhouses in southeast Michigan. This slice of Northville Township is where Rufus Thayer and half a dozen pioneers settled the area in 1830. He died on his homestead and was buried with his family in the Thayer’s Cemetery, which surrounds the school house, built later by Thayer descendants.
    Thayer School and the surrounding Thayer Cemetery are protected as an historic district in our township. The schoolhouse will be donated to Northville Township by Arbor Hills landfill, which has been a generous partner with the FNTHDC in protecting and maintaining the school property. Volunteers have cleaned the building and structural restoration is set to begin in the next few weeks, as well as installation of a schoolhouse bell. The Friends group was able to purchase a school bell made in Northville at the turn of the century by the American Bell Foundry.
    The Friends group welcomes residents of Northville and Salem, those residents surrounding the school, as well as former students, to the “Ring the Bell for Thayer’s School” at its November fundraiser. The FNTHDC will display the bell for attendees. Appetizers from Rocky’s, desserts from LuLu’s Catering, as well as beverages will be served. Entertainment will be provided by the Shawn Riley Band. There will be a competition/silent auction of gingerbread school houses made by local professional and amateur chefs to celebrate our heritage, with judging by local professional chefs and celebrities. Television access for football games will be available.
    Tickets are $40/person or $75/couple if purchased by November 1st, and are tax deductible. They can be ordered from Eventbrite at http://www.eventbrite.com/e/2nd-annual-ring-the-bell-for-thayer-school-tickets-27569074845 (click on the link to purchase your ticket), or by calling any member of the Friends of Northville Township Historic District Commission.  Check our Facebook page, Friends of Northville Township HDC, for more information or call Marjorie Banner at 248-348-5102.
Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery by Gail D. Hershenzon Image: Photo 4 Image: Photo 3 Image: Vintage Family Photo 1 Image: Photo 7 Image: Photo 2 Michigan Memorial Park by Gail D. Hershenzon