I find myself a cemeterian. I am other things, of course, but I am also this.
Like an aficionado of, say, bridges, I see a terrain that most people do not. A bridge aficionado will have some awareness of the bridges that lie ahead of them when they travel, and further, will have a list of great or exemplary bridges they have visited or hope to visit. People they travel with might know of the Golden Gate or the Brooklyn Bridge but may be completely unaware of the sweeping span of the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia, or the funky old, covered Green River Bridge in Guilford, Vermont.
My avocation in cemeteries started when I wrote a history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. This effort started in 1996 and ended with publication of that history in 2006. During that period, when I traveled for work or vacation, I began visiting cemeteries. I wanted to understand them in the way a bridge aficionado understands bridges – as types, as evolutionary stages, as exemplars of cultures and practices, as institutions.
I also read, of course. I read about regions and about trends, and always the same handful of cemeteries cropped up as IMPORTANT. Like bridges, many people will be aware of these, though likely fewer people have inadvertently crossed them. These cemeteries include the famous graveyards of New Orleans, the great Mount Auburn Cemetery west of Boston, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood, the old cemeteries of New England such as Cape Cod, and now possibly the most famous of all, Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.
I opted out of pursuing the famous and important, though. Mainly, I could not take time away from family and work and go vacation in cemeteries. There was, however, a strategic side to my thinking. Visiting cemeteries that do not figure as historical in the literature would force me to see them with my own eyes. I could not rely on other’s interpretations; I had to understand the historians interpretations and make my own.
Unlike bridges, however, which are singular in time, evolution, and design, cemeteries are more like people or towns or old pets. Each cemetery did start at some point. The people burying their dead in them had a set of practices. There was some means of managing these sites, from a laissez faire dig-it-yourself to an overarching corporate control. Then you add time and trends, the influence of a manager or sextant, salt it with locale, and pepper it with varying levels of respect.
It matters little, but I could tell you, just by walking the grounds of most cemeteries, when they were founded, who the original ‘stock’ in the area was – German, Irish, Spanish, etc. – when transitions took place and what those transitions were. I could often tell how the management of the cemetery had changed over time. I could even estimate with some level of accuracy the total number of burials, the number of unmarked graves, and the level of record-keeping at the cemetery. It’s not a trick I pull out at parties.
Buckets of Buckets
Any aficionado has their list of the important bridges, buildings, birds, peaks, etc. they must visit. My practice kept me from ever having such a list. While I was researching and writing the book, I worked in the software industry. I traveled to the places where the customers were. While I was in these places, I went to the cemeteries. I visited Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, Milwaukee, upstate New York, Minnesota, Texas. I traveled to Amsterdam, Melbourne, Shanghai. More recently, working on telescope installations, I traveled to South Africa, Chile, and other parts of Australia and Texas. I also visited cemeteries where I vacationed, to Indiana, New Mexico, Mexico, Hawaii, and so forth.
Then, through a confluence of various factors, I found myself visiting the important cemeteries. I went to Forest Lawn, Mount Auburn, Boston and Cape Cod, Mountain View and Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, the great Père Lachaise (and my even more favorite the Montmarte). Then came a chance to visit Colma.
Colma is the single greatest accumulation of cemeteries in one place in the United States that I know of. There are at least seventeen and more likely twenty cemeteries. (Cemeteries tend to split and merge and change names or expand across multiple sites. It’s a bit like counting animal cells as they divide, albeit cemeteries do divide very slowly.) There are over 1.5M burials in Colma. With the diversity of the cemeteries – Catholic, Japanese, Serbian, and so forth – Colma ranks as the Disney World of cemeteries.
The area was named Colma sometime in the late 1800s. It was essentially a thickening on the road south of San Francisco. There was a church, a post office (1869), and a cluster of farms and residences. A Colma sports arena held sway from 1907 through 1915 or so as an important boxing venue.
Cemeteries began to come to Colma of their own accord. While Colma’s population was small, San Francisco, ten miles to the north, was the largest in the state. Pressure to cease cemetery operations in the city, and even to move cemeteries out, began mounting by the 1880s. Land in the city was too expensive to be relegated to burials. The area around Colma was considered ideal because it sat down the well-maintained Mission Street from the city, and streetcars and the Southern Pacific rail line ran to it or through it.
The first cemetery in Colma, Holy Cross, was established in 1887 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The diocese moved nearly 40,000 graves from San Francisco to the new burial ground. Two years later, two Jewish cemeteries, Home of Peace and Hills of Eternity joined forces and created a cemetery, moving some 13,000 graves. Salem Cemetery arrived in 1891 with 696 graves. Cypress Lawn, the largest non-denominational cemetery in the city, moved in 1892, bringing 35,000 graves. In 1896, Mount Olivet (now Olivet Cemetery) opened, and in 1899, the Italian Cemetery moved with over 8,000 graves.
Then, on March 26, 1900, the City of San Francisco, passed Bill #54 & Ordinance #25 outlawing any new cemeteries within city limits. This was, like most cemetery-related practices, a long-standing norm on the East Coast where new cemetery designations had been outlawed within major cities by 1825. On the East Coast, the concern was the spread of disease. San Francisco’s legislative body was primarily concerned about property value.
In quick succession during 1901, the Serbian Cemetery, the Eternal Home Cemetery, and the Japanese Cemetery all moved to Colma. In 1903 Greenlawn Perpetual Care Park (later renamed an Endowment Care park in the 1950s when perpetual was deemed a difficult legal framework) arrived, and in 1904, Woodlawn set up shop next door. In 1907, Sunset View Cemetery arrived.
There were now 13 cemeteries in Colma, varying in size from a couple acres to spreads of hundreds of acres.
In 1912, the City of San Francisco voted to have all remaining graveyards within city limits removed. Cemeteries in the midst of moving were struggling to find family members willing to pay for the moves. According to one site, http://www.colmahistory.org/history.html, many moved bodies were interred in mass graves where there were no relatives to pay the roughly $10.00 removal charge. Feet were dragging and the new ordinance did not have the desired effect.
Two years later, on January 14, 1914, the city passed Ordinance #2597, essentially an eviction notice to all cemeteries, stating they must remove all remaining bodies and monuments as a “public nuisance and a menace and detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers.” The eviction notice, backfired however. It caused the remaining cemeteries and several families to put up a stout resistance. Not until November 1937 were the legal battles resolved and the remaining bodies ordered to be removed.
The last four additions to the Colma cemeteries roster were Greek Orthodox Cemetery (1935), Pet’s Rest Cemetery (1947), Hoy Sun Cemetery (1988), and Golden Hills Memorial Park (1994).
In 1924, the little town (2.2 square miles of mostly cemeteries), incorporated as Lawndale. The town fathers were unaware or unconcerned that a town called Lawndale was already established south of Los Angeles. They left the post office named Colma and thus avoided problems, as mail arrived addressed to Colma, California. As soon as home delivery was considered, however, the two Lawndales found themselves sorting each other’s mail. The town was re-incorporated as Colma in December, 1941.
What’s Colma in Chinese?
I visited Colma on a cold, dreary February day. I arrived before light and left only after the onset of male-pattern exhaustion around four in the afternoon. I missed several cemeteries, including sadly, Pet’s Rest and the old Salem Cemetery. The one’s I visited were nevertheless truly fascinating. My photos will guide you through most of the cemeteries. I just want to share a few notes of what was most interesting to me.
[Note: Click on the arrows to advance the images.]
First, the Chinese influence in these cemeteries is huge. At least six cemeteries have extensive new burial areas filled with the distinctive black or brown granite upright stones. Most of these cemeteries also provided funerary burners. These are free-standing brick or masonry structures, typically with a steel door and tin exhaust stack. They are used to burn spiritual tributes, specifically cardboard facsimiles of money, clothing, possessions, homes which the deceased can then use in the afterlife.
Americans, no matter where they come from (other than China apparently), are increasingly turning to cremation and disposition outside of cemeteries. To see vital new areas of graves and to see cemeteries creating entire new areas to attract these burials was surprising. It is the Chinese market that is driving the expansion of cemetery property in Colma.
Cypress Lawn, with three large sites in Colma, is developing their most recent site with several unique styles of grave offerings. Many of these use low hedges or walls to cordon off a plot, echoing to how graves were once separated in the 1800s and 1900s. There is a large fountain near the entrance with semi-enclosed wall of niches, and two granite parapets out over their man-made lake with perhaps 50 to 100 memorial plaque locations.
Across the valley, Woodlawn has installed two scattering gardens with extensive plantings, stepping stones, benches and many small granite memorial plaques. Access is not easy; impossible for anyone in a wheelchair, or using a walker or crutches.
Also catering to the Chinese (and other populations) is Colma’s casino, Lucky Chances. Opened in 1998 after a significant dissent in the town, Lucky Chances is a 60-table cardroom with over 650 employees. After a few hands of Texas Hold’em, you can play Pai Gow. The business is one of Colma’s few tax staples and is meant to keep the living side of the town alive and well.
What Memorial Park Faze?
If cemetery history can surface a faze, it was memorial parks. Hubert Eaton reopened Forest Lawn Cemetery as Forest Lawn Memorial Park in 1917 and set off a nationwide transformation of the cemetery industry. He introduced the policy and practice of flat markers (and an absence of raised markers) in acres of grass, and organized the cemetery as a profitable business.
[Note: Click on the arrows to advance the images.]
His success was immediate and notable. While the popular culture made fun of his new model of burial, cemeteries across the country saw the numbers. Eaton’s success was surprising and astronomical. Many cemeteries simply changed their name to capitalize on the phenomenon. In Colma, Woodlawn and Greenlawn, both launched in the era of lawn park cemeteries, added Memorial Park to their names. Some cemeteries in places outside Colma went further and set down policies that required flat markers. Other cemeteries set aside new sections as flat-marker-only sections.
What is universally apparent in Colma is that, with the exception of a few name changes, and a smattering of flat markers, sometimes gathered into relatively small sections, the memorial park wave passed right over Colma.
Cemeteries develop from open land to used-up graves, then sections and then entire cemeteries. The character of a cemetery is so unique. You can see some images from some cemeteries and not be able to tell which cemetery they come from. In Colma, this is less often the case. The ethnic burial grounds have largely retained their base populations.
Then there is the plan.
Each cemetery has a plan of use. In some cases the plan is quite simple. Rows, or the rows are varied by type of grave, or have policies and sometimes basic development applied, or are broken up with larger plots. Cemeteries with the luxury of space spread it over the rows and plots, allowing in light, grasses, flowers and trees.
Thus, entering each cemetery you have a qualitative experience of space or density, and of the breadth of expression. In general, the Serbian and Jewish cemeteries were fairly dense and largely uniform in their expression – size, color, and treatment of markers. The Chinese markers also show a uniformity that is broken only by what appears to be a recent drive to display wealth with larger, more uniquely designed stones. Holy Cross is an airy haven with grassy avenues among the grave and mausoleums.
My favorites turned out to be the Italian Cemetery and the Japanese Cemetery. The Japanese have a reputation of finely wrought, and sometimes quite bold, artwork. This is apparent in the Japanese Cemetery. Massive stones, sometimes with sweeping, deep-cut carved characters, surround the entry circle. Alternately, some of these huge stones carry ordered rows of small, intimately cut characters. Walking deeper in – this is perhaps the smallest of all the cemeteries in Colma – the stones show a surprising level of uniqueness and artistry. Other cultures begin to seem derivative in the face of this wealth.
The Italian Cemetery is a display of the derivative, but of one felt and expressed deeply, making the apparent mimic a compelling, dark, solo voice. The Italian Cemetery is composed of sections and rows, each with similar memorials. There are tightly spaced, nearly identical mausoleums, raised sarcophagi trued to each other to the micrometer, and rows of lichen-masked angels. The effect overall is of a full expression. The effect at the detailed level is of that as well. In between, the replication of stones becomes a field for seeing. I spent the better part of two hours in the Italian Cemetery. Beautiful.