Entry Author: Deanna
The history of San Francisco's cemeteries, where burial of
mostly non-Native Americans took place, starts in 1776, and
ends in the 1940s. Two cemeteries, at Mission Dolores and
the Presidio, and one building, the Columbarium, once at the
entrance to the Odd Fellows Cemetery, still exist.
Mission Dolores, the sixth of 21 California Missions, was
established under the direction of Father Junipero Serra.
The first burial took place on December 21, 1776. About 6000,
including Native Americans in unmarked graves, and early pioneers
from the Spanish, Mexican, and American periods, some in elaborately
marked graves, were buried in the cemetery which was originally
three times larger than its present dimension. The last burial
was in 1887 or 1888.
On December 12, 1884, Gen. William T. Sherman issued General
Orders #133, designating 9.5 acres in the Presidio as the
San Francisco National Cemetery. From 1884-1973 it was managed
by the U.S. Army.
In 1973, Congress transferred management to U.S. Veterans
Administration. By 1933 the cemetery had grown to present
28.34 acre size. In 1992 it was closed to burials. Remains
came from original post cemeteries and several abandoned forts
and camps along the west coast. Over 30,000 members of U.S.
Armed Forces, veterans and dependents are buried, including
34 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.
Small cemeteries from the pre-Gold Rush period include the
summit of Russian Hill, where Russian sailors were buried
in the 1830s; and the southerly slope of Telegraph Hill from
the 1840-1850 period; and a 50 vara lot in North Beach at
Powell , Filbert, and Greenwich streets. Little is known of
the disposition of remains when these cemeteries were abandoned.
In 1850, the Yerba Buena Cemetery was created on ten acres
at 8th and Market, Larkin & McAllister streets. Shallow
graves in the sand, marked by a flat board with name/date
of death, made this cemetery a dangerous place as the sand
was blown to uncover the graves. In 1860, the cemetery was
abandoned, and in 1870, the several thousand remains were
moved to Golden Gate Cemetery. Some remains were uncovered
during the renovation of the old Main Library to the Asian
Art Museum in 2001.
In the early 1850s, land was purchased in the Lone Mountain-Laurel
Heights area where four large cemeteries were later created,
known as the "Big Four", these cemeteries consisted
of: Laurel Hill in 1854, Calvary, the Catholic cemetery in
1860, the Masonic Cemetery in 1864, and the Independent Order
of Odd Fellows Cemetery in 1865.
Laurel Hill Cemetery
The Bancroft Library. University of California,
From the 1920s to the 1940s, these cemeteries were moved
to Colma, the cemetery city south of San Francisco. Due to
health concerns the cemeteries were created far from the city.
Influenced by the grand Victorian cemeteries created in England
and back East, the cemeteries were created in park-like settings.
Laurel Hill Cemetery was created in 1854 on 55.4 acres bounded
by California, Euclid, Masonic and Arguello streets. Twenty
miles of roads followed the cemetery's hilly contours. The
first of the pioneers buried at Laurel Hill was John Orr,
interred on June 10, 1854. His tombstone was inscribed: "To
the Memory of the First Inhabitant of this Silent City."
Other pioneers included attorney and Judge Silas W. Sanderson,
whose marker read: "Final Decree"; Thomas O. Larkin,
first American consul in Monterey; David Broderick, anti-slavery
U.S. Senator, who was killed in a duel by his pro-Southern
political rival, Supreme Court Justice David Terry; Hugh H.
Toland, a U.C.S.F. founding father; "Squire" Clark,
who built the first San Francisco wharf; David Scannell, the
first sheriff of San Francisco and a colorful fire chief;
Colonel E. D. Baker, a Civil War hero whose funeral was attended
by 50,000 people; Commodore James Watkins, a naval hero; U.S.
Senators William M. Stewart, John P. Jones, and James J. Fair;
George T. Marve, an early ambassador to Russia; Lorin Pickering,
whose family founded the San Francisco Call; Robert P. Woodward,
creator of Woodward¹s Gardens; William B. Bourne; Major
James Van Ness; and Andrew Smith Hallidie, who invented the
Archbishop Alemany purchased land on the slopes of Lone Mountain
Calvary Catholic cemetery, on August 16, 1860. Calvary's 49.2
acres were bounded by Geary, Turk, St. Joseph, and Masonic
The predominately Irish population in the cemetery had elaborate
monuments as well as simple crosses. A chapel built in 1860
near the entrance on Point Lobos (now Geary Boulevard) was
used for Mass once a month when Archbishop Alemany traveled
on horseback across the sand dunes from St. Mary¹s Cathedral
downtown. In 1862 the first of four wooden crosses was erected
on the top of Lone Mountain.
St. Ignatius Church, aerial view. Masonic
Cemetery remains in background.
The Bancroft Library. University of California,
The Masonic Cemetery for members of the Masonic Order was
created 1864 on 30 acres bounded by Turk, Fulton, Parker and
Masonic streets. Its most famous resident was Joshua Norton,
self-proclaimed "Emperor of the United States and Protector
of Mexico," who was buried there in 1880, and now resides
in Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, where he was moved amidst pomp
and ceremony in the early 1920s.
The house of the Superintendent in the Odd
Fellows Cemetery. Southside of Geary Street between Parker
and Arguello Blvd. Nov. 29/24. Built around 1870.
The Bancroft Library. University of California,
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows built their own cemetery
in 1865 on 30 acres bounded by Geary, Turk, Parker and Arguello
The Columbarium at the entrance was completed in 1898 as a
memorial repository for cremated remains.
The cry, "Remove the cemeteries!" began in the
1880s, raised chiefly by property owners in the area and by
those who thought the cemeteries discouraged development nearby.
The grounds of the cemeteries deteriorated and became a haven
for pranksters, juvenile delinquents, and ghouls. By 1900,
most of the graveyards had been filled. In 1902, the Board
of Supervisors enacted an ordinance prohibiting further burials
within the city and outlawing the sale of cemetery lots in
the "Big Four." Henceforth, only cremation and burial
of cremated remains were permitted. As further deterioration
occurred and only perpetual-care lots could be maintained,
the "Big Four" purchased new cemetery property in
Richmond District residents wanted the cemeteries moved, but
the Catholic Archdiocese opposed the removal because the graves
in Calvary Cemetery were on hallowed ground. There was other
opposition because many San Francisco pioneers were buried
on Laurel Hill.
In 1921, the State Legislature passed the Morris Act, which
allowed a cemetery to be abandoned if ratified by a majority
of lot owners.
The Masonic Cemetery began to move, but litigation soon halted
In 1923, the Second Morris Act was passed, authorizing municipalities
to enact ordinances requiring the removal of bodies under
"police power" in cemeteries where burial had been
prohibited by law for a certain number of years.
Later in 1923, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance
requiring the removal of bodies from the Masonic and Odd Fellow
Cemeteries. More litigation followed, but the removal began
in 1929. It took six years to remove 26,000 Odd Fellows remains
to Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma, and more than 40,000
bodies were removed from Masonic Cemetery to Woodlawn.
The Catholic Archdiocese ended its opposition to the removal
of the remains from Calvary in 1937. Extensive records were
kept regarding the relocation to Holy Cross Cemetery, where
55,000 bodies, in various states of decay, were transferred
one by one with a priest in attendance and screens erected
Plans to create a five-acre memorial park on Laurel Hill died
due to lack of public support. Meanwhile, between 1939 and
1941, more than 35,000 remains were removed from Laurel Hill
to Cypress Lawn. Remains were placed in redwood boxes and
taken by hearse the same day to Colma. They were kept for
six years in Cypress Abbey Mausoleum because World War II
delayed construction of a new mausoleum. After the war, because
of rising construction costs, simple concrete vaults were
built beneath a five-acre burial mound for the remains. Over
1,000 bodies were interred privately.
Once the entire removal process had been completed, the tombstones
Broken into pieces and used as paving materials for gutters
lining the walks of Buena Vista Park. Other tombstone fragments
were used to create the breakwater near the St. Francis Yacht
Club and contractor Charles L. Harney was paid 80 cents per
ton to dump crypts and heavy markers into the Bay. Sadly,
few of the elaborate Egyptian, Gothic and Neoclassical monuments
Development of the area includes a large complex on Laurel
Hill purchased in 1953 by Firemen's Fund Insurance Company
and now owned by UCSF. Jordan Park, was named after James
Clark Jordan who purchased the land in 1891 and developed
it with residential housing from 1900 to 1920. The last wooden
cross on Lone Mountain was torn down in 1930 and in 1932 construction
began on the Spanish-Gothic style building for the San Francisco
College for Women, Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary which was
acquired in 1978 by the University of San Francisco. The fourth
St. Ignatius Church was built between 1910 and 1914 on former
Masonic Cemetery land at Parker and Fulton. Only the Columbarium
and a marker at the entrance to the U.C.S.F. Laurel Heights
Campus on California Street remain as tangible reminders of
this area's past.
Three Jewish Cemeteries were created in the Dolores Park area.
Hills of Eternity (Sherith Israel), opened February 26, 1861,
and closed December 31, 1888, was located at Dolores &
Church, 19th & 20th streets. Home of Peace, opened July
25, 1860, and closed December 31, 1888, was located at Dolores
& Church, 18th & 19th streets. The Hebrew Cemetery
was open from 1850 to 1860 at Broadway and Vallejo, Franklin
and Gough streets. The remains from these cemeteries were
moved to Colma in the 1860s.
Golden Gate Cemetery was created in 1868 on about 200 acres
purchased by the city north of Clement between 33rd and 43rd
avenues. It was also known as Clement Street Cemetery and
the City Cemetery. In 1909, it was turned into Lincoln Park
Golf Course. It is unknown how many remains were moved, and
several hundred were discovered when the Palace of the Legion
of Honor was being renovated in the 1990s.
A Chinese Cemetery was at the rear of Laurel Hill from Parker
to Arguello streets in the late 1800s, and was later moved
to Golden Gate Cemetery. Many Chinese were wrapped in canvas,
buried in six inches of dirt, unearthed and returned to their
homeland of China by Pacific Mail Steamer.
A Greek Cemetery was near Turk, Parker and Stanyan streets
in the late
1800s. It was later moved to Golden Gate Cemetery.
Most death records were destroyed in the earthquake and fires
of April 1906. Some books of records still exist with the
State Registrar of Vital Statistics in Sacramento, California.
Proctor, William A., Department of City Planning, City
and County of San Francisco. Location, Regulation, and Removal
of Cemeteries in the City and County of San Francisco.
San Francisco Archives, Public Library.
Lockwood, Charles, "The Victorian Way of Death,"
California Living (August 12, 1979).
Carroll, Luke M., Holy Cross Parish and Lone Mountain
District of San
Francisco, published in Honor of Golden Jubilee, October
"Spotlight on Rehab; Neptune Society Restores Columbarium,"
Newsletter, vol. XVI, no. 2.
Liston, Frances, A Self-guided Tour of Colma Cemeteries.
McGloin, John Fr., "The Living History of St. Ignatius,"
Foghorn, February 14, 1986.