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Entry Author: Deanna L. Kastler

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, Berkeley

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 cable car.

Archbishop Alemany purchased land on the slopes of Lone Mountain for
Calvary Catholic cemetery, on August 16, 1860. Calvary's 49.2 acres were bounded by Geary, Turk, St. Joseph, and Masonic streets.
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, Berkeley

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, Berkeley

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows built their own cemetery in 1865 on 30 acres bounded by Geary, Turk, Parker and Arguello streets.
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 Colma.

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 the process.

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 for privacy.

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 were
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 survived.

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
, published in Honor of Golden Jubilee, October 1937.

"Spotlight on Rehab; Neptune Society Restores Columbarium," Heritage
Newsletter, vol. XVI, no. 2.

Liston, Frances, A Self-guided Tour of Colma Cemeteries.

McGloin, John Fr., "The Living History of St. Ignatius," San Francisco
Foghorn, February 14, 1986.


The first burial took place on December 21, 1776 at Mission Dolores cemetery
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
Laurel Hill Cemetery was created in 1854 on 55.4 acres bounded by California, Euclid, Masonic and Arguello streets


>Joseph Alemany
> Pedro Cambon


+ Mission Dolores
+ National Cemetery at Presidio
+ Laurel Hill Cemetery


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