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Largely erased by time and development, the dead of City Cemetery may soon get proper memorial

The Kong Chow funerary monument sits in the Lincoln Park Golf Course, which has views of many city landmarks in San Francisco, Calif. on May 27, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As many as 20,000 individuals are buried beneath the putting green of Lincoln Park Golf Course in the Presidio, and hundreds likely lie beneath the nearby Legion of Honor.

Though many who have played a round on the links or visited the museum are surely unaware of the human remains beneath their feet, its something of an open secret: For over a century, San Francisco has largely ignored the story of City Cemetery—at one point the largest burial ground for immigrants and the poor in the 7×7.

Even as golf course maintenance crew, museum staff and other city officials know where the bodies are buried, San Francisco has never formally recognized the former graveyard since removing the headstones over a century ago.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is poised to change that next week.

The Historic Preservation Committee unanimously approved historic landmark status for City Cemetery on May 4, and the Board of Supervisors is set to vote on the recommendation June 7. If passed, the designation will go before the Land Use and Transportation Committee; assuming it is formally adopted by the Board of Supervisors and approved by the Mayor, it will become official 30 days after London Breed signs it into law.

There’s not a lack of statuary in the sprawling lawn beside the Legion of Honor and the 18-hole golf course. The area is full of monuments: to golf champion John Susko, to the dead of World War I, to the victims of the Holocaust, to a Japanese ship, to Lincoln himself. Yet there is no official plaque, stone or sign recognizing the people buried in the historic City Cemetery, many of whom were Chinese.

“As a Chinese immigrant, this is deeply personal for me,” said Supervisor Connie Chan, who is a first generation Chinese immigrant and initiated the historic landmarking of the site. “I am grateful to have the privilege of honoring the history and sacrifice of generations of Chinese immigrants. … It’s a history that we try to reckon with, especially in the last couple years, experiencing so much hate against the AAPI community.”

Reversing Erasure

While numerous ethnicities are buried at City Cemetery—including French, Japanese and Italian—the number of Chinese individuals is the largest, according to Woody LaBounty, director of advocacy and programs at SF Heritage, who worked on the historic report of the site. 

The unanimous May 4 vote by the Historic Preservation Committee for landmark status came at the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, one in a series of intentionally symbolic dates. Chan initiated the legislation in April of 2021 on the Qingming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day or Chinese Memorial Day.

Later that year, Chan held a gathering at the cemetery on the Chung Yeung holiday, when it is customary to visit the graves of ancestors. The traditional Chinese ceremony beside the Kong Chow monument included tea, food offerings, alcohol and the burning of paper money. 

“It was important to us because we had a chance to perform the ceremony, which has never been done before,” Chan said, noting they had to reserve the site so they wouldn’t have golf balls flying overhead. Chan also took the opportunity to recognize the numerous other ethnicities buried at the site during the ceremony. 

The Kong Chow monument is one of only two structures that make any allusion to the site’s past as a cemetery, the other being a seamen’s obelisk in honor of the maritime dead of San Francisco. 

Roughly translated, the Kong Chow funerary monument describes the gravesite of Chinese immigrants as 'temporary' and notes that the departed expressed the wish to be laid to rest in China. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“A lot of our ancestors are still buried at Lincoln Park,” said Robert Wong, President of the Kong Chow Benevolent Association. “I urge the preservation of this historic landmark so we can be there every year for our memorial day.” 

This kind of annual celebration for the Chinese community, along with increased visibility of City Cemetery’s past, would be one of the benefits of landmarking the site, according to LaBounty. The designation of landmark status wouldn’t alter the golf course or trigger a change of use for the park, but it would acknowledge and educate—two things San Francisco has failed to do multiple times in the past.

Preservation vs. ‘Progress’

City Cemetery opened in 1868, when 200 acres were set aside for a municipal cemetery. From 1870 to 1876, the city and county used it as a burial ground for the indigent. In the late 1870s, land was granted to at least 24 benevolent and religious associations for the burial of their members. Many city residents would join such fraternal organizations in the 19th century in order to ensure that their bodies would be cared for after death. 

In 1898 new burials were banned and in 1909 City Cemetery was reclassified as a park. The subsequent fate of the cemetery represents the ongoing tension between preservation and development. “The early 20th-century sentimentality and sanctity of the dead was denied for the sake of progress,” said Kari Hervey-Lentz, a city planner who presented the landmark application.

Human remains uncovered during a seismic retrofitting of the Legion of Honor in the 1990s. | Richard Barnes

The bodies were supposed to be moved to the necropolis of Colma when the cemetery’s use changed, but the majority didn’t make it. The subsequent construction of the Legion of Honor in 1924 uncovered the cemetery, but the bodies were moved aside to make way for construction. A 1990s seismic retrofit of the building again revealed the bodies, with 750 individuals being removed and the rest covered up.

“San Francisco has a less than stellar record of taking responsibility,” said the archaeologist Katherine Flynn, who excavated City Cemetery during the Legion of Honor’s retrofit. Flynn compared the landscaping surrounding the cemetery to a rug, with intact coffins just below the surface. 

“Remains are literally built into the foundation of the Legion of Honor,” Flynn said. The museum, which is currently featuring an haute couture exhibit on the Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, currently displays no formal acknowledgment of those buried on its grounds. During the 1924 construction of the museum, concrete was poured over coffins and human remains were used as backfill to raise the level of the courtyard. 

“There were burials that went underneath the original foundation of the building and could not be removed without undermining the foundation, so they were left in place,” said Miley Holman, who led the 1994 excavation of the Legion of Honor for its seismic retrofit. Holman recalled finding bodies “cheek by jowl” when they began working on the site.

“It proved to be the case that the entire thing was solid, massive burials,” Holman said. Holman wanted to pursue a more extensive excavation of the site, but the museum wanted the work completed as quickly as possible.

Visitors walk by a statue in front of a building with classical columns and the inscription "HONNEUR ET PATRIE."
Visitors enter the Legion of Honor along the "Scenic 49-mile Drive" on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images) | Source: Bay Area News via Getty Images

When asked for reaction to the potential historic landmark status for City Cemetery, representatives from the Legion of Honor museum declined to comment. “They still have their heads in the sand. They still don’t care,” said Richard Barnes, who was hired in 1994 by the museum as the only photographer permitted to document the excavation.

“The museum to my mind doesn’t care, even after 25 years,” Barnes said. “It’s a shame. What’s the role of a museum if not to preserve the past?”

“These people have been unrecognized for too long,” LaBounty said. “This is
a good first step.” If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the designation would represent the city’s first archeological landmark.  

“It is critical for us to know where we’ve been as a city and as a community to show we know where we’re heading,” Chan said. Part of this acknowledgment is recognizing immigrants and their important contributions to San Francisco, according to Chan. 

“Heritage is like a river’s path,” Chan said. “You think about the water’s source and about its future.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Lincoln Park Golf Course.