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6 secrets of San Francisco’s graveyards: Stolen skulls, a pet cemetery and putrid odors

Jose Guardado plays golf near the Kong Chow funerary monument in Lincoln Park Golf Course. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

It may be a city without cemeteries, but San Francisco is also a city filled with the dead. While many people know that San Francisco’s 20th century population growth led to the relocation of thousands of graves to the San Mateo County city of Colma—there was even Colma: the Musical, a local play later adapted into a film—far fewer people know about the remains left behind. And there are thousands of people—perhaps many tens of thousands—beneath our feet.

While San Francisco famously evicted its dead to make room for the living, several historic cemeteries remain, namely Mission Dolores’ graveyard and the various military cemeteries in the Presidio—which, while inside the city limits, has throughout its history been governed as a place apart. Local writer Beth Winegarner’s new book San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History makes great use of archival research to illustrate just how many burial grounds have existed in this compact urban area, some lasting only a few years. 

Winegarner, who’s descended from a family of morticians, asks whether public buildings can properly coexist with sacred spaces and what is owed to the dead who may have been moved more than once. Woven throughout her book are many astonishing facts about San Francisco’s burial grounds.

The San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio is pictured in June 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Gold Rush-Era San Francisco Was a City of Death

The population boom that began in the late 1840s brought with it a kind of death boom. Diseases like cholera and tuberculosis ran rampant, taking the lives of otherwise healthy people in their 20s. Malnourished miners arrived in town only to succumb to ailments they had contracted prospecting in the hills. People died aboard ships en route to the West. As most buildings were constructed from wood, fires periodically swept through town, sometimes killing hundreds. 

In all, some 20% of new arrivals in California may have died within a few years, a figure that Winegarner speculates might be higher in a dense, disease-prone place like San Francisco. As nearly everyone was a recent transplant from far away—sailors, in particular—it was financially prohibitive, if not outright impossible, to ship bodies home. Without any next of kin, burials were often pro forma, and hastily erected, unfenced cemeteries rapidly fell into disrepair.

The City Never Learned From Its Mistakes

The earliest cemeteries in the city were in North Beach and near Telegraph Hall. Russian Hill, in fact, is so named because it was the final resting place for several Russian sailors—even though its steep slopes made funeral processions difficult. 

Virtually every place chosen as a burial site was outside what was then considered the city. But as San Francisco's growth necessitated the relocation of human remains, it seems no one had the foresight to see how large the city was getting, or to grasp the pattern. Death was, and is, taboo.

The vast complex at Lone Mountain/Laurel Hill eventually held thousands of bodies, with zones allocated to Protestants, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Masons and Odd Fellows. Officially, they were sent to Colma, but as with virtually every other cemetery in the city’s history, San Francisco acted like the suburban developer in Poltergeist and sometimes moved the headstones but not the graves. 

Civic Center Was Built on a Massive Cemetery

Many people know that what is now Dolores Park used to be a Jewish cemetery. But the most organized attempt at a proper cemetery outside the 19th century city’s built-up area was Yerba Buena, a triangular parcel bounded by McAllister, Market and Larkin streets. It was the hinterland then, but today, that area is home to the Asian Art Museum and the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library as well as Civic Center Plaza and United Nations Plaza.

Much of Winegarner’s book deals with civic memory and the at-times brutally disrespectful ways corpses are treated by civic leaders. However, in deference to Chinese cultural practices, the Asian Art Museum undertook perhaps the most sensitive engagement with what lies beneath. Spearheaded by power broker Rose Pak, the museum held several ceremonies to appease the spirits and assuage the concerns of Buddhist and Taoist visitors. Lincoln Park Golf Course also has a funerary monument.

Burials Kept Happening After the City Banned Them

San Francisco officially banned new burials as of Aug. 1, 1901, largely in response to complaints from residents of the growing Richmond District—some valid, some entirely made-up—about putrid odors and “miasmas” that jeopardized public health. However, some defiant cemetery workers continued to bury people for several more months.

San Francisco's cemeteries, like the Jewish burial ground at the site of the future Dolores Park seen here, were prohibited from adding new graves after Aug. 1, 1901. | Source: Marilyn Blaisdell Collection/OpenSFHistory

Apart from the city’s two columbariums—which is to say, places that store urns filled with ashes—and the orderly military cemeteries in the Presidio, perhaps the last human interment in San Francisco proper was the 1953 burial of a 106-year-old woman named Clotilde Cabrillo in Mission Dolores’ graveyard. However, Winegarner noted to The Standard, that may have been a reburial.

People Liked To Steal Bodies a Lot

Perhaps the most gruesome fact in Winegarner’s book is how 19th century San Francisco had so many grave robbers. Medical schools had to get cadavers from somewhere, and when weather exposed shallow graves in sandy soil, kids sometimes played kickball with skulls. Worse, ghouls sometimes dug up corpses to get valuable adipocere, a waxy substance produced by decomposition that’s used in soapmaking.

Workers tasked with proper removal of the dead—a horrible job, no doubt about it—weren’t always careful, either. Sometimes, what they found freaked them out. An 1858 newspaper article reported that “the laborers, who were ignorant of the use to which the place had formerly been put, stood aghast, and one or two made a stampede from the locality”—phrasing that’s either a great example of the era’s purple prose or masterfully tongue-in-cheek. 

The Presidio Pet Cemetery has been open since approximately the 1950s, but no one knows for sure. | Source: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

No One Knows How the Presidio Pet Cemetery Got There

There’s one other well-known cemetery in San Francisco, and it’s for beloved companion animals. Stephen King novels aside, the Presidio Pet Cemetery is filled with markers for dogs, cats, birds and at least one lizard. 

Princess Tuptim, Knucklehead, Cupcake, Mr. Iguana and several hundred other animal friends are laid to rest there, but no one knows when it all started. Winegarner’s best guess is the early 1950s, and while official records don’t exist, the Presidio’s leadership is as committed to maintaining it as it is to the military cemeteries.

Astrid Kane can be reached at