San Francisco History

General Cemetery Information

"A CEMETERY.  A committee has been appointed by the Protestant, Episcopal Church to confer with other city churches on the propriety of memorializing the Ayuntamiente to set aside a portion of the public domain for the purposes of a burial ground.  We trust this worthy work will be carried forward, and we have no doubt the council will cheerfully pass the necessary regulations."

Source: Daily Alta California, 16 August 1849.


Where Shall Be Their Future Resting Place!

The Steady Encroachment at the City’s Growth Upon the Cemetery Reservations—History of Our Various Cemeteries—Considerations of Public Health and Public Economy—-Problems Which it is Time to Solve

The Golden City sits beside her magnificent landlocked harbor, which, situated equidistant from the bay of Panama on the south and snowy Alaska on the north, holds in its royal hands the scepter of empire over the western world. She has sprung up in scarcely three decades from an almost unknown cove whose landing place was visited only by those hardy mariners who sought for the oily wealth of the northern seas, and inhabited only by those earnest missionaries who came to this far off land to teach the true faith, and whose little flock gathered around to listen to their story of the Cross, and to assist them in erecting a temple to God, which stands to-day, one of the city’s oldest landmarks—the Mission Dolores. Years might have rolled on were San Francisco made one step towards attaining her destined position as one of the commercial centers of the world, had not the magic, open sesame word “gold” been wafted from western shore to eastern shore and in a trice filled her harbor with winged messengers laden with swarms of eager, excited argonauts in search of the golden fleece, a glittering deity to be found in the wild and rugged gulches of the unknown land.

But thirty years have passed into time since Aladdin’s vaults were thrown open to the world, and during that brief space San Francisco, from a mute, inglorious mission settlement, has developed into a city of magnificent proportions. Each year sees her growing in size and beauty. Elegant and palatial structures uprear their lofty crests from all quarters of the city, while far to the westward, in consecrated ground, on a gently sloping hill, rise the costly and grand mausoleums which mark the spot where many of the argonauts of old lie buried, smiling, perhaps, in their sleep of perfect peace, as the busy, restless hum of the city’s teeming thousands comes floating o’er them, at the frail tenure of life held by those who must shortly follow. If San Francisco has been lavish in adorning and beautifying the homes of her living, she has been no less mindful of the claims upon her by


The history of the city’s cemeteries truthfully tells the marvelous story of San Francisco’s growth. In the early days of the peninsula those who were so fortunate as to die held no lasting title to their resting place. Various and widely separated have been the places chosen for the interment of the dead in the days gone by. Probably the first spot consecrated to the ashes of the old Mexican residents of Mission Dolores was the cemetery of that church. Interments of all who died in the true faith were made here for years. Another spot, selected at as early a date as 1842, was the eminence between Taylor and Jones streets, and north of Vallejo street. Here were buried several of the crew of a Russian vessel, stricken with some malarian disease, which occupation of the hill by them resulted in the name of Russian hill being applied to the spot. Not many additional burials were made there, however, as it as considered too inaccessible for funeral corteges, and in 1850 it was abandoned and the remains of those placed there were afterwards removed to other localities. Another location was secured at the corner of Sansome and Union streets, and there, within a few paces of the sea waves which sang their requiem over them, the pioneer departed of 1850 were laid away, to remain but a few years, however, for they were soon removed to another spot, just north of Washington square, at North Beach. Other burials were made on the ground now covered by the Mercantile Library [216 Bush Street, between Sansome and Montgomery], and also on First street. In the year 1850 the city purchased the property now known as the New City Hall ground, which was then on the very outskirts of the city, and dedicated it to burial purposes, naming it Yerba Buena Cemetery. To this retired spot, overgrown with chaparral and wild flowers, and far removed from the turmoil and bustle of the mining camp of 1850, were taken, with confiding assurance of their permanent rest, the earthly remains of the departed. But alas for all their expectations! five short years had elapsed, before


Had built up to that sanctuary of the dead and again it was thought necessary to abandon that burial place, and in consequence, a tract of some 200 acres of land close to Point Lobos and within a short distance of the Golden Gate, was purchased and the dead of Yerba Buena removed there. Thus is shown how as the city kept constantly outgrowing the most sanguine expectations of her people, these pioneer cemeteries were one after the other abandoned and the remains interred there removed to more distant localities. But two cemeteries remain successfully withstanding the growth of a city around them. Those are the Home of Peace Cemetery, belonging to the Hebrew denomination, which is comprised within two blocks at the Mission, bounded by Eighteenth and Twentieth, Dolores and Church streets, and the Mission Cemetery. With far-seeing prudence Archbishop Alemany secured some 72 acres of ground for the Catholic Church just on the ridge which overlooks the city on the west and there the faithful Catholics lie buried to the number of some 35,000. To the north of Calvary Cemetery and with but a block intervening lies Laurel Hill Cemetery. This was founded by a few men who in 1853, anticipating to some extent the ultimate grandeur of proportion to which the young city was destined to attain, purchased the Lone Mountain tract of 75 acres and opened it as a cemetery with the appellation of Lone Mountain. In 1868 these gentlemen incorporated under the Rural Cemetery Act of 1859 and deeded the land to the new association, styled the Laurel Hill Association, for $125,000, taking the company’s bonds in payment. Since that time


Have been made by the Association and those who have purchased there, and to-day the cemetery and its improvements represent an outlay of millions of dollars, and within its inclosure sleep some 30,000 dead. Far away to the south, under the Lone Mountain cross, nestles to still and solemn quietude the Masonic Cemetery, which occupies 37 acres of ground, and is bounded by Missouri and Parker avenues and Fulton and Turk streets. The association controlling the cemetery is composed of prominent Masons and was incorporated in 1864. They pass title to members of the Masonic Order only. The improvements here are, also, of the most costly character, and would be valued, with the ground, at not less than $400,000. One of the most distant of the city cemeteries is that of the Odd Fellows. This is situated a little to the north and west of the Masonic Cemetery, and lies in a very irregular shape, containing about 30 acres of land, nearly all of which is well and tastily laid out in different sized lots, flanked and interwoven with innumerable walks and drives. The association builds its own walls and other minor improvements before selling the lots, which adds greatly to the uniformity of its appearances. A short distance from the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery, and on the Point Lobos road, the Greek and Sclavonic people have a small sepulture, occupying scarcely a block of ground, called the Hills of Eternity. The military plot is in the center of the Presidio reservation, and is devoted to the reception of the dead of the United States army. The cemeteries herein enumerated, together with the City Cemetery, in which the indigent and Chinese dead are buried, constitute the nine burial places of San Francisco.

THE STORY OF THE CITY’S CEMETERIES is the history of the city itself. In early days San Francisco, all in ignorance of her glorious future, committed her dead to earth, as has been shown, within a few hundred yards of her business center. A short time served to convince the city of her shortsightedness, for as time rolled on the queen city of the west stayed not for cemeteries or for sandhills—they were alike removed to make room for the habitations of the living. Then the eminence at Lone Mountain was purchased, and there the present cemeteries were laid out. When they were first opened to the public they were considered to have been located out of the world, as it were, and the most farseeing of the people in those days would have thought the idea of the city’s growing up to that far away spot too ridiculous to be mentioned. But facts are stubborn things, and the reality proves that had they so foretold they would have been true prophets, for not only has the city done so, but her citizens are reaching out even beyond all of the cemeteries, and have built up homes to enshrine therein their lares and panates. Nearly every block of land beyond those would-be barriers to the city’s growth has been bought up by speculators, who are holding the same for the time which will ultimately come when they will receive good, round prices for their town lots. But a few years ago scarcely a residence was located to the westward of the first Point Lobos road toll gate, and not an avenue existed besides the Cliff House road. Now, that road is being rapidly built up with dwellings of all descriptions, and innumerable groceries, haberdasheries, bakeries and other branches of business line the thoroughfare. To the north and south of it broad avenues have been laid out, lots sold, and many of them have also been built upon, the whole forming a miniature city of itself. So far the reader has been contemplating the past and present only; now let the curtain vailing the future be uplifted. The history of the past, and its results, are perhaps as good an indication of


As could well be found. Twenty-nine years ago the city could have been gathered together in the few blocks now contained in the water front, and her inhabitants were numbered by the hundreds. In 1860 the number of the latter had increased to 56,835, and a corresponding growth of the city had been attained. Ten years later, in 1870, 150,000 was the estimated number of its inhabitants, while the returns of 1878 place the city’s population at 308,215. Her environments have as rapidly been pushed out on all sides. Should the city continue growing in the same ratio—and who can doubt that it will—San Francisco will in the year 1900 have nearly 1,000,000 of inhabitants, and the lines of the city will then have been extended to the very shores of the Pacific. Every block to the westward will be reclaimed from the drifting sand, and made to bloom and blossom in eternal summer. Not many years will lapse before the city will realize the necessity of a huge stone breakwater being built along the beach, from the Cliff House down to the Ocean House, which will effectually prevent the constant throwing of sand on the shore, to be taken up by the winds in a dry condition and blown across the peninsula. Two lines of cable roads have already obtained franchises granting them the right to lay cables to the beach; and with cheap and rapid transit, men living even within earshot of the ocean’s roar will not, in the 20th century, think that they live too far from the scenes of their daily toil. In the year 1900, then, San Francisco will be a compactly built city from the bay on the east to the ocean on the west. Where, then, will her cemeteries be located? In five years, at the latest, all of the unoccupied land in the Calvary, Laurel Hill, Masonic and Odd Fellow’s Cemeteries will have been sold, and unless more land is added, they


Only those owning plots there having the privilege of burying their departed in the future heart of the city. The opening of California street through Laurel Hill Cemetery has given that cemetery a frontage on the street of several hundred feet. It is the intention of the Cemetery Association to petition the Legislature to be allowed the privilege of taking up what few bodies have been buried in the northern part of the cemetery and to segregate that portion for building purposes. This would give them a depth on the southside of California street of 125 feet, and a frontage extending along the whole northerly line of the cemetery. This, with the westerly portion of the cemetery, where the Chinese were formerly buried, would make 30 acres segregated—far more valuable for residence property, what unoccupied land they have will, doubtless, at an early day be also segregated and held for residence property. If, not a question of to-day it certainly will become one of the near future as to where the Greenwood or Mt. Auburn of San Francisco shall be located? It is a difficult question to answer. Some ten years ago a tract of 400 acres of land in Visitacion valley near the Almshouse, was purchased by a number of gentlemen, and during the last session of the Legislature an attempt was made, presumably in their interest, to pass bill prohibiting the entombment of the dead within the present cemeteries after a specified time. One of the reasons cited in the bill, was that the health of the city was being endangered by the breezes, which come from the westward laden with the various odors peculiar to places of sepulture. This bill from its nature was to a certain extent a selfish scheme engineered for the enrichment of the parties who had bought the Visitacion valley property, with the intention of locating a cemetery there just as soon as the law had been passed. To have passed such a law would have been equal to


Of those owning plots, and who had spent, in the aggregate, millions of dollars to embellish them, preparatory to receiving the remains of their beloved departed. A law prohibiting general burials in the present cemeteries, and only permitting those who have already bought and improved their plots to bury there, would have been of vast benefit to the city, and the necessity for such a law will, at no distant day, be well understood. Such a law has been passed in nearly all of the cities of the Union at one or another stage of their existence. In just such a position as this city is placed in, New York, mindful of its rapid growth in the past, selected a spot on Long Island, nearly a mile square and containing about eight hundred acres, for the burial of the dead, and named it Greenwood. In all other large cities the same precaution has been taken to secure a spot so far distant from the turmoil and strife of mankind that not a whisper of it ever floats across the valley of peace, consecrated to those whom the reaper has garnered. The lessons taught by these cities should not be wasted on San Francisco, and she should lose no time in securing for the future some location where, far distant from the city, her dead can slumber on undisturbed until the sound of the last trump only shall awaken them. There are many such places to be found, if necessary, even outside of the county. San Mateo and Alameda counties have many choice spots amidst wooded glens or on rolling hillsides. Eighty thousand sleep upon the green slopes of Lone Mountain and at the Mission. In twenty years, if no other place is provided, three hundred thousand people will rest in death’s slumber in the very center of a great city. Is it premature to suggest the prevention of the burial of the miscellaneous dead in the future heart of the city? These are questions that should be earnestly debated by those who have the welfare of San Francisco at heart. Regarding the


Authorities differ. Many intelligent people, well qualified to pass upon the subject, are found arranged on either side. Those who argue that the nearness of the cemeteries is injurious assert that no matter how well ventilated the vaults of a cemetery are, or how deep the graves are excavated, a certain indefinable, almost unnoticeable gas arises, and being borne on the air will prove delirious to the health of those who may breathe it. Yet it seems as though the westerly winds which prevail here many months in the year could scarcely be poisoned with odors that seldom affect the senses of those who breathe even in the cemetery itself. In many of the oldest and most populous cities of the old world, where the dead have lain for years, no cause for alarm has ever been found such as would be followed by an unusually large death rate, and while it is certain that the cemeteries cannot be conducive to health and longevity, they cannot be more a disease breeding source of evil than are the innumerable sewers that give forth their miasmatic effluvia from out the many manholes and corner cesspools. Nor can it be possible that the several cemeteries combined could affect the health of San Francisco to the extent that but one block of its Chinese quarters is capable of doing. Those who argue that the cemeteries are the breeding spots of disease and pestilence bring forth no evidence, no statistics, in support of their theory. The earth is a natural disinfectant, and rapidly absorbs noxious and offensive gases. Bodies placed therein in a few short months resolve themselves into the component parts from which they sprung, and if in the course of time it is found necessary to exhume them, only the bones or mineral portion of the remains are brought to light, and even this mineral portion of the body would pass into an inorganic state in the course of time. Remains placed in hermetically sealed vaults can give forth no token of their disintegration to offend the nostrils, or if they do it can only be by filtration through walls of masonry which


There. At the various city cemeteries the lodgekeepers and workmen on the grounds generally have good health, and the same can be said of those living in their immediate vicinity. Those living adjacent to the cemeteries express a general desire for their removal, more on account of the gloomy associations caused by their contiguity than a fear for their health. Should it ever become necessary to practice that strict economy of space that is in vogue in many of the European cemeteries, where one body is frequently buried over another, it would hardly be safe to say that the neighboring residents could be expected to enjoy the best of health. On the contrary, the changes would be much against that state of affairs. It has been supposed by many residing near the cemeteries that the water caught in their wells must have, while passing through the earth, become charged to a certain extent with the deleterious substances which it had met in its percolation, and such a reflection must have often sent a thrill of horror through them while partaking of the crystal beverage. Science, however, proves that the contrary is the case, and has established the fact that earth is the very best purifier of water, as well as the best disinfectant ever discovered, and investigations have revealed the fact that deleterious organic matter does not pass from the surface or below the surface into shallow wells, but remains in the earth. And while the most filthy of fluids can be purified by such passage, the particle or organic matter from the earth, no matter how contaminated, to carry it to any distance whatever. This being the case, then, the rain which filtrates the cemeteries cannot be affected by the substances through which it passes for more than a few feet at the utmost, for the earth would, as has been stated, quickly purify it of all foreign matter. The question of the future removal of the city’s dead is not likely ever to hinge on the fact that their presence in the city in injurious to the public health, either through noxious gases or poisonous waters, but will turn more directly on the question of the vast benefits that will eventually accrue to San Francisco by having the boundaries of the cemeteries closely confined, which will enable the city to be built up the more compactly."

Source: San Francisco Daily Evening Post. 16 November 1878.

"THE CEMETERIES. . .The Burial Places of Pioneer Days--Rude and Hasty Funerals of the Gold Hunters. . .In the early days, prior to the discovery of gold, when Yerba Buena, had a civil existence and the great city of to-day was in its infancy, the dead were laid to rest in the churchyard at the old Mission Dolores.  Death then came but seldom, for the population was scanty and the funeral was respectfully attended by what might be termed a large number of friends and relatives.  But when the news of the discovery of gold was heralded throughout the world and the great rush of emigrants occurred, the scene changed.  Death became more frequent and the time was so golden that in a carefully prepared and well-attended funeral was something unknown.  Few men would then spare as much time as was necessary to accompany the corpse of a stranger, nay, often a friend, to its last resting place in the little cemetery beside the old Mission Church.  The distance, probably two miles was considered great and the roads at times were almost impassable.  Under those circumstances the method of burial in consecrated ground was soon unheeded, and in consequence the bodies of the dead were sometimes hastily placed anywhere out of sight.  In the bustle and incessant turmoil of the restless and continual change in the population the dead were not missed, and no one cared sufficiently to institute any inquiries to obtain any information about the absent one.  Perhaps he had gone to the mines or home, would be the answer to any question.  Any loose rumor seemed to satisfy the few inquisitive acquaintances of the deceased.  Perhaps it would occasionally flash across their minds that their old friend had made a still stranger journey and crossed life's river never more to return.  But they would shrug their shoulders with the remark: "Poor fellow, I'm sorry he's gone," and without further thought apply themselves to the more pressing affairs of the moment that engrossed their attention.

Anxious friends, in the far-off New England home might write a score of letters of inquiry but who could give them accurate information as to the fate of the missing emigrant? To search for any particular individual in California at that time would be fruitless labor.  In many cases no one paid any heed of the dying, save the inmates of his own tent, or if, perhaps he dwelt alone in some small shanty, the dwellers most adjacent to him.  Often the corpse of some unknown would be discovered lying in a retired spot, hidden in the bushes or chaparral, or in a secluded tent, and sometimes in the public street.  The cause of death, whether by his own hand or by the violence of another, was a mystery frequently unsolved.  His fellows or nearest neighbors, or those who discovered the corpse, would generally dig a hole in the ground behind or near the deceased's late abode, and there the body would be buried.  Sometimes the more intimate acquaintances of the deceased would bear the remains to the summit of Russian hill, where there was a small uninclosed space that many years previously had been used as burial ground by the Russian settlers of the town and bay.  Or, if they lived near North Beach, they would inter the body on the rising slope of Telegraph Hill, in a dreary spot between Powell and Stockton, Chestnut and Lombard streets, which by common consent had been set apart for burial purposes.  Often the deceased would be buried near the spot where he died, and when the dry sandy soil that covered the tomb was leveled by the winds and rain, nothing remained to mark the place where rested the bones of one of the pioneers of civilization in this far Western land.

In 1850, however, a piece of ground a little to the westward of North Beach began to be regularly used as a graveyard.  No permission was ever granted by the authorities for such purpose, but after one funeral had taken place, another and another followed to the same place until it began to be regarded as a cemetery.

In the summer of 1850, a large tract of land, situated nearly midway between the town and the Mission, was appropriated as a place of public burial.  It was named Yerba Buena Cemetery, and the site is now occupied by the new City Hall.  At that time the distance from the city and inaccessibility prevented the place being utilized to any great extent for burial purposes.  For nearly two years people preferred the other irregular place, but finally, in 1851 the property near North Beach became desirable for business purposes, and the bodies there interred were exhumed and removed to Yerba Buena.  In this same year, 1852, it was formally opened as a cemetery. . ."

Source: San Francisco Morning Call, 14 February 1887.


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