Touched by a Cemetery: the National AIDS Memorial Grove

The heart of the National AIDS Memorial Grove

The heart of the National AIDS Memorial Grove

Mostly when I visit a cemetery, I can separate what it represents from the beauty and peace of the place.  I don’t see cemeteries as depressing, unless they have been vandalized.

Last week, though, I struggled.  I’ve wanted for a while to write about the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, but even though it’s one of the loveliest places in the city, I felt such anger and sadness that I had trouble finding words to express them.

Twenty years ago last month, my friend Blair died of AIDS.  The speed of his illness was breakneck and terrifying. I was honored to stay at his house during the last week of his life, administering morphine every 20 minutes around the clock with a handful of his friends and his husband Jeff, my best friend.

Blair reading the Chronicle

Blair reading the Chronicle

Blair was 28 when he died.

He didn’t want a monument.  Jeff scattered some of Blair’s ashes in their backyard. He had some of them mixed into tattoo ink and tattooed into his skin.  Several friends ate some of them. In the end, some of us took the remainder and tried to dump them into San Francisco Bay.  The wind caught them, of course, and blew them back at us.

The worst of the plague was over in the US by the time Blair died.  New drugs — and new drug cocktails — turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable if chronic health problem.  Twenty years later, every gay friend I have is HIV positive, but no one else has died yet.

Blair had a stone carved with his name to be placed in the backyard after his death. He had no other grave.

Blair had a stone carved with his name to be placed in the backyard after his death. He had no other grave.

My life has been touched lightly by AIDS, but even so, it was catastrophically changed.

In July, I went to the AIDS Grove one sunny morning, looking for peace and researching a potential Cemetery of the Week.  To my horror, a personal trainer had three women crab-walking across a plaza in the western end of the grove.

I’m not narrow-minded about cemeteries. I’m fine with people biking through them, picnicking, playing frisbee, jogging, walking their dogs.  I would have said I was fine with whatever, as long as people were respectful and picked up after themselves.  I discovered I was not okay with a gang of women in spandex doing leg lifts.

If they had been big beefy guys, would I have been so upset? Probably not. I think the dead would have appreciated the eye candy.

I wanted to march over to the trainer and scream at her.  Urns are buried in the Grove.  Ashes have been scattered there.  Survivors still come to commune with their lost ones.  The rocks all around are marked with names and epitaphs. This is hallowed ground. I was too disgusted and disappointed in humanity to speak.

Half a million people have died of AIDS worldwide.  8000 people continue to die each day of the disease.  Fewer of those are in America now, but the disease is still killing those around us. One of my friends has AIDS now.  By the time he got tested, it was too late for the disease to be prevented.  He may yet live a long time, but he may never be healthy.

IMG_3980In the face of AIDS, I don’t know what to do with my anger and grief. I feel the loss of each name in the Grove as a slice of my heart. How can I communicate that to people who weren’t in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, who don’t remember the gaunt young men with their canes, the mile-long candlelit marches?

I need the Grove to be a place of beauty and healing, so I can find peace for my memories and my fury.

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Death’s Garden Revisited

Death's Garden001Twenty years ago, I was given a box of miscellaneous cemetery photos. They had been taken by my best friend’s husband over the course of his travels around the Americas. Blair was 28 years old and dying of AIDS. He wanted to know his photos had a good home.

I decided to put together a book that would feature those photos. Initially, I was going to write all the text, but as I talked to people about the project, everyone seemed to have a cemetery story to tell.

The book title expanded from Death’s Garden to Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. I was thrilled to discover that people I knew — even complete strangers — all had a graveyard they’d connected with, either because a family member was buried there, or because they’d visited it on vacation, or because they’d grown up in a house near it, or for a whole bouquet of other reasons.

The contributors varied from people I met through zine publishing to a ceramics professor at Ohio State University, writers for the LA Weekly, professional artists and photographers, underground musicians, depressed high school girls, and punk rock diva Lydia Lunch. As the book came together, Death’s Garden blew away my expectations.


Morrison monument in Glenwood Cemetery, Flint – taken by Loren Rhoads

The initial print run of 1000 copies sold out 18 months after my husband and I put it together for our publishing company. I’d only asked for one-time rights to use everyone’s contributions, so I couldn’t republish it. Once it was gone, it was gone.

As the years passed, I’ve lost track of many of the contributors. Some are dead and have a different relationship with cemeteries altogether now. Others have sunk into the anonymity of a pseudonym on the internet.

For a while now I’ve wanted to assemble a second volume of Death’s Garden.  I think there are a lot more stories to be told about relationships people have formed with graveyards. For instance, what’s it like to be a tour guide? How are cemetery weddings different than others? What’s the strangest cemetery you’ve ever visited, or the most beautiful, or the spookiest?

Eventually, I’d like to put these new essays into a physical book, but for now, I’d like to kick off a new feature on Cemetery Travel. This feature is open to anyone who has ever visited a cemetery where something special happened, either good or bad.  Tell me about your relationship with a cemetery.  I’d like to publish it on

What I’m looking for:

  • personal essays that focus on a single cemetery
  • preferably with pictures
  • under 1500 words (totally negotiable, but the limit is something to shoot for)
  • descriptive writing
  • characterization, dialogue, tension: all the tools you’d use to tell a story
  • but this MUST be true — and it must have happened to you!

Reprints are accepted.  If you’ve written something lovely on your blog and wouldn’t mind it reaching the couple thousand people who subscribe to Cemetery Travel, let me know.

If I accept your essay for publication on Cemetery Travel, be warned: I may do some light editing, with your permission.

Also, I’ll need:

  • a bio of 50-100 words
  • a photo of you
  • a link to your blog or book
  • links to your social media sites, so people can follow you.

Finally, if — as I hope — this project progresses to becoming a legitimate book, I will contact you with a contract and offer of payment.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are some links to the original Death’s Garden:

Reviews of the original Death’s Garden:

Turner monument at Glenwood Cemetery, taken by Loren

Turner monument at Glenwood Cemetery, taken by Loren

“This impressive book is so striking that, upon opening its binding, one is hard pressed not to be moved by its contents. With every perusal, the reader finds another thing to think about.” — Carpe Noctem

Death’s Garden is an anthology of cemetery tours from all around the world, well-photographed, and smart enough to know it’s not the where and when of certain burial grounds that intrigues us, it’s the why as well. There’s a certain joy about Death’s Garden which is hard to pin down; the sense that just as no two graveyards are the same, no two burial beliefs are the same, either.” — Alternative Press

“The photographers and writers relay their thoughts on the relationship between the living and the dead, creating a feast for the eyes and senses. Death’s Garden goes a long way in showing just what these residences of the dead have to offer to those of us that are still among the living.” — Maximum Rock N Roll

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Cemetery of the Week #145: the Ghost of San Francisco’s Laurel Hill

Laurel Hill Cemetery
Bounded by Presidio, California, Maple, and Geary Streets
San Francisco, California
Founded: June 28, 1854
Size: 54 acres
Number of interments: 47,000
Dismantled: 1946

Inspired by the garden cemetery movement gaining steam on the East Coast, the Lone Mountain Cemetery was established in San Francisco on June 28, 1854.  It was named in honor of a 500-foot sandy mountain half a mile south of it.  The enormous 320-acre cemetery was designed with miles of carriage roads, with views of the city in the distance to the east and the ocean to the west.  The area, which had natural live oaks and an abundance of wild flowers was planted with “every species of ornamental shrubs and rare plants,” according to the 1860 San Francisco Directory.  People treated it like a city park, by going for carriage rides and picnicking there.  Local cemetery historian Michael Svanevik pointed out that it was the only place in town to go courting. And the cable cars stopped there, so it was easy to access. (Inspired by the cemetery’s success, Golden Gate Park opened in 1870.) 

At the cemetery’s dedication ceremony, Colonel E.D. Baker said, “The truth peals like thunder in our ears—thou shalt live forever!” “He meant,” This is San Francisco says, “that there, beneath the pines and the oaks and the bending willows, the memory of the sleeping dead would be forever green.”  Baker was a lawyer who made a name for himself several years later when he defended Charles Cora on a murder charge.  The jury couldn’t reach a verdict, but the Vigilance Committee did.  They hauled Cora out of jail and lynched him.  Baker left town.  Cora was buried in the Mission Dolores Cemetery.

The first burial took place on June 10, 1854.  John Orr’s headstone was inscribed: “To the Memory of the First Inhabitant of the Silent City.” According to Findagrave, the headstone was destroyed when his body was moved to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.

One of the early burials in the cemetery was James King of William, editor of the Evening Bulletin.  He published articles pointing out the less than savory past of supervisor James P. Casey.  On May 14, 1856, James King of William was shot in the street by ex-convict James Casey. He died a few days later.  Casey was arrested and lynched by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee. King of William’s coffin was followed to the Lone Mountain Cemetery by a procession of 6,000 mourners, according to The Spectactular San Franciscans by Julia Cooley Altrocchi.  Early in the 1900s, his family reburied him in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park with what looks like his original headstone.

Senator David Broderick's obelisk

Senator David Broderick’s obelisk

United States Senator David C. Broderick was killed in a duel by the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court on September 13, 1859 on the shores of Lake Merced.  He was buried on a hill in Lone Mountain Cemetery under a monument “with classical figures and tablets, inscribed with tribute,” according to The Spectactular San Franciscans.

By 1860, they’d realized that the Lone Mountain Cemetery was too big and unwieldy.  On August 16, 1860, Archbishop Alemany bought some of the land to found Calvary Cemetery on the western edges of the Lone Mountain.  He consecrated the 49.2 acres and began to bury Catholics there.

Map of San Francisco, 1930

Map of San Francisco, 1930

The Masons followed suit in 1864, buying 30 acres bounded by Turk, Fulton, Parker, and Masonic Streets, to build a burial ground for their members.  The graveyard’s most famous resident was Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.  Masonic Avenue took its name from the cemetery and the placement of the graveyard explains the weird dogleg the street takes. The University of San Francisco sits on the old Masonic Cemetery land today.  Local historian Michael Svanevik remembers watching students finding bones working their way up through the lawns on campus.

The Odd Fellows also bought 30 acres bounded by Geary, Turk, Parker, and Arguello in 1865.  Their 1898 Columbarium is the only surviving element of any of the four cemeteries that still stands in place.

The remaining cemetery was a mere 54 acres. Now that the Lone Mountain Cemetery had been separated from the Lone Mountain proper, a name change was in order.  In 1867, the trustees voted to rename the cemetery Laurel Hill, after the lovely garden cemetery in Philadephia above a bend of the Schuykill River.

Still, the cemetery’s days were numbered.  The seeds of its destruction were planted in 1863 when Sam Brannan opened the Cliff House Resort overlooking the ocean. It attracted the wealthy people to Ocean Beach, but travel over the miles of sand was difficult. In 1864, the Point Lobos Toll Road, now called Geary Boulevard, was built to carry folks from the city to the ocean. It prompted many downtown businessmen to move out along the road and set up shop to cater to tourists.

The first exhortations to “Remove the cemeteries!” began in 1880.  Without perpetual care funds, families were left to take care of their ancestors’ graves. Since many of the pioneers came out to San Francisco without family or friends, no one cut the weeds or washed the headstones.  Vandalism began to be a problem.

By 1900, the cemeteries were on their way to being filled.  That year, Mayor James Phelan signed the order forbidding burial inside the borders of San Francisco after August 1, 1901. In April 1906, the great earthquake caused wide-spread damage to monuments. Most no longer had family to repair them.

Looking across California at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Looking across California at Laurel Hill Cemetery

“It took more than 40 years of sporadic legal battles to overcome opposition to the removal of the dead and bring on the bulldozers that were to clear the hill for the living,” according to Hills of San Francisco. “Development of the site into a multi-million-dollar residential subdivision didn’t get under way until after World War II.”

There is a record of how lovely the graveyard once was.  A photograph by Ansel Adams in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is called “The White Gravestone, Laurel Hill Cemetery, San Francisco.”  It was take around 1933, after the cemetery was fighting to survive. The gelatin silver print was made around 1972.  It shows a grave monument adorned with a mourning woman, leaning on her elbow against a plinth with an urn.  Some of the inscription reads Lucy Ellen, aged 26 years.  Behind the lichen-pocked stone is a balustrade, long grass, and shadowy trees.

For a while, preservationists lobbied to preserve some of Laurel Hill’s most illustrious resides in a Pioneer Park. I came across photos of it by accident while I was researching in the wonderful reference library at 20th Century Fox.

Broderick’s great column, arguably Laurel Hill’s most imposing monument, was destroyed in place.  “Some of the blocks that formed the monument had been piled to one side, but others had been tipped into nearby graves and left there,” according to This Is San Francisco, whose author walked through the old cemetery once it had been abandoned.  Broderick was a bachelor, so he was packed off to be buried in the Pioneer Mound at Cypress Lawn.

“Over a rise and around a bend” stood a modest five-foot-tall shaft to the memory of Andrew Smith Hallidie, who had died in 1900.  His epitaph read, “Inventor of Cable Railway System. Builder of First Cable Railroad. A Loyal Citizen.”  Even though Hallidie designed San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, the city apparently felt no loyalty in return.  When no family stepped up to pay to transport Hallidie’s remains to a new grave in Colma, he was transported with all the rest of the unwanted to a tumulus at Cypress Lawn.  His monument was hauled to Ocean Beach to shore up the sand.

In the end, 47,000 graves were moved.   “The remains of 10,000 were buried elsewhere by their descendants; most of the rest were taken to Cypress Lawn,” according to This is San Francisco. “Mausoleums were left with their doors gaping open, and many headstones were carted to Ocean Beach and dumped in the sand to reinforce the sea wall.”

An obelisk marks the Pioneer Mound at Cypress Lawn

An obelisk marks the Pioneer Mound at Cypress Lawn

At the intersection of Walnut and California Streets, a bronze plaque on the wall around the Laurel Heights campus of the University of California in San Francisco used to read: “Former site of Laurel Hill Cemetery 1854-1946. The builders of the West, Civic and Military Leaders, Jurists, Investors, Artists, and Eleven United States Senators were buried here — the most revered of San Francisco’s hills.”  California Registered Historical Landmark Number 760.  The plaque was placed on May 31, 1961 — fifteen years after the cemetery was dismantled and its monuments hauled out to Ocean Beach to serve as a base for the dunes.

In July, when I walked the borders of the old cemetery, even the plaque was gone.  All traces of the cemetery have been swept away, except for the Laurel Hill Shopping Center and the names of the old carriage roads that crossed the graveyard: Walnut, Laurel, Spruce.


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Animating a Cemetery

Last week, i09 posted a video by a collection of animators called Llama Rada.  Directed by Alejandro Garcia Cabbalero, Llama Rada projected videos on gravestones in Mexico’s 590-acre cemetery Panteón de Dolores.

According to i09, the Llama Rada project is bringing the work of animators into public spaces throughout Mexico City.

Although the Panteón de Dolores has around 700,000 tombstones, only a small section seemed to be chosen as screens for the animation.

Panteon de Dolores / Santolo / Llamarada from Ciudad Intervenida on Vimeo.

I don’t have the cultural knowledge to critique this as an art installation, but as much as I support creative ways to bring people into relationships with cemeteries, the video troubles me.  Beyond the violent content of the animations (which again, I don’t have the understanding to put into cultural perspective), I am made uncomfortable by the sense of disrepect this video installation shows, both to the people buried in the cemetery and their families.

What do you think?  Is a graveyard a valid canvas for temporary artwork?  Does beauty trump history? Do the dead cease to care how their monuments are used — or could they use a little music and light to get their toes tapping?

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The Death Salon is coming to San Francisco

This is lifted from the Death Salon events page:

We’re bringing our first ever one-day Death Salon event to San Francisco October 11, 2014. Deathlings will be taking over the Fleet Room at the Fort Mason Center. Just like our other Death Salon events, we’ll have speakers and performers from various disciplines informing and entertaining you all day and evening on diverse topics related to the culture of mortality and mourning. There are three ticket options:

Combo ticket for day & night sessions (best price, limited quantity)
Day Session only ticket
Night Session only ticket


Please Note: This event will be filmed, upon purchasing a ticket, you are consenting to being filmed. Questions? Email us at info at deathsalon dot org. Below is the tentative lineup of speakers and performers.


DAY SESSION emceed by Death Salon co-founder, mortician Caitlin Doughty of The Order of the Good Death

Doors at 9am, session begins at 10am

Loren Rhoads – Where Have All the Graveyards Gone: the Pioneer Burial Grounds in San Francisco and the Grave Migration to Colma

Beyond the remnants of the Mission Dolores churchyard, the National Cemetery, and the San Francisco Columbarium, relics of San Francisco’s pioneers continue to lie beneath many of the city’s neighborhoods, parks, and museums. If the last of the dead were supposed to have been removed from San Francisco in the 1940s, why do bodies and gravestones keep turning up?

Betsy Trapasso – Death Runs in My Family

Betsy knew that she was predestined to work in the end-of-life world ever since her mother gave her the nickname “Spooky” when she was only two months old, and it’s stuck with her ever since. She tells the tale of a familial connection to the history of hospice care in the US that showed her working with and advocating for the dying is in her blood as well as in her soul.

Jordan Posamentier, Esq. – Why California Should Be the Next State to Pass a Death With Dignity Law & What You Can Do to Help

Five states in the nation currently have death with dignity laws on the books, but California is not one of them. Compassion & Choices’ goal is to make aid in dying an open, accessible, and legitimate medical practice for all Californians. Currently, too many Californians suffer needlessly or endure unrelenting pain at the end of life and too many turn to violent means at the end of life when medical aid can help them die peacefully. ​A majority of Californians supports Death with Dignity, ​and Compassion & Choices has a five year grassroots plan to get there. As the boomer generation increasingly faces end-of-life choices, they’re making sure the last great civil rights battle of their lives will be won in our state.

Andrew Chesnut – Santa Muerte: The Saint For All Seasons

While the mass media in both Mexico and the United States almost exclusively portrays Santa Muerte as a narco-saint, for most devotees on both sides of the border she is an omnipotent miracle-worker who grants favors far removed from the world of drug trafficking. We’ll explore a few of her most important roles, such as curandera, love doctor, and agent of prosperity, in addition to the most recent developments in this the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas.

1-hour lunch break on your own, 12-1pm

Paa Joe & the Lion – a Death Salon exclusive clip from the forthcoming feature film documentary chronicling the life of Ghana’s greatest living fantasy coffin maker.

Melissa Cooper – Forensic Facial Reconstruction: Reading the Skull of a 9,000-Year-Old Los Angeles Native

While reconstructing a face, the skull holds an impressive amount of clues. I’ll be discussing the techniques used to achieve the final depiction based solely on the skull in addition to the surprising reactions a simple rendering of a face has the power to inflict. Whether it is to assist in solving a cold-case or to obtain new information about our ancient past, the purpose of these reconstructions all come down to one major common denominator: utilize the given clues to solve a mystery. However, as we all have likely experienced, solving one mystery has the potential to only make the plot thicken.

Rachel James – Transcending the East vs. West Suicide Paradox: Netting the Bridge and Walling up the Volcano

By comparing Mount Mihara and the Golden Gate Bridge, we’ll look at the conflicting ideologies surrounding suicide in Asia and the US, using these popular suicide locations and their prevention solutions in each locale as focal points to examine not only the opposing cultural attitudes, but how they are evolving from opposite sides of the philosophy spectrum and beginning to “meet in the middle” with concern and compassion.

Elizabeth Harper – The Public Corpse: Exploring Death Rituals and the Spaces Dedicated to Them in Rome

Death is not the end of the road for Catholics in Italy. Though the public display of corpses and bones may seem macabre, these traditions illustrate a spiritual and physical journey that begins at death. It’s a journey that takes us through the liminal space between here and the afterlife and between flesh and bone; where the impermanence and even embarrassment of the human body and it’s functions only underscores the permanence and dignity of the soul. In this illustrated talk, we’ll take a virtual walking-tour of Rome through its crypts, purgatorial societies, tombs and shrines and find this message of life hidden in places devoted to death.

Jill Tracy – Whispers Behind Glass: After Dark in the Mutter Museum

Composer/storyteller Jill Tracy presents songs she composed alone at night inside Philadelphia’s famed Mutter Museum, and spellbinding tales of the collection including Harry Eastlack (The Ossified Man), renowned Siamese Twins Chang and Eng, The Mermaid Baby, and eccentric laryngologist Chevalier Jackson.


Death Salon official banner logo, designed by Jenelle Campbell of

NIGHT SESSION emceed by Death Salon: SF Curators Annetta Black (Odd Salon) and Death Salon director Megan Rosenbloom

Starts promptly at 6pm, ends at 9pm

Cara Rose DeFabio – After the Tone: Performing Grief 

Through this humorous performance art piece, Cara comments on death in the age of the funeral selfie, with clever insights about the intersection of death and technology.

Beza Merid – Stand-up Comedy and the Popular Culture of Cancer

This talk will address the popular culture of cancer, and how cultural venues like marches for hope as well as the restrictive languages of illness proliferate the idea that there is a right attitude to survive disease. Beza explores how and where post-diagnosis individuals challenge this idea, and why stand-up comedy is such an apt space to explore anxieties about health, illness, and death.

Annetta Black – Dead Soldiers & Utopian Dreams: The Vernian Visions of Dr. Benjamin Lyford, Civil War Embalmer

On the battlefields of the divided Union, Dr. Benjamin Lyford was part of a new generation of death professionals, developing new (and secret) techniques for embalming in order to send bodies of fallen soldiers home for burial. Later, he brought his practice here to San Francisco – and across the water in Tiburon, he sought to create “Hygeia”, a health-obsessed Utopian village designed to keep death at bay. Remnants of his legacy speak to the lasting impact of the atrocities of war, the cult of health that sprung up in post-Civil War America, and our evolving relationship with the preservation of the dead.

Megan Rosenbloom – Books of the Dead: Death Imagery from the Library Vaults

While researching her book in libraries across the U.S. and abroad, Megan has collected examples of interesting death images and objects safely kept in the best research libraries’ special collections. Take a tour of some beautiful and macabre illustrations, photos, and objects that the public rarely get to see.

Paul Koudounaris – Sex in the Netherworld: Postmortem Erotic Spiritual Encounters

Does eroticism survive the grave? The idea that the dead might return to satisfy their carnal desires has historically been considered so uncomfortable that such reports have been hidden way or lampooned as wild delusions. But in fact, such accounts are voluminous, and Dr. Paul Koudounaris will discuss the murky and fascinating history of ghostly sexual encounters.

Sarah Troop – Nourishing Death: How the World Honors Death With Food

Since ancient eras human beings have incorporated food into their observances of death in diverse and often macabre ways. We will explore some of these rituals, practices and traditions of the past and present.

Caitlin Doughty – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

A gritty behind-the-scenes look at the death industry accompanied by reading from her newly-published memoir: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory.

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