My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In 1992, Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett compiled the initial edition of Pillars of the Past to commemorate the centennial of Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California. That book has been long out of print (I’ve never come across a copy for sale in San Francisco), so this updated edition is very welcome.
Svanevik has worked closely with Cypress Lawn (in fact, he’s been involved with their monthly lecture series since 2001), so one assumes that some of the dirt involved in the cemetery business has been left out. However, due to his trusted position, he and Burgett were given complete access to the cemetery’s records. The largest portion of the book collects thumbnail biographies of some of the 100,000+ people buried here. Some of the stories are less than flattering, but all of the photographs are delightful.
In fact, I wish there were more of photographs, because Cypress Lawn has a matchless collection of funerary art — including a copy of William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief (Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life), private tombs designed by the major architects responsible for downtown San Francisco, and hundreds of feet of exquisite stained glass ceilings inside the public mausoleum.
Unfortunately, the people who lie in Cypress Lawn are, while locally famous, generally unknown. Lucky Baldwin made his fortune in the Comstock Silver Mines, as did James Flood. John McLaren, the most influential superintendent of Golden Gate Park, rests here, along with Gertrude Atherton, author of 60 books about Old California. Some of the most interesting people are buried in an anonymous mound beneath the pioneer monument, where they were placed after San Francisco’s old Laurel Hill Cemetery was closed in 1940. Among them are Senator David Broderick, killed in the last important duel in the nation; Andrew Hallidie, father of San Francisco’s cable cars; and Phineas Gage, who survived having an iron rod driven through his skull, albeit as a changed man. He lies in the mound sans head, which was removed for study by Harvard University.
If you or your loved ones reside in California, Cypress Lawn demands a pilgrimage. The cemetery offers tours on the third Saturday of each month. (Tomorrow’s will study the exquisite stained glass in the public mausoleum. Call 650-755-0580 to RSVP.) Before you come, do your research by studying Pillars of the Past.
A few used copies are available on Amazon: Pillars of the past: At rest at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park New copies are going for more than $100 each.
The book is also available from Cypress Lawn’s online bookstore.
This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #7.
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