In the heart of San Francisco stands a solitary grave. I’d driven past it for years, always hurrying down Franklin Street on my way somewhere else. One sunny summer day while my daughter was at Tutu Camp, I decided to make a special trip to see why there was a grave at this very busy intersection.
You see, San Francisco banned burials within the city limits in 1901. After that, city fathers set about systematically destroying the graveyards in town. Very few fragments remain: broken headstones as rain gutters in Buena Vista Park, the lovely jumble of granite at the Wave Organ, the exquisite Neptune Society Columbarium, the broken headstones that support the sand at Ocean Beach. For a grave monument to have survived the purge, the person must have been someone special.
And he turns out to have been, too. “Apostle of liberty,” the bronze plaque near his tomb calls him, “humanitarian, Unitarian minister who in the Civil War bound California to the Union and led her to excel all other states in support of the United States Sanitary Commission, predecessor to the American Red Cross.”
Thomas Starr King spent only the last four years of his short life in California. During that time, he preached fiery sermons against slavery. He broke his health traveling up and down the state to raise money for hospitals and medicines for soldiers fighting the Civil War on the other side of the country. Abraham Lincoln credited King for preventing California from withdrawing from the Union to become a separate republic.
It puzzled me was that the First Unitarian Universalist Church, where King now lies, was not built until 1889: 25 years after King’s death in 1864. Where had his body rested until he came here?
The peaceful little plot held onto its secrets. I photographed it from every angle, resolving to contact the church and ask.
Unfortunately, the person I reached through the web site didn’t know. He said he’d ask the church archivists. Although I never heard back from them, I discovered that this gravesite is King’s third. Originally, he was buried on the grounds of the church he served, on the edge of San Francisco’s Union Square (where the vote was taken to remain in the Union). When the new church was finished in 1889, the congregation sold the land downtown and Thomas Starr King was taken with due honor to lie in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Poor Laurel Hill suffered from the San Francisco ban on burials and was demolished in the 1940s. At that point, King moved back to the grounds of the community he served.
Another of San Francisco’s early leaders had a similar fate. Thomas Larkin, also evicted from Laurel Hill, now rests in Cypress Lawn in Colma.