Colma, Before the Graveyards

Colma, CA (Images of America)Colma, CA by Michael Smookler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing that keeps this book from getting 5 stars is that it isn’t longer. I have several books on the cemeteries of Colma, California, so it’s nice to have one about the city’s history prior to its 17 graveyards. Smookler does a good job of giving a sense of what life was like there, before the living were replaced by the dead.

For those who don’t know, Colma, California was a sleepy little farming town south of San Francisco.  When the big city real estate interests decided they wanted to develop the land in the peninsular city that had been devoted to graveyards, they passed a series of laws outlawing burial in the city, which slowly strangled the cemeteries of their income.  Eventually, all the bodies were removed from San Francisco and the grave monuments were smashed up to provide breakwaters at Ocean Beach, the Marina, the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, and other construction projects around town.

As if that isn’t morbid enough, Colma absorbed all the pioneers who were unearthed.  Now the dead outnumber the living in Colma more than 100,000 to 1.

Smookler’s book illustrates the farming village before and after the change.  Irish immigrants grew potatoes, Itallians grew flowers, there were blacksmiths and horse ranchers and pig farmers.  Then the Archbishop of San Francisco, seeing the writing on the wall, purchased a large tract of land for a cemetery. The Catholics were followed by the owners of Laurel Hill Cemetery, several Jewish congregations, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and ethnic groups from the Chinese, the Japanese, the Serbians, and the Italians, all of whom purchased land so they could remain together after death.

Colma remains a fascinating place to this day.  Smookler’s book reveals the town beyond the graveyard walls, shaped by local employment opportunities and the proximity of its quiet residents.  I found the book entirely fascinating.

You can order your own copy from Amazon: Colma (Images of America) (Arcadia Publishing))

Other books I’ve reviewed that relate to Colma:

City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma

Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past

Permanent Californians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of California

Cypress Lawn: Guardian of California’s Heritage

Pillars of the Past: At Rest at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park 

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. Scribner published my favorite essays from Morbid Curiosity magazine as Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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6 Responses to Colma, Before the Graveyards

  1. coastalcrone says:

    It is sad the real estate developers seem to have so much power. I did not know that Colma absorbed so many of the dead and that the monuments were crushed up for other use! Excellent review.

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      I keep learning more about it. San Francisco isn’t very old, as cities go, but it seems that they keep discovering “forgotten” cemeteries every time they open the ground. It makes me sad that the old garden cemeteries were destroyed. They would have been a beautiful place to learn about the early history of the city, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge & bay. Now there are houses built there, but the names of the cemetery streets winding among them still remember their original use.

  2. This is so fascinating. We go into SF a couple of times a year to visit family and I certainly noticed all the cemeteries in Colma. I knew there had to be a story! Next time I’m there I may not drive right on through, but stop for a bit and look around.

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      It’s definitely worth a look, even on a rainy day. Cypress Lawn has glorious stained glass, the Italian Cemetery is full of sculpture, and Holy Cross has lots of angels. And Wyatt Earp is buried in Home of Peace/Hills of Eternity. There’s a lot to discover.

  3. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #116: Wyatt Earp’s gravesite | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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