Cypress Lawn Memorial Park
1370 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014-3239
Size: 200 acres
Number of interments: Approximately 200,000
Open: Every day, 8:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. or until dusk, whichever is later
Of the 17 graveyards just south of San Francisco in Colma, California, Cypress Lawn Memorial Park is by far the most welcoming to visitors. In addition to selling guidebooks on their website, the cemetery is really lovely.
The original side lies east of El Camino Real, but the newer western side has charms of its own, including huge carpet flowerbeds and a public mausoleum with 36,000 square feet of stained glass ceiling. In fact, Cypress Lawn has more stained glass in one place than anywhere else in the U.S.
Another highlight of the western side is the Laurel Hill Pioneer Monument. Until the 1940s, San Francisco’s Laurel Hill Cemetery stood where the Kaiser Permanente Hospital is now. A series of court cases and public referendums eventually chased cemeteries out of the city. Families were given the option to move their loved ones, but Laurel Hill tended to be the last refuge of single men. 35,000 people with no family were collected up, labeled if there was any way to identify their bones, placed in separate boxes, and interred in a concrete mausoleum beneath the pioneer mound. Among those sharing the mass grave are Andrew Hallidie, father of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars; anti-slavery Senator David Broderick, victim of the last historic duel in the U.S.; and Phineas Gage, who entered psychology textbooks because he survived having an iron rod jammed through his skull, albeit as a changed man. His experience in 1848 led to the study of the biological basis of human behavior. His head went to the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University, according to local historian Michael Svanevik.
Cypress Lawn is said to have the highest concentration of historic Californians of any cemetery in the state. Among those with swank monuments are Senator George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst) and his wife Phoebe Apperson Hearst, founder of the kindergarten movement; Lillie Hitchcock Coit, namesake of Coit Tower on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill; Lefty O’Doul, who traveled to Japan 30 times to help them develop baseball; and many more.
How did this historic place come about? Legend has it that in the 1890s, San Francisco financier Hamden Noble watched a funeral at Laurel Hill Cemetery. When workmen shoveled the stony soil and large rocks down into the grave, the coffin split open, to the horror of all present. Noble was inspired to treat the dead better.
He traveled to the fabled cemeteries of the East Coast: Cambridge’s Mount Auburn, the first garden cemetery in the U.S.; Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill (for whom San Francisco’s was named); and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood. Each of those graveyards was built on the edge of town where there seemed to be plenty of room to expand. They were primarily resting places for the wealthy, but also served as arboretums full of flowers and trees and as art museums full of graceful statuary and beautiful revival-style mausoleums. People came to visit these graveyards on the weekends, picnicking on the grounds, feeding the birds, hiking, courting, and generally enjoying a sense of their mortality amongst exquisitely tamed nature. Noble contrasted that to San Francisco’s cemeteries, where the monuments had been damaged by earthquakes and never repaired, where the un-irrigated grass was green only in springtime, where trees struggled to survive in the constant wind off the ocean.
Noble purchased 47 acres of fertile farmland south of San Francisco from the San Francisco diocese for his cemetery. Under the influence of John McLaren, the legendary superintendent of Golden Gate Park, Noble strove for “peaceful vistas and dynamic harmony of plantings,” according to California historian Kevin Starr.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Cypress Lawn had more trees and shrubs than any public park in the United States. To advertise this, Noble used to purchase space on the city’s streetcars to keep potential visitors informed of what was blossoming in the cemetery. The blooming of the Australian redbud eucalyptus that once lined the walkways was celebrated in San Francisco much like the cherry trees are in Japan.
Noble was also responsible for importing the brown-winged turbit pigeon to California. He’d seen the birds at Mount Auburn and wanted some to grace his cemetery. Every morning at 9 a.m., Noble would spell out the cemetery’s name in birdseed so the streetcar would get a show when it passed. The original flock swelled to thousands by the time Noble died in 1929 and the expensive daily feedings ceased.
My favorite part of a trip to Cypress Lawn is a walk amidst the monuments. Cypress Lawn has quite a collection of angels, ranging from the angel placing the plumed pen on Thomas O. Larkin’s grave to the delicate stained glass windows inside the mausoleums to the copy of William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief (Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life) that marks the grave of Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin Jenny Roosevelt Poole. There’s also a find assemblage of muses, female figures who mourn eternally over graves but lack angels’ wings. One of my particular favorites is a marble lady dropping daisies on the Ruffino grave. Another sculpture I’m very fond of is the Madonna struggling with her squirming babe. I’m very certain that your exploration of Cypress Lawn will yield favorites of your own.
Events at Cypress Lawn
Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation
Bella Morte feature on Cypress Lawn
Books I’ve reviewed that reference Cypress Lawn:
City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma