Monthly Archives: November 2012

Cemetery of the Week #83: United States Marine Hospital Cemetery

Entrance to the cemetery monument

United States Marine Hospital Cemetery
Near 15th Avenue and Lake Street, behind the Presidio Landmark Building, off the Mountain Lake Trail
GPS coordinates: 37° 47’ 20” N 122° 28’ 28” W
Presidio National Park
San Francisco, California
Founded: 1881
Size: unknown
Number of interments: As many as 600
Open: always

A Marine Hospital was established on San Francisco’s Presidio in 1875. The hospital provided health care to maritime laborers who had come to the US from all over the world. Shipboard medicine being what it was, many of them arrived in San Francisco in time to die at the hospital.

Records indicate that the hospital began burying indigent sailors, without family or funds to send their bodies home, on its grounds in 1881. Where they were buried before that is unknown, although the nearby City Cemetery – now the Lincoln Park Golf Course surrounding the Palace of the Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum – is a possibility. In 1883, the Ladies’ Seamen’s Friends Society purchased a plot for sailors in City Cemetery. The monument they erected continues to stand in the park.

Sailors died of cancer, cirrhosis, diabetes, heart disease, pneumonia, syphilis, scurvy, and tuberculosis, among other things. Initially, they were buried in their own clothes in redwood coffins provided by the hospital. Later, when the hospital built its own crematory, they were cremated and buried in bronze urns.

The Marine Cemetery monument

The site was used only until 1912. San Francisco had passed a law in 1902 forbidding burials within city limits. Technically, this did not apply to the hospital, since it stood on Presidio grounds, overseen by the US Army – who continue, to this day, to bury soldiers in the San Francisco National Cemetery, also inside the Presidio.

By the 1930s, the Marine Cemetery lay in ruins. It had only ever had temporary whitewashed wooden markers stuck into its sandy soil. The cemetery was forgotten and used as a dump. In 1969, the Veterans Administration, which had taken over the hospital, covered the old graveyard with a parking lot. Only when the US Army prepared to abandon the Presidio in 1989 did the Corps of Engineers rediscover the cemetery. By then, it was buried under 10 feet of debris.

The map to Marine Cemetery Vista stands beyond a parking lot off Wedemeyer Street.

The Presidio Archaeology Lab studied old records and learned that as many as 600 sailors from 30 states and 43 countries remained buried at the site. Also buried there are a hospital attendant, a nurse, a gardener, and the stillborn son of one of the hospital’s doctors.

The National Park Service took over control of the Presidio in 1996. Not until 2011 was a stone plaque placed to honor those buried at the Marine Hospital Cemetery. It’s not easy to find, even when you’re committed to looking for it. I wandered at length, until I stumbled upon the strange unmarked wooden fence standing in the middle of a dune covered with off-limit native plants. By following the boardwalk up onto the platform, I discovered the black granite stone set down onto the face of the dune. It’s only visible through a window in the boardwalk.

The former Veterans Administration Hospital, now an apartment building

According to Where Jack is at Rest: The Marine Hospital Cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco, published by the Presidio Archaeology Center, the plan was to leave the bodies in place “without further disturbance of their graves.” However, if I were to nominate a place in San Francisco that deserves to be haunted, it’s this long-forgotten corner of the Presidio where the dead did not get due respect.

The old Marine Hospital is now an apartment building.

Useful links:
The Presidio’s site for the cemetery

Text of Where Jack is at Rest

Poster describing the causes of death at the Marine Hospital Cemetery

The Park Service’s Presidio site listing

Getting People into Cemeteries: Minda Powers-Douglas

Minda as sketched by Bill Douglas

Minda Powers-Douglas, the author of a number of cemetery books, is also the founder and editor of and Epitaphs magazine. She loves getting more and more people into our cemeteries “before they absolutely have to.” She also loves learning about the past, preparing her young daughter for the future, and sharing her interests with the world. She lives in Moline, Illinois with her husband — artist Bill Douglas — and daughter Bella.

Cemetery Travel: What’s the philosophy behind
Minda Powers-Douglas: Its purpose is to connect people who love cemeteries. It’s also to encourage people to visit cemeteries and look at them in different ways: as historic parks, arboretums, etc.

Cemetery Travel: How is the Facebook group an extension of that?
Minda Powers-Douglas: The Cemetery Club FB group really allows people to connect in real time. It went from a group where I could push out information about my site, my books, and my events to a highly interactive group where people feel compelled to share their photos and experiences. Since to many of us live far away from each other, it gives us a virtual way to connect with like-minded taphophiles.

Cemetery Travel: People who like cemeteries often feel isolated or strange. Do you have any advice for them?
Minda Powers-Douglas: Do what you like to do and don’t worry about what other people think. There are way too many close-minded people in the world. On top of that, there are more people interested in cemeteries than most people realize. The popularity of genealogy has really helped. Plus, there is interest in changing the trend toward memorial parks; people aren’t happy with the flat stones that “make it easy to mow.” I know I really can’t stand going into a cemetery where I can’t see the stones. Every person who has lived deserves to have a monument that can actually be seen. Everyone deserves that. While we are alive on this planet, each one of us makes a difference in countless lives. We deserve our final recognition, a stone that says, “I was here, I was loved, and I made a difference.”

Cemetery Travel: How did you get interested in cemeteries in the first place?
Minda Powers-Douglas: I’ve always been interested in cemeteries. My mom got me interested in them. She used to take me to cemeteries when I was a child and showed them to me as places of interest rather than sadness or fear. It took me a while to realize that I wanted to write about them. Then everything clicked into place.

Cemetery Travel: What do you call your love for cemeteries? Do you consider yourself a taphophile?
Minda Powers-Douglas: Yes, I am a taphophile. It’s a weird word, but many of us have embraced it. And my love for cemeteries? I call it awesome. LOL! Actually, it’s just part of who I am. I don’t really have a special name for it. Taphophilia just sounds creepy.

Cemetery Travel: What’s your favorite cemetery in the world – and why?
Minda Powers-Douglas: Gosh, this changes with the most recent favorite. My two local favorites are Chippiannock Cemetery in Rock Island, Illinois (the book she wrote about it is available on Amazon: Chippiannock Cemetery (Images of America)) and Oakdale Memorial Gardens in Davenport, Iowa, where I do a lot of volunteer work and presentations. I love New Orleans cemeteries. I now have a very special place in my heart for Bonaventure in Savannah, though. I visited for the first time this past March. It is absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to go back.

Cemetery Travel: What cemetery would you most like to visit that you haven’t yet?
Minda Powers-Douglas: It’s too hard to choose just one. My top three: Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hollywood Forever in L.A.; and Pere Lachaise in Paris.

Cemetery Travel: What’s one thing people can do to ensure the survival of their favorite cemetery?
Minda Powers-Douglas: Visit it often. Make your presence known. Bring your friends and family. Bring your kids and teach them about the importance of our cemeteries. Simple things, like picking up trash while you’re wandering the grounds, are easy to do. Volunteer. Help them money by doing community programs. Create awareness. Research it and share your findings. Put it on the map and keep it there.

Cemetery Travel: Why should people care about cemeteries?
Minda Powers-Douglas: They are our history. They represent who we were, who we are. They are filled with art, history, nature, crazy names, places to walk or run. Cemeteries are definitely worth our time.

Cemetery Travel: Do you have any more cemetery books coming up?
Minda Powers-Douglas: I have a couple books in the works, but time is not on their side right now. My daughter started kindergarten this year, I’ve become her school’s Daisy Girl Scout leader, and my day job is pretty demanding. Keeping up with the site is challenging enough. I’ll keep working away, though. The books will come in due time. One of them, focusing on women in history, will require a lot of travel. Which I’m looking forward to, when the time comes.

Minda’s most recent books are available on Amazon.

More of Minda’s books and back issues of Epitaphs magazine are available through her store on

Follow her on twitter @cemeteryminda.

Come join The Cemetery Club on Facebook.

Your first guide to the cemeteries of Los Angeles

Forever L.A: A Field Guide To Los Angeles Area Cemeteries & Their ResidentsForever L.A: A Field Guide To Los Angeles Area Cemeteries & Their Residents by Douglas Keister

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the best guide to the cemeteries of Los Angeles yet. Jammed with Douglas Keister’s beautiful color photographs — all exquisitely printed — the book weighs more than the other guides, which might make it prohibitive to drag around a graveyard with you, if you’re juggling a camera and notebook, too. If you’re just sightseeing, this is the book for you. All the color headstone photos make it easy to know exactly what you’re looking for.

However, the book is short on history of the graveyards. Permanent Californians is better for that, as well as more fully developed biographies of the biggest stars. Forever L.A. also focuses on fewer celebrities; if you want a more comprehensive list, Laid to Rest in California is the book you want.

In addition, Forever L.A. suffers from puzzling organization. You can read the section on Westwood Village Memorial Park, but the text directs you elsewhere in the book to the listing for Don Knotts and somewhere else again to read about Marilyn Monroe. In fact, Marilyn’s biography snuggles up against one for Joe DiMaggio, who isn’t buried in L.A. at all. I guess this just proves my contention that any collection of gravestones is necessarily going to be idiosyncratic and reflect the predilections of the person compiling it.

I see what Keister was doing when he collected together all the stars of The Wizard of Oz or Bonanza or It’s a Mad, Mad (etc.) World, but I found it frustrating not to have all the cemetery information gathered into the appropriate chapter when I was standing in the graveyard. Is this book meant for armchair travelers or people in the field?

And why is the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland included at all? While the photos are lovely, the section takes up valuable book real estate that could have been used by Angelus Rosedale, where Hattie McDaniel is buried and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was filmed.

Still, if you are traveling to L.A. and want to visit graveyards, I suggest you start with this book. It’s the most recent and has by far the prettiest pictures. You just might want to dip into the other books for more depth after you get home.

Start your collection of L.A. cemetery guides here: Forever L.A.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.