When my daughter was 3-1/2, we went down to the beach at Chrissy Field to help pick up trash. She collected a red fishing bobber, a piece of blue dental floss, miscellaneous styrofoam, and some drinking straws. We were heading back to the visitor center when I saw a strange white rock half-buried in the sand.
One side of it was chalky white, polished smooth to the touch. Faint veins of gray ran through the white. The other face was where it had broken off of a larger rock. Tiny facets shimmered. The gray shot through the stone was more pronounced on this side, almost graphite in color.
As I turned the rock over in my hand, I wondered how many other visitors to the National Park would recognize what they were seeing. This was marble, found in the Sierra Mountains, far from the bay — and in graveyards throughout the Bay Area. Even completely out of context, it’s one of the most familiar kinds of stone.
Up until the 1940s, San Francisco had four enormous public graveyards. Decades of political wrangling finally succeeded in having the bodies exhumed and the cemeteries demolished. Families who could afford it had their ancestors’ monuments moved elsewhere. All of the others were smashed to ruin.
Some of the flat marble tablet stones were used to pave the rain gutters in Buena Vista Park. Large pieces of mausoleums were hauled out to Ocean Beach to shore up the coastline. Every so often, the year’s lowest tide reveals monuments, still legible after all these years.
Yet more memorial stonework was thrown in the bay to form the Marina Green breakwater. Some of the nicer pieces were arranged by an artist working in conjunction with the Exploratorium to create the Wave Organ.
This little piece or marble I found at Chrissy Field — between the Marina breakwater and the Golden Gate Bridge — is without a doubt a piece of history arrested on its way washing out to sea. It breaks my heart to think of what’s been lost, what was willfully erased.
I hope the men responsible for destroying San Francisco’s graveyards lie fully cognizant beneath eternally vandalized monuments.
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