Cemetery of the Week #116: Wyatt Earp’s gravesite

View of Hills of Eternity

View of Hills of Eternity

Hills of Eternity Memorial Park
1299 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014
Telephone: (650) 755-4700
Established: 1889
Size: 20 “graciously landscaped” acres at the foot of the San Bruno Mountains, according to the cemetery’s website.
Number of interments: More than 13,000
Open: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Friday. Closed on Shabbat, major Jewish Holy Days, and secular holidays.

Hills of Eternity (Giboth Olam in Hebrew) is affiliated with San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and is the third of their graveyards. Originally composed mostly of Polish Jews, Congregation Sherith Israel opened its first graveyard — in 1850 — at Vallejo and Gough Streets in what’s now called San Francisco’s Cow Hollow District.  At that point, it was the edge of town, but not for long.  The Congregation moved its pioneers to the southernmost side of what is now Dolores Park when two of the Jewish graveyards moved out near the old Mission. Even that wasn’t far enough from trouble.  Spurred by vandalism, the Congregation moved its pioneers a third time to a new graveyard called Hills of Eternity in Colma in 1889.

Colma, California has the distinction of being the only town founded to guarantee the rights of the dead, according to Michael Svanevik in his book City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma. Three of the four Jewish cemeteries in Colma are managed as one: Home of Peace, Hills of Eternity, and Salem Memorial Park all share staff and record-keeping.

Home of Peace predates the others by a year.  Congregation Sherith Israel purchased land them in May 1888 and opened Hills of Eternity on January 1, 1889. The cemetery shares its entryway off of El Camino Real (the old Spanish Royal Road between the Missions) with Home of Peace. The two cemeteries had a lovely Gothic entry gate when they opened at the end of the 19th century, but it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and was not replaced.

Rhoads_Savely_EternityNear the entry to Hills of Eternity stands the Portals of Eternity Mausoleum and Chapel, which opened in 1934. It was originally designed by Samuel Hyman and Abraham Appleton, but has been added to and remodeled many times since.  Its octagonal towers, capped by copper and tile domed roofs, are an example of neo-Byzantine architecture.

Inside the mausoleum rests Cyril Magnin, who owned an upscale department store named for his grandfather on Union Square. He donated enough scratch to build the Jade Room in the old Asian Art Museum to house the Avery Brundage Collection of jades. Magnin also served as San Francisco’s chief of protocol for 24 years.

One of the most spectacular monuments in Hills of Eternity was sculpted by Leo Radke. The bronze Commedia dell’arte masks remember Savely Kramarov, an acclaimed Russian actor and comedian who emigrated to the U.S. for in order to be able to practice his religion. He is much less known in this country — he starred in Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams, as well as Red Heat and Tango and Cash — but he was considered the Charlie Chaplin of Russian back home. His grave receives lots of visitors.

Wyatt Earp's second -- or third? -- headstone

Wyatt Earp’s second — or third? — headstone

The most popular permanent resident of Hills of Eternity is Wyatt Earp. Earp was never Marshall of Tombstone, Arizona, and while he did take part in the shootout at the OK Corral, it was over in about 40 seconds. At the time of his death from liver failure in 1929, Earp worked as a sports writer in Los Angeles, consulted on Western movies, and owned oil lands near Bakersfield. His wife Josephine Marcus, who was Jewish, brought his ashes to be buried in her family plot in Colma. Her family still owns the plot.

Wyatt Earp's current headstone

Wyatt Earp’s current headstone

Earp’s legend is familiar to a lot of people, who leave coins, playing cards, cigars, or bullets on his monument to mark their visits. Local historian Michael Svanevik estimates 50-60 people visit Earp’s grave each month. It’s not easy to find, but it’s down the same row as C. Meyer. You can ask for directions in the cemetery office.

The large stone on Earp’s grave is the third (or fourth?) to mark the spot. A smaller gravestone, purchased by his widow Josephine, was stolen just after her death in 1944. That white marble stone was discovered in a backyard in Fresno. The second stone, made of flat granite, was found for sale in a flea market after actor Hugh O’Brien, who portrayed Earp in a TV series, offered a reward for the stone’s return. Cemetery officials set the 300-pound stone flush in concrete, but it was stolen again. Kevin Costner offered to replace it with a bigger one, but the Marcus family considered the offer self-serving and rejected it. Eventually, the Marcus family agreed to allow a group from Southern California to put this new stone in place in 1998-99. The earlier stone is on display in the Colma Historical museum.

Useful links:

The Hills of Eternity homepage

My review of Permanent Californians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of California

My review of Images of America: Colma

Other Colma cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cypress Lawn Memorial Park

Woodlawn Memorial Park

13 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #116: Wyatt Earp’s gravesite

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