Film is the perfect medium to capture the beauty and peace of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This documentary, in particular, captures the memorial across the seasons, such as they are in San Francisco: spring, summer, rain, swirling fog. There’s a real sense that this is a living, breathing, growing landscape.
For all that, the AIDS Grove is an artificial landscape, carved out of sand and neglect in the midst of an extremely busy park. The people who do the work of gardening, maintenance, and building the memorial features came to be at odds (fortuitously for the filmmaker) over just what this landscape remembers.
Originally the Grove was envisioned as a peaceful place where people who felt ostracized from traditional holy ground could hold memorial gatherings and grieve without stigma for the tens of thousands who’ve died of AIDS and have no other monument. As the worst of the epidemic seems to be over and AIDS directly impacts fewer lives each year, the Grove’s board of directors wonders, “Is this memorial for people who suffered the losses firsthand or for future generations?”
A false comparison is made to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, visited by two million people each year. For one thing (which the film neglects to note), that Memorial stands between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not like people go out of their way to see the Vietnam Memorial. For another, fewer than 50,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War, while 636,000-and-counting have died of AIDS in the US. The Vietnam War ended; AIDS continues to ravage the world. Apples and oranges.
The documentary records the impassioned debate between the factions who see the Grove as a healing space and those (mostly not directly affected by the plague) who feel the Grove isn’t shocking enough to force untouched visitors to feel how devastating the plague was. The schism appears generational.
Without comment, the movie captures the contest to design a new memorial element as a way to confront people and cause controversy. Tellingly, while emphasis was placed on finding a memorial design that would shock the future, the winning design had its own obsolescence planned in. If built, the stark charred-wood “Living Memorial” would have had seeds planted inside its planks so that, in time, nature would have reclaimed and obscured it. No one in the film notes the irony that, $6 million and a decade later, the Grove would return to being a garden once more.
The film spends too much time interviewing tourists who have gotten lost in Golden Gate Park seeking the Japanese Tea Garden. If the point is that the Grove is not well known, I suspect the solution is better advertising. It seems to me that the Grove faces the same problem that more traditional cemeteries face: how do you draw people who are not connected to the dead through your gates?
Finally, at the end, the film shows a volunteer sobbing because his team found a marble urn in the Grove when they were weeding. A man is shown scattering ashes. Memorial services are held. I’m not sure if this is meant as counterpoint to the aborted design contest, but it demonstrates that the National AIDS Memorial Grove does serve a real and necessary purpose. Perhaps it’s more personal in scope than “national” implies — and some on the board of directors are comfortable with that, but until the plague has ended, there continues to be a need for a place to remember and grieve.
The film has shown several times on PBS. It’s worth seeking out. It will give you much food for thought.
The Circle of Friends, dedicated to lives touched by AIDS
National AIDS Memorial Grove
At the intersection of Bowling Green Drive and Nancy Pelosi Drive
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, California 94121 Dedicated: September 21, 1991 Size: 7.5 acres Number of interred: unknown Open: Dawn to dusk Tours: Free tours of the AIDS Memorial Grove are available between 9 a.m. and noon on the third Saturdays of each month between March and October. The 20-minute tours begin at the Main Portal. To schedule a tour, call 415-765-0497.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new disease swept through some neighborhoods of San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. Doctors scrambled to get ahead of what was initially derided as the “Gay Plague,” a sexually transmitted collection of rare cancers, fungal infections, and organ failures that came to be called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Moonwalk Way, dedicated to Douglas and Larry “who met the day humans walked on the moon.”
Infection, in those days, was lethal. Since gay couples could not legally marry, lovers were barred from sickrooms and deathbeds in hospitals across the country. Because of the social stigma of homosexuality in America at the time, obituaries often lied about the cause of death. Many victims chose to be cremated because they expected they would have no survivors to mourn them. Unlike the epidemics of the past, graveyards did not record their deaths. To make matters worse, in 1987, Senator Jesse Helms proposed quarantine for anyone who tested positive for HIV, the human immunodeficieny virus.
To counter the panic and bigotry, a small group of San Franciscans envisioned a serene place dedicated to all lives touched by AIDS “where people would come alone or in groups to hold memorial services.” Architects, landscapers, and amateur gardeners gathered together in 1989 to meet with the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to discuss possible sites for the memorial.
Later that year, donations in memory of prominent local landscape architect Stephen Marcus (who redesigned the graveyard at Mission Dolores), provided initial funds for what would become the AIDS Memorial Grove.
By February 1990, the Grove Steering Committee settled on the De Laveaga Dell for the AIDS Memorial Grove. The little valley, located between the tennis courts and the Academy of Sciences, had been created in 1898 through a gift from the estate of Jose Vicente de Laveaga. When the Dell opened on June 21, 1921, it included a stream, a small lake, iris beds, rhododendrons, camellias, and ferns. It became a little zoo known as the Deer Glen and for a while housed a bear. By the middle of the 20th century, maintenance funds ran out, the animals were moved to the San Francisco Zoo, and the dell became derelict.
The official groundbreaking of the AIDS Grove took place on September 21 1991, attended by San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos. The permanency of the Grove remained in question until 1993, when the Grove’s board of directors signed a 99-year lease with the City of San Francisco.
Thanks to a bill supported by Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein, the AIDS Grove attained National Memorial status in October 1996. President Bill Clinton recognized it as the first AIDS memorial in the nation. The official designation “proclaims to the world that there is a dedicated space in the national public landscape where anyone who has been touched by AIDS can grieve openly without being stigmatized, can find comfort among others whose lives have been affected by AIDS, and can experience the feelings of renewal and hope inherent in nature.”
Boulder in memory of William Xenos
The Grove has changed and grown over the years. In February 1995, the Main Portal was dedicated by benefactor Steve Silver, creator of San Francisco’s long-running variety show Beach Blanket Babylon. The 7-ton granite boulder which marks the entrance was installed in December that year, on World AIDS Day. Volunteers have planted thousands of trees, shrubs, and plants. They’ve installed six flagstone gathering areas, an accessible gravel path, 18 benches, and granite boulders marked with names of those who have been lost.
A “Belvedere Overlook,” funded by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, was added in 2002. Its balcony displays polished black granite plaques with a timeline of the epidemic. At that time, 40 million people had been infected with HIV worldwide – and 22 million had already died of AIDS. Of that number, an unknown number of ashes have been buried or scattered inside the Grove, making it akin to a cemetery.
The Grove’s Board of Directors began to wonder whether they should expand the purpose of the Grove in 2003. It was no longer enough that the garden serve as a place of mourning and serenity for survivors. Board members questioned whether the Grove truly represented a national memorial if it was not nationally known. Rather than advertise the Grove and raise its profile, they voted in April to hold a Memorial Design Feature Competition.
Two years later, New York architects Janette Kim and Chloe Town were announced as the winners. Their Living Memorial was inspired by a forest fire. As envisioned, it would include a platform and walkway of charred wood along with an irregular arrangement of black-painted fiber poles. According to the Princeton Alumni Spotlight, “The idea for such a desolate space…sprang from the architects’ desire to produce a kind of ground zero for the soul, to have visitors ‘start from a sense of depletion,’ says Kim.”
The design was a source of controversy almost immediately. Survivors mourning loved ones lost to AIDS found the stark design painfully brutal. They questioned whether anyone could understand the design without the designers’ explanation of it. Board members countered by saying that the Grove needed to look toward the future, when the epidemic needed to be understood by people who had not been touched by it.
In the end, the Grove’s Board voted in December 2007 not to implement Kim and Town’s design. The initially proposed cost of $2 million had swelled to $6 million, which would have wiped out the Grove’s endowment and required major fundraising. The Grove remains a garden full of boulders, benches, and plazas marked with the names of the dead.
It’s hard to know how many National Memorials there are in the US, since the AIDS Grove doesn’t seem to appear on any lists of them. It also appears that AIDS is the only disease to have its own memorial, since neither heart disease nor cancer (the leading causes of death in the US) has one. (AIDS does not rank in the WHO’s top 15 causes of death in the US.)
Still, the epidemic continues. According to the CDC, 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV. Approximately 636,000 people have died of AIDS in the United States. Worldwide, an estimated 8000 people die each day of the disease.
A short documentary about the Grove was released in 2011. I’ll review it tomorrow.
Mostly when I visit a cemetery, I can separate what it represents from the beauty and peace of the place. I don’t see cemeteries as depressing, unless they have been vandalized.
Last week, though, I struggled. I’ve wanted for a while to write about the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, but even though it’s one of the loveliest places in the city, I felt such anger and sadness that I had trouble finding words to express them.
Twenty years ago last month, my friend Blair died of AIDS. The speed of his illness was breakneck and terrifying. I was honored to stay at his house during the last week of his life, administering morphine every 20 minutes around the clock with a handful of his friends and his husband Jeff, my best friend.
Blair reading the Chronicle
Blair was 28 when he died.
He didn’t want a monument. Jeff scattered some of Blair’s ashes in their backyard. He had some of them mixed into tattoo ink and tattooed them into his skin. Several friends ate some of them. In the end, some of us took the remainder and tried to dump them into San Francisco Bay. The wind caught them, of course, and blew them back at us.
The worst of the plague was over in the US by the time Blair died. New drugs — and new drug cocktails — turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable if chronic health problem. Twenty years later, every gay friend I have is HIV positive, but no one else has died yet.
Blair had a stone carved with his name to be placed in the backyard after his death. He had no other grave.
My life has been touched lightly by AIDS, but even so, it was catastrophically changed.
In July, I went to the AIDS Grove one sunny morning, looking for peace and researching a potential Cemetery of the Week. To my horror, a personal trainer had three women crab-walking across a plaza in the western end of the grove.
I’m not narrow-minded about cemeteries. I’m fine with people biking through them, picnicking, playing frisbee, jogging, walking their dogs. I would have said I was fine with whatever, as long as people were respectful and picked up after themselves. I discovered I was not okay with a gang of women in spandex doing leg lifts.
If they had been big beefy guys, would I have been so upset? Probably not. I think the dead would have appreciated the eye candy.
I wanted to march over to the trainer and scream at her. Urns are buried in the Grove. Ashes have been scattered there. Survivors still come to commune with their lost ones. The rocks all around are marked with names and epitaphs. This is hallowed ground. I was too disgusted and disappointed in humanity to speak.
Half a million people have died of AIDS worldwide. 8000 people continue to die each day of the disease. Fewer of those are in America now, but the disease is still killing those around us. One of my friends has AIDS now. By the time he got tested, it was too late for the disease to be prevented. He may yet live a long time, but he may never be healthy.
In the face of AIDS, I don’t know what to do with my anger and grief. I feel the loss of each name in the Grove as a slice of my heart. How can I communicate that to people who weren’t in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, who don’t remember the gaunt young men with their canes, the mile-long candlelit marches?
I need the Grove to be a place of beauty and healing, so I can find peace for my memories and my fury.
Twenty years ago, I was given a box of miscellaneous cemetery photos. They had been taken by my best friend’s husband over the course of his travels around the Americas. Blair was 28 years old and dying of AIDS. He wanted to know his photos had a good home.
I decided to put together a book that would feature those photos. Initially, I was going to write all the text, but as I talked to people about the project, everyone seemed to have a cemetery story to tell.
The book title expanded from Death’s Garden to Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. I was thrilled to discover that people I knew — even complete strangers — all had a graveyard they’d connected with, either because a family member was buried there, or because they’d visited it on vacation, or because they’d grown up in a house near it, or for a whole bouquet of other reasons.
The contributors varied from people I met through zine publishing to a ceramics professor at Ohio State University, writers for the LA Weekly, professional artists and photographers, underground musicians, depressed high school girls, and punk rock diva Lydia Lunch. As the book came together, Death’s Garden blew away my expectations.
Morrison monument in Glenwood Cemetery, Flint – taken by Loren Rhoads
The initial print run of 1000 copies sold out 18 months after my husband and I put it together for our publishing company. I’d only asked for one-time rights to use everyone’s contributions, so I couldn’t republish it. Once it was gone, it was gone.
As the years passed, I’ve lost track of many of the contributors. Some are dead and have a different relationship with cemeteries altogether now. Others have sunk into the anonymity of a pseudonym on the internet.
For a while now I’ve wanted to assemble a second volume of Death’s Garden. I think there are a lot more stories to be told about relationships people have formed with graveyards. For instance, what’s it like to be a tour guide? How are cemetery weddings different than others? What’s the strangest cemetery you’ve ever visited, or the most beautiful, or the spookiest?
Eventually, I’d like to put these new essays into a physical book, but for now, I’d like to kick off a new feature on Cemetery Travel. This feature is open to anyone who has ever visited a cemetery where something special happened, either good or bad. Tell me about your relationship with a cemetery. I’d like to publish it on CemeteryTravel.com.
What I’m looking for:
personal essays that focus on a single cemetery
preferably with pictures
under 1500 words (totally negotiable, but the limit is something to shoot for)
characterization, dialogue, tension: all the tools you’d use to tell a story
but this MUST be true — and it must have happened to you!
Reprints are accepted. If you’ve written something lovely on your blog and wouldn’t mind it reaching the couple thousand people who subscribe to Cemetery Travel, let me know.
If I accept your essay for publication on Cemetery Travel, be warned: I may do some light editing, with your permission.
Also, I’ll need:
a bio of 50-100 words
a photo of you
a link to your blog or book
links to your social media sites, so people can follow you.
Finally, if — as I hope — this project progresses to becoming a legitimate book, I will contact you with a contract and offer of payment. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, here are some links to the original Death’s Garden:
Excerpts from some of the essays from the first book
Reviews of the original Death’s Garden:
Turner monument at Glenwood Cemetery, taken by Loren
“This impressive book is so striking that, upon opening its binding, one is hard pressed not to be moved by its contents. With every perusal, the reader finds another thing to think about.” — Carpe Noctem
“Death’s Garden is an anthology of cemetery tours from all around the world, well-photographed, and smart enough to know it’s not the where and when of certain burial grounds that intrigues us, it’s the why as well. There’s a certain joy about Death’s Garden which is hard to pin down; the sense that just as no two graveyards are the same, no two burial beliefs are the same, either.” — Alternative Press
“The photographers and writers relay their thoughts on the relationship between the living and the dead, creating a feast for the eyes and senses. Death’s Garden goes a long way in showing just what these residences of the dead have to offer to those of us that are still among the living.” — Maximum Rock N Roll
Laurel Hill Cemetery
Bounded by Presidio, California, Maple, and Geary Streets
San Francisco, California Founded: June 28, 1854 Size: 54 acres Number of interments: 47,000 Dismantled: 1946
Inspired by the garden cemetery movement gaining steam on the East Coast, the Lone Mountain Cemetery was established in San Francisco on June 28, 1854.It was named in honor of a 500-foot sandy mountain half a mile south of it.The enormous 320-acre cemetery was designed with miles of carriage roads, with views of the city in the distance to the east and the ocean to the west.The area, which had natural live oaks and an abundance of wild flowers was planted with “every species of ornamental shrubs and rare plants,” according to the 1860 San Francisco Directory.People treated it like a city park, by going for carriage rides and picnicking there.Local cemetery historian Michael Svanevik pointed out that it was the only place in town to go courting. And the cable cars stopped there, so it was easy to access. (Inspired by the cemetery’s success, Golden Gate Park opened in 1870.)
At the cemetery’s dedication ceremony, Colonel E.D. Baker said, “The truth peals like thunder in our ears—thou shalt live forever!” “He meant,” This is San Francisco says, “that there, beneath the pines and the oaks and the bending willows, the memory of the sleeping dead would be forever green.”Baker was a lawyer who made a name for himself several years later when he defended Charles Cora on a murder charge.The jury couldn’t reach a verdict, but the Vigilance Committee did.They hauled Cora out of jail and lynched him.Baker left town.Cora was buried in the Mission Dolores Cemetery.
The first burial took place on June 10, 1854.John Orr’s headstone was inscribed: “To the Memory of the First Inhabitant of the Silent City.” According to Findagrave, the headstone was destroyed when his body was moved to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.
One of the early burials in the cemetery was James King of William, editor of the Evening Bulletin.He published articles pointing out the less than savory past of supervisor James P. Casey.On May 14, 1856, James King of William was shot in the street by ex-convict James Casey. He died a few days later.Casey was arrested and lynched by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee. King of William’s coffin was followed to the Lone Mountain Cemetery by a procession of 6,000 mourners, according to The Spectactular San Franciscans by Julia Cooley Altrocchi. Early in the 1900s, his family reburied him in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park with what looks like his original headstone.
Senator David Broderick’s obelisk
United States Senator David C. Broderick was killed in a duel by the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court on September 13, 1859 on the shores of Lake Merced.He was buried on a hill in Lone Mountain Cemetery under a monument “with classical figures and tablets, inscribed with tribute,” according to The Spectactular San Franciscans.
By 1860, they’d realized that the Lone Mountain Cemetery was too big and unwieldy.On August 16, 1860, Archbishop Alemany bought some of the land to found Calvary Cemetery on the western edges of the Lone Mountain.He consecrated the 49.2 acres and began to bury Catholics there.
Map of San Francisco, 1930
The Masons followed suit in 1864, buying 30 acres bounded by Turk, Fulton, Parker, and Masonic Streets, to build a burial ground for their members.The graveyard’s most famous resident was Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.Masonic Avenue took its name from the cemetery and the placement of the graveyard explains the weird dogleg the street takes. The University of San Francisco sits on the old Masonic Cemetery land today.Local historian Michael Svanevik remembers watching students finding bones working their way up through the lawns on campus.
The Odd Fellows also bought 30 acres bounded by Geary, Turk, Parker, and Arguello in 1865.Their 1898 Columbarium is the only surviving element of any of the four cemeteries that still stands in place.
The remaining cemetery was a mere 54 acres. Now that the Lone Mountain Cemetery had been separated from the Lone Mountain proper, a name change was in order.In 1867, the trustees voted to rename the cemetery Laurel Hill, after the lovely garden cemetery in Philadephia above a bend of the Schuykill River.
Still, the cemetery’s days were numbered. The seeds of its destruction were planted in 1863 when Sam Brannan opened the Cliff House Resort overlooking the ocean. It attracted the wealthy people to Ocean Beach, but travel over the miles of sand was difficult. In 1864, the Point Lobos Toll Road, now called Geary Boulevard, was built to carry folks from the city to the ocean. It prompted many downtown businessmen to move out along the road and set up shop to cater to tourists.
The first exhortations to “Remove the cemeteries!” began in 1880.Without perpetual care funds, families were left to take care of their ancestors’ graves. Since many of the pioneers came out to San Francisco without family or friends, no one cut the weeds or washed the headstones.Vandalism began to be a problem.
By 1900, the cemeteries were on their way to being filled. That year, Mayor James Phelan signed the order forbidding burial inside the borders of San Francisco after August 1, 1901. In April 1906, the great earthquake caused wide-spread damage to monuments. Most no longer had family to repair them.
Looking across California at Laurel Hill Cemetery
“It took more than 40 years of sporadic legal battles to overcome opposition to the removal of the dead and bring on the bulldozers that were to clear the hill for the living,” according to Hills of San Francisco. “Development of the site into a multi-million-dollar residential subdivision didn’t get under way until after World War II.”
There is a record of how lovely the graveyard once was. A photograph by Ansel Adams in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is called “The White Gravestone, Laurel Hill Cemetery, San Francisco.” It was take around 1933, after the cemetery was fighting to survive. The gelatin silver print was made around 1972. It shows a grave monument adorned with a mourning woman, leaning on her elbow against a plinth with an urn. Some of the inscription reads Lucy Ellen, aged 26 years. Behind the lichen-pocked stone is a balustrade, long grass, and shadowy trees.
For a while, preservationists lobbied to preserve some of Laurel Hill’s most illustrious residents in a Pioneer Park. I came across photos of it by accident while I was researching in the wonderful reference library at 20th Century Fox.
Broderick’s great column, arguably Laurel Hill’s most imposing monument, was destroyed in place.“Some of the blocks that formed the monument had been piled to one side, but others had been tipped into nearby graves and left there,” according to This Is San Francisco, whose author walked through the old cemetery once it had been abandoned. Broderick was a bachelor, so he was packed off to be buried in the Pioneer Mound at Cypress Lawn.
“Over a rise and around a bend” stood a modest five-foot-tall shaft to the memory of Andrew Smith Hallidie, who had died in 1900.His epitaph read, “Inventor of Cable Railway System. Builder of First Cable Railroad. A Loyal Citizen.”Even though Hallidie designed San Francisco’s iconic cable cars, the city apparently felt no loyalty in return.When no family stepped up to pay to transport Hallidie’s remains to a new grave in Colma, he was transported with all the rest of the unwanted to a tumulus at Cypress Lawn.His monument was hauled to Ocean Beach to shore up the sand.
In the end, 47,000 graves were moved. “The remains of 10,000 were buried elsewhere by their descendants; most of the rest were taken to Cypress Lawn,” according to This is San Francisco. “Mausoleums were left with their doors gaping open, and many headstones were carted to Ocean Beach and dumped in the sand to reinforce the sea wall.”
An obelisk marks the Pioneer Mound at Cypress Lawn
At the intersection of Walnut and California Streets, a bronze plaque on the wall around the Laurel Heights campus of the University of California in San Francisco used to read: “Former site of Laurel Hill Cemetery 1854-1946. The builders of the West, Civic and Military Leaders, Jurists, Investors, Artists, and Eleven United States Senators were buried here — the most revered of San Francisco’s hills.” California Registered Historical Landmark Number 760. The plaque was placed on May 31, 1961 — fifteen years after the cemetery was dismantled and its monuments hauled out to Ocean Beach to serve as a base for the dunes.
In July, when I walked the borders of the old cemetery, even the plaque was gone. All traces of the cemetery have been swept away, except for the Laurel Hill Shopping Center and the names of the old carriage roads that crossed the graveyard: Walnut, Laurel, Spruce.
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