One of the things that I am absolutely fascinated by is the way cities are built up over their dead. In long-lived cities like Rome or Paris or London, it’s inevitable that cemeteries from the past have been built over and forgotten. In San Francisco, which isn’t even 250 years old, the shortness of memory is more surprising.
Journalist Beth Winegarner shares my obsession with cemeteries. Her newest book is “San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History,” which comes out today. In the book, she looks into the cemeteries that used to lie beneath the Presidio Parade Ground, the Asian Art Museum, what’s now a Target, and much more.
I asked her to tell us about it.
“San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History”
by Beth Winegarner
San Francisco is famous for many things: tech companies like Twitter and Uber, the cacophony of sea lions at Pier 39, the Painted Ladies houses, major earthquakes. It’s also known, especially among locals, for not having any cemeteries.
But what if I told you that settlers established nearly 30 cemeteries in San Francisco between the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1770s and 1901, when city leaders banned any new burials within city limits — and that, in the process of moving 150,000 graves to Colma in the early 20th century, tens of thousands of graves were left behind?
My new book, “San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History” traces the history of these burial grounds, from one at Mission Dolores where headstones still mark the grounds, to a pet cemetery hidden beneath a freeway overpass in San Francisco’s Presidio. It includes many graveyards where bodies still rest beneath the ground while residents, workers, and tourists unknowingly pass over them every day.
Writing is one of my favorite ways to connect with the history of a place, and with the place itself. In my first book, “Sacred Sonoma,” I wrote about unusual places in Sonoma County, in Northern California: Locations where people reported ineffable (or chilling) experiences, or hauntings. I dug into local history, including indigenous and settler history, and created a kind of travel guide to these sites, which remains popular to this day.
After almost 20 years living in San Francisco, I felt like I wanted to get to know this place better, and a friend connected me with an amazing digital archive of local newspapers. Out of curiosity I looked for articles about San Francisco’s cemeteries, and began to discover just how many there were, how badly mismanaged they were in the early years of the city, and how many were forgotten.
As San Francisco and its population expanded, graveyards were pushed farther and farther out from the city center. And with so many people coming and going, especially after the Gold Rush, the city had very little institutional memory. A cemetery would be decommissioned, its grave markers (usually wood) removed and sometimes its burials relocated, only to be rediscovered when a new generation wanted to dig sewer lines or build something. Many crews fled job sites because of what they found beneath the soil.
After San Francisco banned burials, residents voted to move the graveyards south to a small town just outside city limits. The majority of burials, probably about 75%, were relocated, but about 25% remain in place. They’re beneath the Lincoln Park Golf Course, the Legion of Honor Museum, the Asian Art Museum, the University of San Francisco, and residential neighborhoods of the Golden Gate Park panhandle, among others.
I became fascinated by these discoveries, and moved by the existence of so many abandoned dead. Once I started learning, I couldn’t help but write, in the hope of sharing this history with others and remembering what so many people had forgotten. It’s helped me understand San Francisco better, and I hope readers find meaning in it, too.
“San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History” by Beth Winegarner (trade paperback, 172 pages, 60 photographs), with a foreword by Roberto Lovato, author of “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and the Revolution in the Americas,” is being published by The History Press on August 28, 2023. You can order a copy from Amazon or directly from The History Press.
To find out more and to see dates for local and online events in connection with the book, click here.
You can also follow Beth on Instagram, where she’s posting images of the old cemeteries.
I am excited to announce that Beth will chat about all things cemeteries with me on October 27 at the San Francisco Columbarium: RSVP here.