Tag Archives: Bay Area cemeteries

Cemetery of the Week #165: Olivet Memorial Park

IMG_9344Olivet Memorial Park
Also called Mount Olivet Cemetery
1601 Hillside Boulevard
Colma, California 94014
Telephone: (650) 755-0322
Established: 1896
Size: 65 acres
Number of Interments: 100,000

At the foot of San Bruno Mountain in the cemetery town of Colma lies Olivet Memorial Park, which proclaims itself as a “Cemetery for All Faiths.” It was founded as Mount Olivet Cemetery by Austen Walrath (buried here in 1902) with the backing of the Abbey Land and Improvement Company.

San Francisco architect William H. Crim Jr. designed the Old English Abbey Chapel, as well as the Columbarium and “Incinerary.” Cremation began at Olivet as early as 1911. Since then, the cemetery has cremated more than 45,000 people.

Some of its earliest cremation retorts were designed by Mattrup Jensen, who took over as superintendent from Walrath. Jensen’s crematory retorts were used by cemeteries across the US. He believed that Colma cemeteries should be designed to look like outdoor cathedrals. Jensen eventually became the first mayor of Lawndale, before the town changed its name to Colma.

The striking 18-foot-tall black granite monument to the Sailors Union of the Pacific was sculpted by John Stoll. It bears the legend: “And the sea shall give up its dead — from every latitude here rest our brothers of the Sailors Union of the Pacific.” California governor Earl Warren dedicated the sculpture in 1946 to remember the 6,000 merchant marines who died over the course of World War II. Many others have been buried in the plot since.

IMG_9342Another monument remembers the Showfolks of America. The national organization, made up of circus or carnival people, held conventions in San Francisco after 1945. The area around the clown-faced monument is known as Showmen’s Rest. It was filled with clowns and other performers by the 1990s.

When he was captured near Oroville in 1911, the man called Ishi was believed to be the last survivor of the Yahi tribe. Called “the last survivor of Stone Age California,” he was brought to the University of California in San Francisco, where he lived until his death of tuberculosis in 1916. He never revealed his true name. Alfred Kroeber, the anthropologist who studied him, called him Ishi, which simply means man in Yahi. He was cremated at Olivet and the cemetery’s columbarium held his remains in a “modest dark vase set on a dark green marble base.” He may have created his own burial urn.

After his death, his brain had been removed during an autopsy. The brain was rediscovered by anthropologists in the Smithsonian Institution in 1997. It was reunited with his ashes and transferred to an undisclosed location.


Also buried here is Arthur “Doc” Barker, the youngest member of the Barker gang. He was arrested for the last time in January 1935 for the kidnapping of Minnesota banker Edward G. Bremer. After Barker was transferred to Alcatraz, he died leading an escape attempt in 1939, when he was shot in the head. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Olivet’s unendowed Cosmos Plot.

Another Alcatraz inmate, Joseph “Dutch” Bowers, was arrested for robbing a post office in 1931. He was the first inmate to attempt escape when he climbed a fence in front of the guards and was shot and killed in April 1936. Other inmates believed that Alcatraz had driven him crazy. Bowers is buried in an unmarked grave.

Silent film actress Marguerite de La Motte appeared in over 50 films. She worked with Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers, but made only four talking pictures before she retired from the film business. She died in 1950 at the age of 47 and was cremated here. She has a modest niche in the columbarium.

Singer Danniebelle Hall, who died in 2000, combined gospel with dance music. Her epitaph in the mausoleum proclaims her “The Designer’s Original.”

Useful link:

Michael Svanevik talks about Olivet in his book City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma.

Four Graves for Harvey Milk

Earlier this month, I wrote a guest piece for The Cemetery Club for LGBT History Month about Harvey Milk: https://cemeteryclub.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/four-graves-for-harvey-milk/

A Walk Through the Past

A Walk through the Past: San Jose's Oak Hill Memorial ParkA Walk through the Past: San Jose’s Oak Hill Memorial Park by Patricia Loomis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

California’s oldest secular cemetery is the pioneer burial ground of Northern California’s largest city. The huge cemetery is a lively place on a weekend, but has been heavily vandalized in the past. Buried here are George Donner, who was 10 when he survived the harrowing winter in the Sierras but went on to raise a family of his own. Also here is Mountain Charley, a mountain man who survived being mauled by a mama grizzly in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He lost an eye, but lived 30-some more years. More recently, George Merino, proclaimed king of the West Coast gypsies, was buried here in 1975.

This is the perfect cemetery guidebook. It has a map, short biographies of the permanent residents, photos of them, their graves, and often their property or other historical ephemera that illustrates their lives and contributions.

The only issue I have is that its organization is confusing. Rather than starting with the oldest graves in the pioneer section, that section comes last. I think the sections are arranged in order from closest to the gate on back to the fence, but it means you have to wait to get to the most interesting stories. That’s minor, though, considering how fascinating everything else is.

You can get your own copy of the book at Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

How the Forgotten Angels Saved My Life


Photos of St. Stephen’s Cemetery by Emerian Rich.

by Emerian Rich

I’ll be the first one to admit that in my twenties, I was lost. I had just graduated from college. During the first recession in my adult life, I lost all three design jobs I held. With little experience, I was at the bottom of the totem pole and the first to go. Heavily in debt with school loans, I had to take whatever job I could get, which landed me in a depressing job at an answering service. The company was located in a small house with shoddy equipment. The employees were constantly sick. I found no joy in answering 300-plus phone calls a day. The other employees were just as miserable. It was like we’d drawn the short straws and ended up in call center purgatory. The worst part was that we felt like we had no way out.

I plummeted into a dark depression. It felt hopeless and dangerous and all too real. To make myself happier, I decided to take joy in beautiful things. I turned to architecture, statuary, and cemeteries, which held a special interest because not only were they beautiful, but they had a sort of quiet melancholy that matched my soul.

On one of my treks, I found St. Stephen’s Cemetery. It’s a tiny cemetery in Concord, California, where the graves have fallen into disrepair. In the early Nineties, it was basically a hangout for kids to drink in and homeless to sleep in. It became my getaway every time I felt sad.0504161102bI discovered a whole section with stillborn or baby graves. This section was especially rough: the headstones vandalized, the little metal markers broken off and scattered. I wondered why the families didn’t visit, but the dates on the graves were from the 40s and 50s, so I assumed the parents were long gone.

I realized I found this part of the cemetery for a reason. I was looking for purpose and I found one. Me and a couple friends packed up a broom, some garbage bags, a few dozen roses, and cleaned up the baby graves. We disposed of all the beer bottles and trash left there by insensitive partiers. We placed the disassembled metal markers where we thought they went and made sure all of the broken tombstones were placed near the graves they belonged to.

As time wore on, some of my friends stopped coming with me because they were a little spooked out. I didn’t understand why people didn’t care about these poor babies. I began affectionately calling them Forgotten Angels.

As the months went by, I would visit the Forgotten Angels weekly. Slowly, through mourning these lost souls and knowing that they were now in a better place, I began to come out of my depression. Still, I felt an obligation to these dead babies. Friends would say, “Oh yeah, that sucks,” but they didn’t really understand. How could they? These little bodies buried under the dry, fruitless dirt had helped me conquer a depression so deep, it was something only I could fathom.

Although I did (and still do) enjoy visiting cemeteries, this one in particular eventually became a burden to me. It reminded me of a time when I was depressed, when I clung to my visits like a security blanket. Those of you who’ve been in a deep depression know there’s a time when you’ve finally crawled out and need to do away with things that remind you of what a deep, dark pit you were in. I felt selfish and guilty for wanting to stop visiting, but I also knew my mental health wouldn’t improve if I kept fixating on something that reminded me of being depressed.

0504161059aSo, on a cold winter afternoon, I decided to say my farewell to the babies. I brought fresh pastel pink and orange roses. I cannot tell you the guilt I felt in leaving the babies there. After I left, who would take care of them? Who would even care that they were once alive? I sat for a while, talking to the babies and letting them know that, while I still cared about them, I couldn’t come anymore, for my own sake.

A giant tree stood above the graves. As I sat there, the wind picked up, as it always did in that part of the cemetery. I wrapped my arms around myself, thinking I should’ve brought a warmer coat. I cried. I don’t think it was really because I was leaving the babies. After all, they were dead and gone and there was nothing really I could do for them. I think I was crying because that portion of my life was coming to an end. The babies had helped me get through it and I had no idea how I could repay them. I had really needed to step outside myself and take care of someone else. They provided me a way to solve that need.

I wiped my tears and prepared to leave.

When I got to the gate, I looked back over at the baby graves, shaded by that large tree. I heard a rustling to my left. I saw what looked like an angel, all in white. She was hovering above a large tombstone. At first I thought she was just a statue, like you usually see in cemeteries, but then parts of her white veil blew back and I noticed she was see-through. In sign language, she motioned, “Thank you.”

0504161100The wind picked up and the leaves rustled, drawing my attention back to the Forgotten Angels. When I looked back at the girl, she was gone, but I felt a great sense of release. Gone was the guilt of leaving the babies. The message seemed to be that I’d served my purpose—or perhaps they’d served theirs—and it was okay to leave them be.

I don’t know if what I saw was an angel, or a ghost, or just a figment of my overactive imagination, but I can tell you that after I left the cemetery that day, I felt I had done a good thing. In all confidence I knew I could take care of myself without guilt.

Although some people think cemeteries are depressing, they can bring you peace — whether you go to just look at the beautiful statuary or if you find a personal message specifically for you. Don’t be scared to explore and allow yourself the ability to heal (like I did) through honoring the dead.


emzEmerian Rich is the author of the vampire book series Night’s Knights. Her novel Artistic License is the tale of a woman who inherits a house where anything she paints on the walls comes alive. Emerian has been published in a handful of anthologies by Dragon Moon Press, Hidden Thoughts Press, Hazardous Press, and White Wolf Press. She is a podcast horror hostess for HorrorAddicts.net, an internationally acclaimed podcast. To find out more, go to emzbox.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.



The 4th of July if You Like Cemetery Hilltops

Photo by Arthur Kay

Photo by Arthur Kay

by Arthur Kay

It is a well-known secret that, although the cemetery near my home closes at sunset, they don’t enforce that rule very strictly on the 4th of July. From the hillsides up there you can see for miles and take in pretty much all of the fireworks you can handle, albeit at some distance and in a cemetery, if that’s your thing, which it is totally my thing.

There are already fireworks going on by the time I get to the gate, and a bunch of empty cars parked nearby. I figure those people are probably inside, so in I go too, taking a route that will give me at least a little cover if the security folks are around and feeling feisty.

Going up the first hill, and there’s a group of loud drunks by the Cogswell spire. I go wide and keep trees or monuments between me and them most of the time. If anybody is going to attract security’s attention it’s these people, and I’d rather just steer clear of them.

Up past the dead millionaires, there’s a couple of short staircases that lead up further, and past those I’m climbing to the very top. Again I hear voices, but they’re quieter than the ones below. I find a pair of couples pleasantly sharing a big log near the summit. There’s also three boys standing in a tight little cluster just a ways off, taking in the view.

Creepy Mulch Piles

Creepy mulch piles photo by Arthur Kay.

Last time I was here I was distracted, though not unpleasantly so. This time I am all here. I look around and find a spot. If this were a nightmare, that’s the spot where something ghastly would emerge. I go stand there and feel sort of sinister.

Then, looking out over the bay, I let my senses open up.

It’s dazzling. I can see displays at least down to Fremont, up to what looks like Richmond, and all across the water. The sound is like listening to a distant war zone. There are so many fireworks going off in my field of vision that it is impossible to track them all.

A squirrel, with no reason to expect a human to be in the precise spot that I am in, jumps up right next to me. It sees me, makes a strangled yap of alarm, and leaps away. I have managed to terrify a squirrel.

From the direction of Tiburon comes a series of huge crimson blooms, the bottoms of which appear clipped by the horizon, which is strange. I wonder if they are going off on the other side of the Marin hills. Either that, or I am seeing fireworks that are literally being set off over the ocean.

The three boys lean in together and one of them is nervously flicking a lighter. They are about to smoke something that they probably didn’t pay taxes on.

From south and across the bay comes a series of lights so high and so bright it looks like strobe lightning. A good five seconds after the last one goes out, the sound reaches me in a series of booms that make the dogs in the houses below me freak out in response. I am at least ten miles from where those things went off; I cannot imagine how loud it would be if you were a couple of blocks away.

Some fireworks barely clear the tops of houses down in a part of Oakland where friends of mine live, the low altitude stuff people set off in their backyards. I resolve to head down from the hill soon. I have other business in the cemetery, and have been up here for about long enough.

One of the boys loudly whispers “oh shit oh shit!” and another boy crouches way down, giggling and rummaging frantically through the tall grass. The boys have dropped their joint.

I leave them, silently wishing them luck. I go down to the other places in the cemetery, where I expect I will be the one who is scared, and which I would rather not write about.


Arthur Kay leads unofficial tours of his favorite cemetery. This essay was published on his Facebook. You may contact him there.


I am hoping to start a series of Death’s Garden essays, where I encourage other people to tell true stories of their relationships to graveyards.  The call for submissions is here: http://cemeterytravel.com/deaths-garden-call-for-submissions/. I’ll have an essay by Scare Mistress Stacey Graham soon.