Colma’s lovely Cypress Lawn Memorial Park is trying something new: a book club! The club idea is so new that they don’t have it listed on the Heritage Foundation’s website yet, but the first two books were chosen at the club’s first meeting earlier this month. I’m honored to say that Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel is one of them.
Even if you’re not close enough to attend, you can still read along with us. The schedule so far:
The book club will meet at 11 a.m. in Cypress Lawn’s Reception Center at 1370 El Camino Real, Colma, California. If you’d like more information, please contact Terry Hamburg.
Future books will range from autobiographies and novels written by people interred at Cypress Lawn and may include more cemetery history or history of the San Francisco Bay Area. When possible, the book club will visit the appropriate grave sites.
I’ve never been a part of a book club, so I’m very much looking forward to this.
October was a whirlwind of writing about cemeteries and talking about cemeteries and touring cemeteries. You can believe I was in heaven.
Mountain View Cemetery tour, led by Arthur Kay
The month started with my speech at the Death Salon about how the graveyards were removed from San Francisco. That led to a very small group tour of Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, led by Arthur Kay. He helped me find a gravestone I was looking for, as well as the grave of one of the last Romanoff princesses and a whole lot of other locally important people. The day was incredibly hot and I was sick with a bad cold, but it was worth making the effort to get out in the sunshine.
Cypress Lawn at sunset
A week later, still sick with that stupid cold, I managed to see Douglas Keister’s photos of graves in the Holy Land at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park. That was immediately followed by his gracious and fascinating hands-on seminar on how to take cemetery photos. The warm gold light spilling across the cemetery made me feel so much better. I wish I’d taken more photos.
I took the weekend of my birthday off — mostly because there weren’t any cemetery tours I wanted to attend that weekend and I was still sick. The final weekend of the month, I was spoiled for choice. I wanted to go down to Gilroy, California to see Old St Mary Cemetery, since it’s only open on days when the Historical Society leads tours, but I wasn’t sure I could make it by 10 a.m. on the day after my family had been out trick or treating.
The Carquinez Bridge seen from Alhambra Cemetery
Instead, I dragged my daughter and husband up to Martinez to see the amazing Alhambra Cemetery. The cemetery overlooks the Carquinez Strait in the northern part of San Francisco Bay. The Historical Society held a tombstone scavenger hunt for the kids, which entertained my daughter while I read the historic signs and marveled over all the lovely tombstones. We’d never been to Martinez, so afterward we treated ourselves to a Thai lunch and poked briefly through the antique shops before getting one of the best iced mochas my husband has ever tried. It was the perfect family outing.
Finally, on November 2 — All Souls’ Day — my friend Samuel came up to the northern tip of Napa County with me so we could tour Cloverdale Cemetery. Susan Bennett led the tour in character as Gravedigger Tom. The tour group was enormous, which did my heart good to see. We learned about the history of Cloverdale and its surroundings through the lens of the California Gold Rush and the farming era that followed, through the days of the spas and summer camps and religious splinter groups.
Old St. Mary Cemetery represents the southern tip of my ongoing research for the Pioneer Cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area book. Cloverdale is the northernmost boundary. It would have been something to see them both in the same weekend, 161 miles as the Google maps, but I’m happy with what I was able to accomplish.
November 3 dragged me out of cemeteries and back to real life. I had to dive into revising the first book of the space opera trilogy I sold to Night Shade Books in February. I’d been waiting for the book to come back from the editor all year, so of course it arrived in the middle of my cemetery madness. It’s turned in at last and the book is in press now, for release next summer. There are more details here, if Hong Kong-style revenge science fiction is your kind of thing. I’m very proud of it.
Long story short, it’s been a while since I blogged on Cemetery Travel, for which I’m sorry. I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle everything. The second book of The Dangerous Type trilogy is due soon and I need to toggle back and forth from being a cemetery historian to a science fiction writer. It feels strange to have both sides of my life converge at last, but it’s an exciting place to be.
Last year’s Cloverdale Cemetery tour. Photo provided by the Cloverdale Historical Society.
It seems like every local cemetery is having a tour this weekend. I’m going to hit as many as I can. Hope to see you there!
Saturday, November 1, 10-11:30 am Alhambra Cemetery
Carquinez Scenic Route
Martinez, California 94553 http://www.cityofmartinez.org/cals/default.asp
This is a free family event. Families are invited to celebrate the lives of local citizens buried at the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery with a headstone hunt that incorporates math, history, and observation skills. Day of the Dead crafts will also be provided, including folding paper marigolds, creating banners, and coloring sugar skull pictures.
Please pre-register at (925) 372-3510 by October 31.
Saturday, November 1, 1:30 pm Cypress Lawn Memorial Park
1370 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014-3239
Phone: (650) 550-8810 http://www.cypresslawnheritagefoundation.com/events.html#walking
Local cemetery historian Michael Svanevik will lead a walking tour of lovely Cypress Lawn. Its title is “Northern California’s Fortune Builders.” The tour starts at the Noble Chapel (located on Cypress Lawn’s East Gardens).
Sunday, November 2, 11:30-3:30 pm Hills of Eternity/Home of Peace Cemeteries
1299/1301 El Camino Boulevard
Colma, California 94014
Phone: (415) 750-7545 https://www.emanuelsf.org/hoehop125
Buried Treasures: An ‘Underground History’ Walk — Come commemorate the 125th anniversary of Jewish cemeteries in Colma and honor those who planted the seeds of the Jewish community in the Bay Area. There will be a treasure hunt tour, an opportunity to watch the ritual burial of prayer books, and a chance to help preserve the pioneer headstones in the oldest part of the cemetery. Refreshments provided.
Sunday, November 2, 1 – 2:30 pm. Riverside Cemetery
Cloverdale, California 95425
Phone: (707) 894-2067
Meet Gravedigger Tom at the cemetery entrance on Crocker Road. The suggested donation is between $5 – $10 dollars per person. People should wear long pants and hiking/walking shoes. Due to loose gravel and walking up hills/around graves, we recommend that only those who are sure-footed join in. Gravedigger Tom will tell many fascinating stories regarding the cemetery, including some of the people who are buried there. He also is known to share ghost stories.
The Cloverdale Cemetery is located on the west side of the Russian River. From Cloverdale, take First Street east. The parking for the cemetery is on the left hand side before the river.
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.
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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