Tuesday, April 17, I’ll be participating in the citywide Reimagine End of Life festival across San Francisco from April 16-22. The evening I’m part of is called Memento Mori.
Memento Mori is an ancient Roman phrase meaning “Remember Your Mortality.” Come experience a night of amazing creators sharing their work and unique backstories on the topic of mortality, loss, memory, and love.
The lineup for Memento Mori is:
investigation of the history of the lost cemeteries of SF – Loren Rhoads
Emotions and the end of life ( Fear and Panic) from the Western Psychological Point of view, how secular Buddhism can help (Separate-Selflessness and Impermanence) – Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Eve Ekman
death of neighborhoods and the effect on the people that live there – Liz Ogbu
the art of shadow puppetry and the stories within -Daniel Barash
a poignant visual symphony covering a recent police shooting of a young man, from a healing mother’s perspective – Angelica Ekeke
tracing the roots of the themes of dying, death and mourning at the end of life, and how we can deal with it – Dr. September Williams
and a thought provoking look at the sound in hospitals and how it effects our ability to heal and to die in peace….Yoko Sen
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.
Broken headstone in Buena Vista Park, San Francisco
Mary Jo Bole was in town for the summer, doing an artist-in-residency stint at the Headlands Center for the Arts. I was trying to show her a good time, but although we’d known each other for years via mail art and a shared love of cemeteries, we really didn’t know each other well. I didn’t want to tell her where we were going. I hoped she’d enjoy the surprise.
We pulled up into my old neighborhood, the lower slopes of Ashbury Heights, and searched for a parking space. That Saturday morning was one of those perfect San Francisco days that make you forget that the fog will roll in around noon and you won’t see the sun again for a week. We could see for miles across the bay.
Gutter in Buena Vista Park
Buena Vista Park was relatively abandoned that morning. I remember when the raspberry bushes used to hang heavy and laden over the paths and we could eat ourselves full of berries on our way to breakfast in Lower Haight, but those days were over. The neighbors had finally tired of men having sex in the bushes. The hillside looked as if it had been clear-cut, brown grass dying in the dirt beneath the elderly Monterey pines.
I led MJ to the path above the children’s playground. The paths are paved in asphalt and short retaining walls of fitted stone hold the hillsides back above them. In the gap between wall and path runs a narrow gutter, less than a foot wide. It is lined with marble, an elegant, creepy touch lost on most visitors to the park.
Our outing was a little late in the year to be optimal. In the spring, after the rains have stopped, the Friends of Park and Rec host a work day to clear the gutters in the park. If I’d been thinking, I would have brought a broom to shift the eucalyptus leaves around. Instead, I kicked the oak leaves up with my tennis shoe, looking for an inscription.
One of the nice neighbors in a rose-pink jogging suit stopped to ask, “Did you lose something?”
“No,” I said, flustered by her niceness. I could already guess she wasn’t going to like what I was going to say. “The gutter is lined with grave markers from the old Laurel Hill Cemetery. You can still read some of them, but I can’t remember exactly where the ones with inscriptions are.”
“You’re joking,” she blurted.
Rain gutter lined with broken headstones in Buena Vista Park
“No.” I stopped kicking at the leaves to make eye contact with her. “It says so on the signs as you enter the park.”
“Really?” MJ crowed.
Once I uncovered one name, the others were easy to find.
April 28th, 2012 — Obscura Day — is an international celebration of unusual places, full of expeditions, back room tours & explorations of the hidden wonders in your own hometown.
There are several cemetery-based explorations this year:
Explore the Glasgow Necropolis
“Come out on Obscura Day and explore the historic Glasgow Necropolis, founded in 1833 and the final resting place of over 50,000 people. This beautiful park style cemetery’s hillside vantage point allows great views of the city as well as possible chance to see wild deer roaming the grounds. We’ll explore the city’s history and notable deceased with a wander amongst the more than 3500 monuments.”
Explore Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery with Context Travel
“Opened in 1804, the cemetery inspired new ways of commemorating the dead. A reflection of wider architectural developments, the ornate mausolea of Père Lachaise were designed to express the personalities and professions of the deceased as well as their affiliations within the political and religious divisions that continually fractured French history. A trip to Père Lachaise is a crash course in two hundred years of French history brought to life by an atmospheric landscape that has fascinated Parisian tourists for centuries.”
The Bizarre and Mysterious at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
“Laurel Hill is more than just a cemetery. It is an outdoor sculptural garden, horticultural gem and a truly unique historical resource. With over 175 years of history, there are countless stories to be told, including ones of brave military heroes, powerful captains of industry and selfless philanthropists. But what about tales of the bizarre and mysterious? Follow your curiosity off the beaten path and down in to a crypt… you’ll have dinner conversation for years to come. This walking tour will be led by resident tour guide, Dave Horwitz and conclude with wine, beer and light refreshments.”
Published in 1972 when Americans were beginning to wake up to the kinds of landscapes they were surrounding themselves with, Victorian Cemetery Art proposed that people look back at earlier consciously-created landscapes. Photographer Edmund V. Gillon opens the book with a quick overview of the garden cemetery movement, illustrated with lovely etchings of the era, then moves into describing the iconography and statuary common to the Victorians.
Gillon points out that the very anonymity of the artists who created cemetery monuments forces us to look at their work freshly, forced to judge it on its own merits rather than because it was created by someone famous or is displayed by a well-regarded museum. He points out that generations of Americans learned about art solely from their visits to the local cemetery, because in most communities, that was where art was kept.
After the brief introduction, Gillon sets about illustrating his argument. In 260 black-and-white photographs, he displays all that is lovely about American Victorian-era cemetery decorations: angels, grieving women, veiled children, family pets, and more. He illuminates trends in iconography, like the open book, the heavenly gate, the sphinx, the broken harp, and whole flocks of birds. Some of my favorite monuments are those to sailors, whether lost at sea or anchored to their faith.
I don’t know enough about the history of Gillon’s book to know if it brought about the resurgence of interest in cemeteries for which he hoped. Now, as an artifact of another’s cemetery obsession, it’s a book that reaches across the years to spark our own explorations.
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