Tag Archives: Mission Dolores

My Last Cemetery Lecture of the Season

1930 mission linen bells002This Saturday night, I’ll be using my collection of cemetery postcards to illustrate the changes to the oldest European-style cemetery in Northern California.
My talk will be part of the fabled Litcrawl in San Francisco’s Mission District. I’ll be joined by Odd Salon Fellows Laura Rubin and Casey Selden for tales from the surprising history of cities of the dead.

Odd Salon: Cemetery Stories

Saturday October 20, 2018 6:30pm – 7:30pm

Admission is FREE!


Loren Rhoads

Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She blogs about graveyards as travel destinations at CemeteryTravel.com. She’ll be talking about San Francisco’s Mission Dolores.


Laura Rubin

Odd Salon Fellow. She’ll be talking about London’s Funeral Railway.


Casey Selden

Casey Selden is a Fellow of Odd Salon and a fermentation dabbler. She’s made beer, cider and wine for kicks in her kitchen. She’ll be talking about a grave in Chicago and the woman who goes along with it.

Expert talks on odd topics; odd talks on everything else.

Hints at the Mission Graveyards

California Missions and Presidios: The History and Beauty of the Spanish MissionsCalifornia Missions and Presidios: The History and Beauty of the Spanish Missions by Randy Leffingwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been curious how many of the old Spanish missions still have their original graveyards. This book provided some guidance through its photographs (because, let’s face it, old graves are picturesque), but for the most part, the graveyards didn’t rate much mention in the text. My search will have to continue.

That said, the photographs in this book are really lovely. They capture the interiors of the old churches and the details of their decorations. Sunlight paints the rooms. Outside, the skies are always the luminous Californian blue. Flowers nod and trees drowse and things seem very peaceful. Where appropriate, the museums or recreated cells of the padres are staged as carefully as a photo shoot. This book, whether a spur to exploring California’s Spanish — and Mexican — history or as a souvenir after such a trip, is beautiful to page through.

It falls down in the text, unfortunately, The same details are repeated over and over: the fathers select the mission site. The natives help build a church. It floods. There’s an earthquake or a fire. The soldiers molest the natives. There’s an uprising. Spain hands the missions over to Mexico, who doesn’t want the bother. The missions are sold, then mistreated, then almost destroyed. Rinse, repeat. There’s really little point in reading the whole book cover to cover, as I did, because the story is the same every time.

I would have liked to know more about the native tribes and what they lost. I would have liked to know more about daily life in the missions. I would have liked to know more about those mission churchyards and who is buried there. Who marked their graves and why? How many forgotten Native Americans lie there and what’s been done to perpetuate their memory?

There’s still room for a definitive guide.

I bought my copy at one of the bookstores in San Francisco — probably Green Apple — but if you’re out of town, it’s also available on Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Traveling through Movies

St. Louis #1, New Orleans

St. Louis #1, New Orleans

I’m working hard to promote The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, a collection of ghost-hunting reports and short stories which I edited, with a series of interviews on my other blog. Unfortunately, that means that Cemetery Travel hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves.

While I haven’t been getting out physically to visit cemeteries, it doesn’t meant that I’ve stopped obsessing about them. In fact, my husband and I were watching a movie last night when the action suddenly raced through a graveyard. If it had been possible, I would’ve slowed the movie down to a frame at a time so I could really absorb what I was seeing. The plot would have had to wait for me to glut my eyes.

The cemetery feature I was enjoying? It’s called The Naked City, the 1948 noir that gave us the line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” You may have even watched the movie without noticing the cemetery scene at all, since it’s just a backdrop for the murderer to flee the police. I turned to my husband and said, “I think that’s the Marble Cemetery.”

We’d stood outside its locked gate last summer while I pined to get in.

It’s got me thinking about other cemeteries that show up in movies. One of the first I saw was Holy Cross–in Colma, California–in this great scene from Harold and Maude:

And there’s the acid trip scene in Easy Rider, which was filmed in St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans. I won’t link to that here, since I can’t find a clip that shows much of the cemetery, but it’s in the movie, if you care to go looking for it.

One of my favorite cemetery scenes that’s actually integral to the movie’s plot is in the scene in the churchyard of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak to a prop headstone, but while most people are watching the story unfold, I’m always admiring the old rosebushes and the lovely old gravestones and the imitation Grotto of Lourdes that has since been removed. You can catch a glimpse of the graveyard in the trailer:

Think about it: how many cemetery scenes can you name in movies?  When you saw it, were you paying attention to the plot–or were you, like me, trying to read the headstones?

Edited to add:

I’ve been doing more research about the cemetery in The Naked City.  The best I can figure out is that it isn’t really a cemetery at all.  Take a look at a still from the film:

naked_tombstonesNot only are the tombstones very close together, but there’s no visible text on any of them.  I think this isn’t a graveyard at all but a tombstone showroom.  That’s sort of borne out here.

Still, my point remains:  I obsess over graveyards in movies.


Cemetery of the Week #13: Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Cemetery of Misión San Francisco de Asis
3321 Sixteenth Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Telephone: (415) 621-8203
Established: 1776
Size: less than 1 acre
Oldest marked grave: Don Luis Antonio Arguello, d. 1830
Approximate number of interments: 10,000, including 5,187 First Californians, 150 Mexicans, and various parishioners. Original burials had wooden markers. When they decayed, the graves were reused. About 200 tombstones remain, most of them post-Gold Rush.
Open: Daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. November 1 to April 30 9-4; May 1 to October 31 9-4:30.
Admission: Adult $5, Students and Senior Citizens $3

The Misión San Francisco De Asis was the sixth of the mission parishes founded by Spain in its attempt to colonize California. On June 29, 1776, five days before the Declaration of Independence was autographed a continent away, Father Francisco Palou performed the first mass at a makeshift altar, consecrating the land to the saint who founded the Franciscan Order of poor monks. When the city eventually became known as San Francisco, the Mission came to be called Mission Dolores, because it had been established near a small stream named for Our Lady of Sorrows.

Mission Dolores is the oldest intact building in San Francisco. Buried beneath its floor are several of San Francisco’s founding fathers, including Lt. Jose Joaquin Moraga, leader of the June 1776 expedition, and William Leisdesdorff, a pioneer who became America’s first African-America millionaire.

The mission fathers’ goal was to convert the native Miwok and Ohlone peoples. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Mission Dolores had one of the highest death rates of Spain’s 21 missions in California. Thousands of Indians of bay tribes are buried in the vicinity. Nearly all of them died of European diseases, or overwork, or of the destruction of their culture.” Bret Harte’s California reports that the first interment in the mission graveyard took place as early as 1776.

Many of these First Californians were buried under wooden markers, which have not survived the years. They are commemorated by a diminutive statue of Kateri Tekawitha, Our Lady of the Mohawks, which is dedicated “In prayerful memory of our faithful Indians.” Kateri is the first Native American who was beatified, the first step toward becoming a saint.

History lies all around in this pretty little graveyard. Buried here are Don Luis Antonio Arguello, first governor of Alta California under the Mexican government before the U.S. took control of the area in 1846; Don Francisco de Haro, the first Alcalde (mayor) of San Francisco; three victims of the Vigilance Committee: Charles Cora, James P. Casey, and James “Yankee” Sullivan; as well as the namesakes of the neighboring streets: Noe, Sanchez, Guerrero, and Bernal.

Roses, ranging from blush pink to frothy yellow, cluster around the statue of Father Junipero Serra sculpted. Father Serra founded nine of the California missions, but not this one. He is buried at the mission in Carmel. Father Palou, who preached here, is remembered with a plaque of the Mission’s wall: “Zealous missionary; able administrator; successful pioneer; chosen companion of Junípero Serra. First historian of California.” He is buried in Mexico City.

The cemetery has seen several major changes over the years. A photograph in the Mission’s museum shows the cemetery stuffed with graves, most of which are gone now. The city closed the cemetery to new burials in the 1890s; many families moved their loved ones to other Catholic cemeteries in the area.

At one point, the cemetery had a large duplicate of the Grotto of Lourdes. It features in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when Kim Novak visits the (fictional) grave of Carlotta Valdez. You can glimpse it in the 1958 movie trailer.

Stephen Marcus Landscape Company oversaw the last overhaul of the Mission graveyard in 1994. They summed up their aim in rehabilitating the cemetery-garden: ”to retain its eloquence of the past while adding new plantings that would provide beauty and seasonal interest, be drought tolerant and low maintenance, and incorporate as many native species (especially those used by the Indians) as possible.” Currently, a large tule reed house shows how the local natives lived.

A self-guided tour of the old Mission, the post-1906 Basilica, the little museum, and the cemetery is available from the gift shop. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children.
Docent tours are available by reservation for groups of ten or more. A deposit is required. Contact the curator at (415) 621-8203.

Useful Links:

Official Mission Dolores website

Encyclopedia of San Francisco entry on the Mission

Archeology at the California Missions

Historical articles about the Mission graveyard

Shrine of Kateri Tekawitha

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Mission Dolores Cemetery:

Permanent Californians

American Resting Place