A city’s grave history
The fact that 75 percent of Colma, Calif., is covered in tombstones and mausoleums does not seem to bother Councilmember Helen Fisicaro. While some may flinch at the landscape, Fisicaro, a 36-year resident, takes pride in protecting the cemeteries that were the reason for the town’s founding.
California’s gold brought thousands to the state in the mid-19th century, with many settling in San Francisco. The city’s 26 cemeteries were filled nearly to capacity by the late 1880s with those who had fallen to disease. But, because San Francisco was eager to use its land for new housing and businesses, officials passed an ordinance to cease further burials. Instead, Colma, located just 10 miles south of the thriving city, was chosen for any future interments because it could be easily accessed by horse and wagon, streetcar or train. “But, in 1912, the city went one step further and said, ‘We not only don’t want any more dead to be buried here, we don’t want the existing dead,” says Pat Hatfield, president of the Colma Historical Association. “It was horrific.”
That began a 30-year process of removing thousands of bodies that laid six feet under San Francisco and moving them to Colma. “By 1924, Colma cemetery owners said, ‘What happened in San Francisco could happen here again, so we need to protect these cemeteries,” Hatfield says. “So, they incorporated 2.2 square miles, which surrounded the 14 cemeteries, to protect the dead.”
Today, 17 cemeteries, including one for pets, are located near the city’s main road, El Camino Real. Although Colma’s 1,500 living residents are surrounded by thousands of dead ones in a variety of graveyards — including Catholic, Japanese, Italian, Jewish and Greek burial grounds — the atmosphere is anything but somber and morbid. For Colma, the cemeteries are recreational areas for families to enjoy as any typical city park. “They were made that way because they didn’t want them to ever come to be where they weren’t taken care of. They wanted to keep them in [pristine] condition,” Hatfield says. “We have picnics in them, we bicycle ride in them, and our children even play in them. We don’t consider them as sacred ground that you only go into to visit a loved one. These are really our parks.”
The Historical Association entertains its share of curious visitors eager to view the burial sites of world-renowned figures. Baseball bats and balls are often placed on baseball legend Joe DiMaggio’s grave. Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst and government officials integral to Colma also are buried there.
For local officials, the challenge remains how to accommodate future growth with limited space in the 2.2-square-mile town. Colma’s population has increased 25 percent in recent years, with most residential areas located outside of the cemeteries’ zoned areas. “We have to challenge the agencies that say, ‘You need to build [a certain] amount of affordable housing,’” Fisicaro says. “Well, where are you going to put it? On top of the grave sites?”
Colma officials solemnly vow to protect the town’s residents — living and dead. They even worked with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, which expanded to the city several years ago, to establish an underground train line that would not disturb the grave sites. “We’re the city of souls,” Fisicaro says. “We’re the keeper.”