Friday, October 31, 2008

Colma, California: Dying to Go There

Colma, a town in San Mateo County, California, just a few miles south of San Francisco, takes pride in the fact that it's mostly dead. And yet, folks are still dying to go there! That's right; it's no insult here to comment that the place seems to have little life about it.

Colma, you see, is a necropolis: almost 75% of the land in the town consists of cemeteries. There are more dead people in Colma than the 1,300 living ones.

Colma became a burial ground when San Francisco began to run out of land for just about anything, let alone cemeteries. By 1900, San Francisco faced potential health hazards from its lack of burial space. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors prohibited any more burials in the city. Within a dozen years, Colma, conveniently located on a rail line from downtown San Francisco, had a dozen cemeteries.

Then San Francisco took a more drastic step: all existing cemeteries were evicted from the city and thousands of bodies had to be removed. Colma was the place to take them.

Colma now has 17 cemeteries for humans and one for pets. Nearly everyone who dies in San Francisco is buried in Colma.

Satellite view of a part of Colma, California, with Holy Cross cemetery as focal point
(click to enlarge image)

From Google Maps

The town does have enterprises other than graveyards. There is an auto mall and two large shopping centers.

Many of Colma's cemeteries have monuments of historical significance and many famous folks are buried there. Among the celebrity dead in Colma are Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and William Randolph Hearst.

The oldest and largest cemetery in Colma is Holy Cross Cemetery, owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. It opened in 1887, long before San Francisco forced other cemeteries out of town.

The one pet cemetery, Pet's Rest, opened in 1947. Earl Taylor, a worker at Colma's Cypress Lawn cemetery, started Pet's Rest after hearing numerous people ask to bury pets with their loved ones in the other cemeteries.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The National Cemeteries

Adapted from a post that originally appeared at GeneaBlogie on May 26, 2008

Like many folks, The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit has many relatives buried in national cemeteries. A few months ago, someone asked The PGR about the history of the national cemeteries.

In 1864, Congress passed a bill that authorized the President to acquire lands for national cemeteries. The Government established fourteen national cemeteries in the first year of authorization. In 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs opened the 141st national cemetery, the South Florida National Cemetery at Lake Worth, Florida.

The 141 national cemeteries have more than 3 million graves, with the potential to grow to 5 million. This is important because today there are more than 24 million veterans eligible for burial in national cemeteries. VA says that historically about 12% of veterans choose a national cemetery.
Left: The nation's busiest National Cemetery at Calverton, New York

The term "national cemetery" refers to lands under the jurisdiction of three different departments. Most (125) of the national cemeteries are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration. Fourteen are operated by the Department of the Interior's National Park Service. These are cemeteries that are associated with national historic battlefield sites like Gettysburg, with one exception being the national cemetery at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Tennessee. Except for the Andrew Johnson cemetery and the national cemetery at Andersonville, Georgia, all of the National Park Service-run cemeteries are closed to new burials.

Two of the national cemeteries are controlled by the Department of Defense through the Army. These are Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps the most well-known and most visited of the national cemeteries, and the cemetery at the Armed Forces Retirement Home (formerly the Soldiers and Sailors Home) in Washington, D.C.

A view of the National Cemetery maintained by the National Park Service at Andersonville, Georgia

In honoring our fallen troops, we should not forget that some are interred overseas. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 cemeteries in foreign countries which contain the graves of 125,000 Americans.

Genealogy Research Tip: The VA National Cemetery Administration has a nationwide grave locator to find graves of veterans. This contains the names of almost all the veterans buried in VA and National Park Service national cemeteries. In addition, it also has the names of veterans buried in non-government cemeteries for graves marked with a VA-provided marker. One thing not to overlook is that spouses, minor children, and unmarried disabled adult children of eligible veterans can also be interred in national cemeteries, even before the death of the veteran. (I reference, for example, the heart-breaking case of my cousin-by-marriage who has had the misfortune of having outlived two wives, both of whom lie waiting for him in repose at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St Louis). The Park Service is planning to put Civil War veterans grave locations in its excellent Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database. The American Battle Monuments Commission also has a searchable database.

If there is a national cemetery in your area, please pay a visit one day soon to give your respects to those who have given service to the nation.

Right: The American Battle Monuments Commission's American Cemetery and Memorial at Ardennes, Belgium, contains graves of 5,329 U.S. military dead.

Photo Credits: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration; U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service; American Battle Monuments Commission (an agency of the U.S. Government).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Uncle Monroe's Messy Memorial

Originally Published in GeneaBlogie, July 16, 2006

I was surprised to learn two summers ago that my father's great uncle Monroe Bryant (September 8, 1900 -- December 3, 1953) is buried in Sacramento, just about 5 miles away from the Bloggcast Center. He was buried on December 17, 1953, in East Lawn Memorial Park in the well-to-do neighborhood of East Sacramento. East Lawn is Sacramento's oldest and most "prestigious" cemetery. Many members of "old money" families are buried there.

Monroe Bryant was 53 years old when he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He had been born in Rockport, Texas, and had spent a great portion of his life wandering the country. Apparently, he left most places just one step ahead of the sheriff.

Since it was so close I decided to visit Monroe Bryant's grave. It was 104° outside, but East Lawn's self-description sounded perfect:
Described as a "peaceful oasis in the heart of the city", East Lawn Memorial Park offers over 40 acres of serenity and solitude away from the hectic city pace, just minutes from the freeway. Lush greenery, mature trees (many hundreds of years old) and timeless architectuure define the beauty of the park, which has become a community landmark for those in the area.

However, as can be seen, Monroe Bryant didn't get the true East Lawn experience. This was a shocking and disappointing moment for me. On the other hand I'm not sure what I expected: Monroe Bryant was an alcoholic drifter.
Monroe Bryant's unmarked grave in Sacramento, California.

It is saddening, however, to find a relative's final resting place in such unsatisfactory condition. This grave is located in section S, Row 14, plot 82. It's in the "non-endovved" area of the cemetery. Apparently, there are plans to upgrade this section. In the meantime, however, I'll be working on getting marker for Monroe Bryant's grave.

The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit

Welcome! The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit is a GeneaBlogie web publication and published in cooperation with The Association of Graveyard Rabbits. The irrepressible Terry Thornton, publisher of The Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi, and the indefatigable footnoteMaven (publisher of The footnoteMaven and Shades of the Departed as well as several others) founded the Association and it's grown by leaps and bounds in a matter of weeks. The Association is an organization of bloggers writing exclusively about graveyards, memorial markers, and the like.

Many of the Graveyard Rabbits focus on specific regions of the country. The Peripatetic Graveyard Rabbit will bring you information about cemeteries from all around the country (and even overseas). There will also be the occasional article about the law relevant to cemeteries and burial grounds.

We'll be here several times a month and we hope you'll join us as well as the other Rabbits for a close look at matters of grave concern.