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.

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