Where The Bodies Are Buried: San Francisco’s Former Cemeteries

Updated: Jun 22, 2023 15:57

It has been over 100 years since anyone was buried in San Francisco. In 1902, it became illegal to bury new bodies in the city, and by 1921, bodies were being moved to new land in Colma. By 1941 nearly all the cemeteries were gone, and largely forgotten.

The Wave Organ in the Marina, at the end of the breakwater behind the St. Francis Yacht Club. Photo: Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Aquatic Park carefully constructed swimming zone is protected from the rough waters of the bay by a built-in breakwater made up from pieces of stone collected from the cemeteries that were being moved out of the city. This was around 1936 and may possibly be considered the first sign of gentrification. Land hungry developers were ready to evict the dead- miners and immigrants would end up in mass graves in Colma while their tombstones ended up in the city’s rubble pile for future building projects.

Buena Vista Park gutter paved with marble headstones from old cemeteries.  Photo: Chris Carlsson via FoundSF.

These unclaimed tombstones are now at the Marina District, as a path liner in Buena Vista Park, and at Aquatic Park where the distinctive stones can be easily seen at low tide. These stones were also used to make one of my personal favorite spots in the city, the soothing Wave Organ near the St. Francis Yacht Club. The wave organ has been a place of retreat for me for many years. Finding out that it’s made out of lost tombstones confirms why I always feel safe and comforted when I am there. #ghoul4ghoul

Now, these precious remnants from tombstones of the past aren’t the only lingering pieces of San Francisco’s cemeteries. Not far from the Aquatic Park sits the Lincoln Park Golf Course. Acres of lush greenery, zooming golf carts on a neatly cemented path leading visitors to the stunning Legion of Honor Museum, all the while never knowing what, or rather who lies below them. In the late 1800’s this gigantic chunk of land was home to roughly 29,000 graves, and previously known as the Golden Gate Cemetery. As with other cemeteries in the city, graves were eventually uprooted and moved out to Colma, yet some were unfortunately left behind. Daily Alta California reported:

“As the district known as Richmond is fast becoming settled and the close proximity of the cemeteries is becoming undesirable and obnoxious, a proper regard for public health should prohibit all future burials in these cemeteries. Burial-grounds should hereafter be located outside the city and county. The City Cemetery should also be discontinued (“The Grand Jury,” Daily Alta California, December 18, 1890, 6:3).”