So much history was undocumented during America’s expansion into the West that sometimes all we have to study is what—or who—was left behind. In the case of San Francisco and other northern California cities, the gold rush brought debauchery and chaos along with an influx of new citizens.
That’s partially why Colma, a city just outside San Francisco, took on so many of the area’s dead. Locals often say “it’s great to be alive in Colma,” because there are actually more dead citizens there than live ones.
But the history behind how Colma came to have so many graves is just as creepy as it is fascinating.
The city motto of Colma, California is “It’s great to be alive in Colma.” And that it is! Adjacent to San Francisco, this city is home to more dead citizens than live ones. Affectionately called “The City of the Silent,” Colma is home to 17 cemeteries.
Colma’s live citizens number 1,700—a stark contrast to the 1.5 million “underground residents” of its many cemeteries. Most people who live in the city refer to these cemeteries as Colma’s “parks.” But where did all those dead people come from?
At the turn of the 20th century, miners flooded the San Francisco area looking for their slice of the gold rush. Naturally, they brought with them a plethora of new diseases, and new ways for people to die.
San Francisco’s 27 cemeteries were overflowing to the point that the city released an ordinance forbidding the construction of any more. The conditions in the existing cemeteries were so bad, bodies were actually exhumed and moved to Colma.
The exhumation of San Francisco graves wasn’t finished until the late 1940s. Graves could only be moved to an individual site if the deceased’s family paid for it. Otherwise, bodies were moved to mass unmarked graves.
The process of moving bodies from San Francisco to Colma was an ugly one with homeless people taking up residence in open graves, stray dogs chewing on human bones, and plots plundered for anything of value inside.
Since then, about 75 new bodies have been buried in Colma daily. Many famous people were interred throughout the city’s cemeteries, including the great baseball player Joe DiMaggio and legendary cowboy Wyatt Earp.
Unfortunately, not all of the exhumations were accounted for when San Francisco’s bodies were originally moved. In 1993, construction on the Legion of Honor Museum revealed the graves of about 700 additional bodies from what used to be the City Cemetery. The burials were estimated to have taken place between 1868 and 1906.
The city of Colma and its relationship to San Francisco’s dead is fascinating… and creepy. It seems there’s and endless amount of silent history within the cemeteries of Colma. Take a tour of this eerie town below…
Colma is a relic of America’s ghostly history. Its growing number of buried bodies is a unique testament to the expansion of the great American West—in all its unexpected trials.
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