The Modern Necropolis

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Avery Trufelman:
All right. Colma.

Roman Mars:
About 10 miles south of San Francisco, out toward the airport, there’s a town called Colma.

Avery Trufelman:
I have never been to Colma before, but it’s cool. You can take the train right here.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
Oh my God. Right beyond the train station are already these big, rolling green hills, peppered with tombstones.

Roman Mars:
73% of the land in Colma is covered with graveyards.

Avery Trufelman:
Oh, and there are just rows and rows of big gravestones that look like little houses.

Roman Mars:
There are 17 full-size cemeteries together in one town, 18 if you include the pet cemetery.

Avery Trufelman:
This is huge.

Roman Mars:
It is a city of the dead, what’s known as a necropolis.

Maureen O’Connor:
We claim to be the only necropolis, in the United States anyway, the only city that is primarily dedicated to cemeteries.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Maureen O’Connor, president of the Colma Historical Association.

Maureen O’Connor:
It doesn’t mean that there are a lot of cities that don’t have cemeteries within their boundaries, but nothing of the concentration that we have here.

Avery Trufelman:
And Colma truly looks like a sprawling city, a landscape of mausoleums and monuments and towers and tombstones that glint in the sun for as far as the eye can see. But it is eerily quiet. Here, the dead outnumber the living a thousand to one.

Maureen O’Connor:
We have 1,600 living citizens, and we have about 1.5 million residents who live underground or in mausoleums.

Avery Trufelman:
Maureen talks about her dead neighbors and her living neighbors with the same vocabulary, like when she referred to John Daley, the long-deceased dairy magnate.

Maureen O’Connor:
John Daly, for whom Daly City is named, one of our neighbors.

Avery Trufelman:
She has a lot of famous neighbors, like Joe DiMaggio and Levi Strauss of Levi Jeans, and Tina Turner’s dog is in the pet cemetery. They’re all around, and Maureen’s house is literally sandwiched between two different cemeteries.

Maureen O’Connor:
I live across from the Italian cemetery in the front of my house, and then the back of my backyard borders with the Japanese cemetery. And then I have two human neighbors on east and west.

Roman Mars:
The official town motto of Colma is, “It’s great to be alive in Colma.”

Maureen O’Connor:
It’s great to be alive in Colma.

Avery Trufelman:
Colma had many lives before it became the modern necropolis, before it was even called Colma. In the 1800s, it was a rich farmland, since it caught all the moisture off the bay, and most of the vegetables for San Francisco were grown there. At another point, it was known mostly for hog farming, and at another point, it was known for cultivating flowers.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, a few miles north in San Francisco proper, people were pouring in because of the gold rush. The population was booming, and so was the death rate.

Maureen O’Connor:
Well, certainly there was an enormous amount of death at that time, just because there were no antibiotics, people died of stuff that you wouldn’t even think of dying of now.

Avery Trufelman:
San Francisco’s cemeteries started to fill up, and starting in 1887, religious groups and organizations began, one by one, to buy a plots of land south of the city to create new burial grounds, which eventually covered over two square miles.

Maureen O’Connor:
In 1924, the cemeteries got together and they decided to incorporate.

Roman Mars:
Those 2.2 square miles officially became a town, a cemetery town, called Lawndale, which in 1941 would be renamed Colma.

Avery Trufelman:
And all of this was happening in the context of a much bigger change in American burial practices. For a long time, the dead used to be buried in little squares or churchyards on dusty plots in the middle of town. Graves were all around. It was no big deal.

Keith Eggener:
Municipal burying grounds were right downtown, and they were relatively small, crowded places with really nothing much by way of landscape design. They were just the land surrounding a church.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Keith Eggener, professor of architectural history at the University of Oregon. And in his book “Cemeteries”, he talks about how these tiny, plain graveyards were hubs of activity.

Keith Eggener:
You might find a plumber or a bricklayer or a carpenter seated at a cemetery waiting for someone to come along and employ them. Farmers would graze their cows in cemeteries because many people believed that the grass grown in churchyards or burial grounds was richer and made for sweeter milk. Prostitutes even would sometimes be found in burial grounds. So these were open, public spaces in towns and cities, many of which didn’t have much by way of alternative open, public spaces.

Avery Trufelman:
But by the 1820s and 30s, a couple things happened that changed how burials worked. Firstly, there’s a series of outbreaks of disease, and cities were hit with waves of typhoid and cholera and yellow fever, and it was just unsanitary to keep the deceased so close to the living.

Roman Mars:
Also, cities were growing, and downtown real estate was becoming more valuable.

Avery Trufelman:
Gradually, in the United States, the lands of the living in the land of the dead began to separate. Grave sites ended up far away from the city.

Roman Mars:
This model of a rural burial, separate from the city, took off in America in the 1830s when Mt. Auburn cemetery opened outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Keith Eggener:
Mount Auburn was what was called, and what is still called, a rural cemetery. What that meant was that it wasn’t smack dab in the center of a town.

Avery Trufelman:
Also, it was one of the first cemeteries to actually be called a cemetery at all.

Keith Eggener:
Previously, they’d been called burying grounds or burial grounds or churchyards. Cemetery was a Greek word meaning sleeping chamber.

Avery Trufelman:
And just that word, cemetery, is so romantic and euphemistic. Death had once been deeply enmeshed in everyday life. Americans had home funerals in their front parlors and encountered modest tombstones daily in their town squares. Mount Auburn made burial something removed from normal existence. Rural cemeteries were stately. They looked like they were a world apart.

Roman Mars:
Mount Auburn was, and still is, beautiful, with emerald, grassy hills and manicured hedges. There are statues of weeping angels and then Egyptian obelisks, all connected with winding walking paths.

Keith Eggener:
So it was a much more artful landscape modeled on the English garden tradition of picturesque landscapes, as opposed to just simply a flat piece of ground with a bunch of stones lined up within it.

Avery Trufelman:
This new style marked the beginning of the rural cemetery movement in America, and it would go on to influence the design of public spaces more broadly, because this was at a time when a lot of cities didn’t have public parks or botanical gardens or museums.

Keith Eggener:
These cemeteries then served as the model for some of our nation’s first public parks, such as Central Park in New York, which followed that picturesque garden approach that was first seen in our cemeteries. It was later picked up for college campuses, suburban subdivisions, and many other applications.

Roman Mars:
The cemeteries in Colma were directly inspired by the Mount Auburn model as well. They were places to go to have picnics and amble around and get away from the smog and soot of neighboring San Francisco.

Keith Eggener:
If the city of the living was designed for speed and efficiency and business, the city of the dead was instead understood as a kind of quiet, peaceful Arcadia, a kind of evocation of paradise or heaven on earth, where one would take one’s eternal reward.

Roman Mars:
Oh, and about that eternity thing, that’s very American.

Keith Eggener:
Americans have a rather distinct practice of holding to a burial in perpetuity. You don’t find burial in perpetuity in that many other places.

Avery Trufelman:
By burial in perpetuity, he means a plot of land that is yours forever and ever until the end of time, which is different than in, say Argentina or France or Italy or any number of other countries around the world, where families of the deceased typically lease a burial plot. It could be for five or ten years to a hundred years.

Keith Eggener:
And if the family doesn’t maintain that lease, then the remains are dug up or disinterred, and what is left is often burned. The family is given the ashes, and then the plots are used for new burials.

Avery Trufelman:
And this almost never happens in the United States. American cemeteries would rather double up on burials or do above-ground burials than dig up remains. That’s just taboo.

Roman Mars:
And that’s why it was so strange in the early 20th century, when almost all of San Francisco’s dead were dug up and evicted to make room for the living.

Avery Trufelman:
Which brings us back to the graveyards of Colma.

Maureen O’Connor:
What happened in 1900 was that the board of supervisors of the county of San Francisco decided that they did not want any expansion of the cemeteries that were already in San Francisco.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Maureen O’Connor again, of the Colma Historical Society.

Maureen O’Connor:
So the legislation was that there would be no new burials in San Francisco, and that went into effect in 1901. So no new burials.

Avery Trufelman:
And that meant the existing cemeteries didn’t have a reliable source of revenue. So the cemeteries fell into disrepair and became these tiny wastelands for vagabonds and ne’er-do-wells and grave robbers. And also they were gross.

Roman Mars:
So in 1914, another ordinance kicked them out.

Maureen O’Connor:
They passed legislation that said not only no new burials, but these cemeteries just look awful. They thought they were disease-ridden. So the city said the bodies have to be disinterred and moved.

Roman Mars:
From 1937 into the 1940s, most of the bodies from San Francisco were dug up and moved to Colma, roughly 150,000 bodies in total.

Avery Trufelman:
To move a body with the headstone cost the family $10, and if there was no money or no next of kin, the bodies were put into mass graves in Colma, but like respectful ones.

Maureen O’Connor:
Because when you think of mass grave, you often think of mass executions, and it was not that kind of process. It was a much gentler, respectful process.

Roman Mars:
The deceased in the mass graves were blessed and memorialized and accounted for in records.

Avery Trufelman:
And their headstones were reused as building material.

Maureen O’Connor:
Well, the mass grave headstones ended up along Ocean Beach. You’ll see a lot of headstones out there.

Avery Trufelman:
No way.

Maureen O’Connor:
Yes. They were used to keep from erosion.

Roman Mars:
And if you find yourself in Buena Vista park, in the heart of San Francisco, look at the paved stones lining the trails and the street gutters.

Maureen O’Connor:
And you’ll see that a lot of them are cemetery headstones.

Roman Mars:
These headstones, sometimes faded fragments of them, sometimes completely intact, are tucked all over the city, hiding in plain sight.

Avery Trufelman:
And they are the closest contact most San Franciscans have with cemeteries. There are only two graveyards left in the entire city. Death is a fact of life most urban dwellers don’t see and don’t think about. Whereas down in Colma, Maureen confronts her mortality every time she looks out her window.

Maureen O’Connor:
I look out on the cemeteries and I think, “These people are resting in peace,” and sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the things that I have to do, but the day that I wake up that I don’t have anything to do, I’m probably going to be moving into a cemetery.

Roman Mars:
Most people aren’t sandwiched between two cemeteries, and we don’t really think about the question of what will happen to our bodies after we die.

Maureen O’Connor:
I ask the question, and very often people are like a little taken aback, either they haven’t thought about it or they, “No, I haven’t made any plans.”

Avery Trufelman:
I certainly haven’t made plans, and chances are you haven’t either. I have no idea what will happen to my body after I die. And that’s kind of unusual in the course of history.

Keith Eggener:
It was indeed the case that yes, people largely knew where they were buried.

Avery Trufelman:
Professor Keith Eggener says that prior to the Civil War, Americans assumed they’d end up in their family plots or town churchyards, and that their parents and children would be buried there too.

Keith Eggener:
That is no longer the case. We move from job to job, from town to town. We frequently encourage our children to go out and explore the world, and we don’t really know where we’re going to be ending up.

Roman Mars:
Which is why today, many people have opted not to be buried at all.

Keith Eggener:
Cremation has become increasingly popular into our own time. And this brought with it a number of new building types, crematoria, but also the public mausoleums, where you have a small box containing an urn with ashes.

Avery Trufelman:
But with cremation, you don’t need a connection to one place. Ashes don’t have to stay displayed in a columbarium or a mausoleum. They can be scattered anywhere you’ve ever lived or wanted to live. If your family and friends live all over the world, they can each have a part of you. And there are these services that you can order where ashes can be compressed into a diamond and worn around someone’s neck or turned into a hand-blown glass paperweight.

Keith Eggener:
So there’s a kind of break, I think, ongoing over the course of the last hundred years or more, in which people were perhaps much more rooted to the land, both in life and especially in death, by virtue of burial and knowing where they were going to be buried than we are now.

Roman Mars:
San Francisco’s 19th century residents could never have guessed that they’d be evicted and relocated miles away from their hometown to a city of the dead, their headstones strewn about the parks and beaches of the city of the living.

Comments (8)

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  1. Ali

    Those interested in this subject should look up Bahrain. This small island in the Persian Gulf was once home to thousands of burial mounds. Quite a few are still visible today. They’re totally integrated in the urban fabric and are a normal sight for residents (including myself!).

  2. spotswood

    Americans are so egotistical. Do you really need to occupy a piece of land after you die?

  3. A random 13 year old

    It seems to me (I’m not an expert at all) that the fact we want our dead to be buried with headstones or have our ashes put somewhere meaningful stems from the idea we go somewhere when we die. The ancient Egyptians buried there dead with things to make them comfortable in the after life and it’s seems to me that kinda rolled over even in a world where the 3rd largest system of belief is atheism/agnosticism. Probably a study of it somewhere

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