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Colma, California - City of the Dead

Updated on October 3, 2013

Colma, California - Where the Dead Outnumber the Living

With a population of about 1,500 above ground and over 1.5 million underground, Colma, California, just south of San Francisco, became known as "The City of the Dead" or "City of the Souls." It's where deceased residents of San Francisco were relocated at the turn of the century, and where many of today's San Franciscans plan on retiring permanently.

The Necropolis of Colma, California

The Necropolis of Colma, California
The Necropolis of Colma, California

San Francisco's Problem - Too Much Dead Space

The dead needed to move to make room for the living. . .and the speculators.

San Francisco politicians at the turn of the century mounted a campaign to move the cemeteries out of the city by promoting information that cemeteries spread disease. The more compelling reason was that they wanted to free up valuable San Francisco real estate. San Francisco was already densely developed. The non-rent-paying dead could rest somewhere else.

In 1900 San Francisco passed an ordinance that no more burials were to be allowed, and in 1914 eviction notices were sent for all cemeteries to remove their dead and their monuments. Many years earlier the Catholic Church established their Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, just south of San Francisco, making Colma the most likely destination for the now homeless dead.

"It's Great to be Alive in Colma!"

Little City of 2.2 Square Miles Home to 17 Cemeteries

Officially established as a necropolis with an area of only 2.2 square miles, Colma holds some kind of record with 17 cemeteries, which include memorial parks specific to: Catholics, Jews, Italians, Greek Orthodox, Serbs, Japanese and even pets.

Some famous names can be found among the sleeping residents of Colma, like: William Randolf Hearst, Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, Lefty O'Doul, and many other notable industrialists, politicians and business magnates.

In spite of its density of memorial parks, Colma, with its population of about 1,500 living people, also boasts car dealerships, shopping centers and two Home Depots. Residents of Colma are proud of their little city and proclaim their motto: "It's Great to be Alive in Colma!"

Colma Cemetery

Colma Cemetery
Colma Cemetery

My Interest in the Cemeteries of Colma, California

My genealogy research leads me to "The City of the Dead."

My great great grandmother, Agnes Woods Doxey, along with a daughter and son, were buried somewhere in the middle of San Francisco and later relocated to Colma. In the process of relocation, headstones were lost. We were finally able to locate the graves of two of them, close together, with only tiny porcelain number markers to connect them to records in the cemetery office. In addition, several other ancestors were located in the same cemetery far on the other side, with gravestones intact, as they died later and were buried there directly.

Colma is a beautiful place to visit whether you have kindred there or not. Many names are recognizable from early history. The structures are amazing. It's great to be alive in Colma, but the dead have it pretty good, too.

Colma, a Tiny Documentary

Colma, California

This piece from Colma, the Musical, is a great overview of the city.

Colma: The Musical (2006) - Who knew? There's a musical about Colma!?

I had no idea.

Colma: The Musical [DVD]
Colma: The Musical [DVD]

[By The Bookenator] I enjoyed this film. Anyone who grew up in an irrelevant place can relate to the characters. They know they live outside the main action happening elsewhere. The film explores the sense of stagnation people feel when they're ready to move on, and also tackles the darker emotional issues that drives one character away from the friends he grew up with.

Nevertheless, the film tries to capture what beauty there is in this overlooked suburb. The shots of the cemetery, swirling fog and eucalyptus trees are lovely.

In the end, the case is made both for the friends who leave for better things, and for the perhaps even more courageous young woman who decides there's no place like home.

 

Foggy Mausoleum, Colma, California

Foggy Mausoleum, Colma, California
Foggy Mausoleum, Colma, California

Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries (People's History) (Library Binding)

Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries (People's History)
Rest in Peace: A History of American Cemeteries (People's History)

From unsanitary pits to today's "green" cemeteries, Rest in Peace explores the evolution of burial practices and how they reflect the history and culture of the United States. Interspersed with primary source quotations and fascinating photographs, the book offers an unusual window in to the expression of American cultural identity across the ages.

 

Colma, CA (Images of America) (Paperback)

Colma (CA) (Images of America)
Colma (CA) (Images of America)

The official slogan of this quaint and curious town proclaims, “It’s great to be alive in Colma!” In no other city in the United States would such a slogan have the meaning that it does here.

 

Where is Colma, California?

A marker1198 El Camino Real, Colma, CA -
1198 El Camino Real, Colma, CA
get directions

Colma Jobs (Just Kidding)

Colma Jobs (Just Kidding)
Colma Jobs (Just Kidding)

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds (Hardcover)

The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds
The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

To rescue the dead from oblivion, examine America's ethnic diversity and highlight shifts in cemetery mores over time, cultural historian Yalom (A History of the Breast) and her photographer son (Colonial Noir) traveled to more than 250 American cemeteries across the country.

 

Stories in Stone (Hardcover)

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography
Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography

Stories in Stone The Complete Illustrated Guide to Cemetery Symbolism .

 

Your Guide to Cemetery Research (Paperback)

Your Guide to Cemetery Research
Your Guide to Cemetery Research

Slogging through graveyards armed with a camera and notepad may sound morbid, but it is high adventure to most genealogists.

 

Where the Bodies Are: Final Visits to the Rich, Famous, & Interesting (Paperback)

Where the Bodies Are: Final Visits to the Rich, Famous, & Interesting
Where the Bodies Are: Final Visits to the Rich, Famous, & Interesting

Lives well-led are commemorated by gravesites, memories, and books like this. Where the Bodies Are takes the reader on a tour of the final addresses of the rich, famous, and interesting, revisiting their claims to fame with evocative, succinct biographies.

 

Cemeteries Gravemarkers (Paperback)

Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture
Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture

[Cemeteries and Gravemarkers] makes it clear that the dead have by no means exhausted their potential to enlighten--and, at times, chasten--the living.

 

Current Listings on eBay for Colma

Photos used with permission are credited in individual modules. Every other photo on this lens resides in original form in my personal collection.

Thanks for stopping by, and please come back again.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Nancy, this is an amazing story. I've never heard of a city evicting all its dead. The phrase "homeless dead" made me stop and think about the enormity of what those politicians did to grab more land. Thanks for sharing this story and your family's connection with it. JD

    • patinkc profile image

      patinkc 8 years ago from Midwest

      Very interesting lens! Nicely done.

    • stephenteacher profile image

      Stephen Carr 8 years ago from Corona, CA

      Nice lens! Good stuff, enjoyed the visit!

      Fun Facts about San Bernardino

      StephenC

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 8 years ago

      Great idea for a lens! I used to live in Daly City, so am familiar with Colma's odd claim to fame, but never thought to write a lens about it.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Interesting, very interesting. I remember seeing a documentary on this, and how they lost track of who was who. What a terrible thing for the families.

      As my mother says the people in their aren't going to do you any harm it's the ones walking around in the streets you have to worry about.

    • The Homeopath profile image

      The Homeopath 8 years ago

      This is really cool. I love cemetery history.

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 8 years ago from Massachusetts

      I've been to San Francisco so many times, but I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of this town! This is really interesting, I'll have to check it out on my next trip out there. Nice work!

      PS- Lensrolling to my California Road Trip lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I can't stand cemeteries! I couldn't even think of living in a place with so many. I'm glad you like it.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I can't stand cemeteries! I couldn't even think of living in a place with so many. I'm glad you like it.

    • Nancy S Oram profile image
      Author

      Nancy Oram 8 years ago

      [in reply to Rasalila] I don't live there, just did a lens on it since I have some ancestors buried there.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 8 years ago

      What a fascinating lens! I used to walk around cemeteries, but none this interesting.

      *****

    • Linda BookLady profile image

      Linda Jo Martin 8 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

      Fascinating lens... I was so shocked the first time I went there (on BART)... glad I didn't have to stay.

    • papawu profile image

      papawu 8 years ago

      Holy Moly! Macabre yet captivating. I am from California and can't figure out why I have never heard of this city. Heck, I have family and friends in the Bay area, and simply never knew. Great lens!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 8 years ago

      I've been to Colma and never knew it was called "the city of the dead" ....5*

    • CCGAL profile image

      CCGAL 8 years ago

      I had no idea! Wow. I love lenses like this that open my eyes to new thing and expand my horizons. You have done a remarkable job here - tough subject, but you've made it interesting and informative. Well done!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Congratulations on your 2008 Giant Squid Awards nomination and good luck! - Kathy aka "Pretty Bullet"

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 8 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Very interesting lens, especially with your family connection. Congratulations on your Giant Squid Awards nomination!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I lived in the Bay Area for several years and never knew this.

    • clouda9 lm profile image

      clouda9 lm 8 years ago

      Very interesting, I learned something new today...yippee! Congrats on your 2008 Giant Squid nomination...woot! (http://www.squidoo.com/2008-giant-squid-awards)

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 8 years ago

      I grew up in the Bay Area, but don't remember visiting Colma. You've made it a very interesting topic. Congratulations on your Giant Squid Awards nomination!

    • profile image

      Oosquid 8 years ago

      Wow, you've made a very interesting lens from a very unusual subject. enjoyed it, 5 stars.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      What a truly interesting lens, thank you! I always love to learn something new (and unusual) - Kathy

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      This is so interesting and I love the way you tied into your family research. Great work. Hey, I sure do miss seeing you around.

    • jp1978 profile image

      jp1978 6 years ago

      Morbid, but interesting.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Nice lens. I had never heard of this place.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Fascinating! I enjoy wandering around in historic cemeteries. One fact you gave that blows my mind is that not only so many cemeteries, but so many people fit into a 2.2-square-mile area. And two home depots! The Home Depot's I've seen, their parking lot alone is like a mile long! ;) Great lens - thanks for the interesting learning!

    • kateloving profile image

      Kate Loving Shenk 6 years ago from Lancaster PA

      Cemeteries are places with a rich history and also great places to do your genealogy research!

      ****Valentine Blessings**** today!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      This is so interesting to me! I enjoy walking thru very old graveyards to look at the stones and dates and what-ever thoughtful phrase is inscribed. Years later I also took up geneaology. It's such a rewarding and interesting task!

    • UKGhostwriter profile image

      UKGhostwriter 6 years ago

      How fascinating ...I need to go to Colma ...while I'm breathing!

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 6 years ago

      Very interesting.....my great grandmother was buried in a cemetary that at one time was left untended long enough for brush to grow thick and make it difficult to locate the 1870's era tombstones....which had toppled and sunk. We were able to locate it and repair the marker. The cemetary is now part of a State Park in Minnesota.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 6 years ago

      Fascinating! I'd love to visit this place sometime.. seems rather spooky!

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 6 years ago from Northern California

      I've probably driven by Coloma many, many times. Looks like it would be a great town to be taking pictures of headstones.

    • Lisa-Marie-Mary profile image

      Lisa-Marie-Mary 6 years ago

      Wow - what a cool place! I would love to live in a town like that!

    • profile image

      AdriennePetersen 6 years ago

      Very internesting lens, thank you!

    • Ronchen profile image

      Ronchen 6 years ago

      Interesting lens, I pass by there a lot

    • Chris-H LM profile image

      Chris-H LM 6 years ago

      Creepy, but interesting.

      Hu hu hu hu hu shiver!

    • akumar46 lm profile image

      akumar46 lm 5 years ago

      Very interesting story of Colma city.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 5 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      interesting...blessed.

    • orange3 lm profile image

      orange3 lm 5 years ago

      I lived in California for 11 years. There are so many great places to visit in such a large state. I didn't have a chance to visit to Colma. Seems like a very interesting place...maybe I'll get to visit one day.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 5 years ago from Southampton, UK

      This sounds like an amazing place. Who would have thought that greed could have created a place like this. Debbie and I visit old cemeteries sometimes, as we are both researching our family histories. A local one has many graves that are connected with the Titanic, which sailed from here, and subsequently most of the crew were from here. Excellent lens, blessed.

    • Mermaiden profile image

      Mermaiden 5 years ago

      wow this was fascinating. i really enjoyed learning about this unique little town. thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      indiavacationplans 5 years ago

      This is all so adventurous.

    • profile image

      CreativeArtDesigns 5 years ago

      It's a very interesting place to visit. Good read.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Colma really is an interesting place to visit with all of its different cemeteries.

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 5 years ago

      VERY Interesting Lens!

    • SpenceG profile image

      SpenceG 4 years ago

      Nice. I'd like to visit this place.

    • spikeyflower profile image

      spikeyflower 4 years ago

      Well I certainly learned something new.

    • profile image

      NC Shepherd 4 years ago

      Awesome, I need to check this out. It may be a setting for a future fiction book.

    • JenwithMisty profile image

      Jen withFlash 4 years ago

      Looks like a very interesting place! But I'm still trying to figure out why there's 2 Home Depots in 2.2 miles. lol Nice lens!

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      Amazing! I think it's possible to find a lens on every imaginable topic on Squidoo.

    • bushaex profile image

      Stephen Bush 4 years ago from Ohio

      SquidAngel blessings. When I lived in California, I was always amazed at the creativity in everything, but this takes that to a new level.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 4 years ago

      Thanks fr the info.... I lived 2 years in San Francisco, but I didn't know or visit Colma... great lens! Blessings!

    • profile image

      ScottMckinzie 4 years ago

      Very interesting, I have heard about this and thought it was a rumor. Thanks for sharing this info..:)

    • Mellithorpe profile image

      Mellithorpe 4 years ago

      Interesting lens. I started thinking about my family research that I haven't done for a while and started searching around for some information and found your lens. I've never heard of this place.

    • jlshernandez profile image

      jlshernandez 4 years ago

      My calico cat was cremated in a pet cemetary in Colma which is the only one that allowed witnessed cremation. I had never been to Colma until that day that I took my beloved cat. It is a very interesting city which deserves the name "City of the Dead."

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 3 years ago from So Cal

      I bow my head in shame. I am the California Dreamin' Contributor on Squidoo and have never heard of Colma. I must go there. I am also into family history but none of my family, other than my a small amount of family are buried in California. What an interesting story.

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