COLMA, Calif. — While the Super Bowl will be played at Levi’s Stadium, and thousands of news media members who descended on the Bay Area this week were based at the Moscone Center, Levi Strauss lay inside a marble crypt in one of this tiny town’s 17 cemeteries, and George Moscone lay under the grass in another.
In a broad valley devoted largely to the dead, the history museum in Colma – nicknamed “The City of Souls” — sells T-shirts that read, “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma!”
It is a town of 1,600 living residents and about 1.5 million dead ones — many of whom, like the 49ers, uprooted and left San Francisco for greener pastures to the south.
The road to Sunday’s Super Bowl stretches about 50 miles, from San Francisco, the epicenter of festivities this week, to Santa Clara, site of the actual game. The corridor, mostly along Highway 101, is a time capsule of the Bay Area’s history and its quirks — and a modern-day testament to its traffic problems.
It includes San Francisco International Airport and the Googleplex, Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. It includes the Cow Palace and Stanford University. And it includes the Hewlett-Packard Garage in Palo Alto and the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia.
But nowhere along the way may be quirkier, or filled with more history, than Colma, a quiet town of roughly two square miles covered mostly in graves. More necropolis than metropolis, the town’s worst traffic jams are caused by funeral processions; Colma residents receive warnings, by automated phone blast, whenever a big procession is expected, whether for San Francisco firefighters or an area Hell’s Angel.
Colma exists mostly because, like so many present-day workers in San Francisco, the deceased could no longer afford to live in the city.
San Francisco banned burials in the city in 1900 because the cemeteries were out of room, considered a health hazard and — more than anything — sat on prime real estate. In 1912, San Francisco announced that it would do more than ban burials. It would kick out the dead.
In the end, more than 150,000 bodies were moved from San Francisco to Colma, where farmland was turned to graveyards, the fertile soil now mostly covered in green, carpetlike grass. The number of people who die in San Francisco and spend eternity in Colma grows every day.
“All the cemeteries you go through here, they’re a history of San Francisco and of California,” said Richard Rochetta, a Colma Historical Society board member whose father emigrated from Italy and spent 30 years as a caretaker at Olivet Memorial Park.
In Colma, there are governors, mayors and senators. There are tycoons, archbishops and Civil War generals. There are architects, activists and artists. There are men once known as the Rice King, Cattle King, Fish King, Beef King and Potato King. There are Alcatraz inmates, city socialites and Phineas Gage, who was cutting a railroad bed in 1848 and somehow survived when explosive powder detonated and a 43-inch tamping iron was sent through his cheek, brain and skull before landing dozens of feet away. (His body is in Colma; his head and tamping iron are at Harvard Medical School.)
Levi Strauss is at Home of Peace, next to Hills of Eternity, where Wyatt Earp can be found. Joe DiMaggio is at Holy Cross, where his dark marble headstone this week propped up a couple of bats and two baseballs left there by fans.
A few feet behind DiMaggio is a crypt for Michael Henry de Young, founder of The San Francisco Chronicle, and whose family name adorns the city’s major art museum.
Near the entrance to Holy Cross is a slate-black rectangular stone for Edmund Brown, the former California governor and father of the current one. Near the back is a small pink stone nestled in the grass for Moscone (“We love you Dad”), the San Francisco mayor assassinated along with the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in 1978.
Next door, at Cypress Lawn, is a Greek-inspired marble tomb surrounded by 16 Ionic columns. It has no name on it, but houses William Randolph Hearst, his parents (who built it) and other family members.
Not far away, past the angel of grief embracing the grave for Jennie Roosevelt Pool (a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt) is the baseball player and manager Lefty O’Doul. His marker lists his batting average and says, “He was here at a good time and had a good time while he was here.”
Steve Silver, creator of the long-running San Francisco production, “Beach Blanket Babylon” — which the media center at the Moscone Center has a large display of this week — lays nearby.
History, though, rests largely with thousands of the earliest San Francisco residents, buried in unmarked graves. When San Francisco flourished following the arrival of the 49ers (the gold-seekers of the 1800s, not the football team of today), the city had four major cemeteries near what is now the University of San Francisco.
Those four cemeteries — Calvary, Laurel Hill, Masonic and Odd Fellows — were a mess by the late 1800s, untended and scavenged. They were also full, and the city was still growing. The land was too valuable for the dead.
(There are two cemeteries remaining in San Francisco: the Golden Gate National Cemetery for veterans at the Presidio, and a small one at Mission Dolores.)
“The cemeteries had all fallen into disrepair, essentially because they relied on new plots to make money for their upkeep,” said Maureen O’Connor, president of the Colma Historical Association.
San Francisco cemeteries bought land south of the city and established new ones. From about 1920 to 1941, the big four cemeteries moved roughly 150,000 bodies. Graves and markers of the deceased whose families paid to have them moved (generally $10) were replanted 15 miles south, sometimes after a solemn procession.
But most of the dead were dug up, moved and reburied in mass graves. Many grave markers, with etched names and dates, never left San Francisco. They were used to build drain gutters at Buena Vista Park and to bolster the breakwater near St. Francis Yacht Club. Some are occasionally spotted at low tide in the sand along Ocean Beach.
A monument at Holy Cross in Colma today reads: “Interred here are the remains of 39,307 Catholics moved from Mt. Calvary Cemetery in 1940 and 1941 by order of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Rest in God’s Loving Care.”
A similar mass grave marked by an obelisk at Cypress Lawn, with the remains of an estimated 35,000 former San Franciscans, is said to include the headless body of Gage; Senator David Broderick, killed in an 1859 duel with Chief Justice David S. Terry of the California Supreme Court; and Andrew Smith Hallidie, considered the inventor of the San Francisco cable-car system.
By 1924, Colma was incorporated (first as Lawndale, reverting to Colma in 1941), and it has never had more living residents than dead ones.
Always a place friendly to florists and monument makers, and a bar called Molloy’s that dates to 1883, Colma began attracting car dealerships and strip malls on its western edge, near Interstate 280, in the 1970s. The train line that once carried dead bodies to Colma is now the BART line that carries living residents to neighboring cities on the Peninsula.
Boosted by a commercial sales tax (but not from the cemeteries, which are nonprofit), Colma is a neat and tidy town, with three small neighborhoods and 17 sprawling, manicured cemeteries, including one for pets. Residents know that it is the dead that sets Colma apart from its suburban neighbors.
“We are the city of souls, but we are really protecting the cemeteries,” said Helen Fisicaro, Colma’s vice mayor. “There is an emotional attachment to them.”
There are no known famous football players interred in Colma. And despite famous residents such as Levi Strauss and George Moscone, Colma really has little to do with Sunday’s Super Bowl.
But it is it on the road to it, for those able to pass through without stopping forever.
An earlier version of this article misstated the substance that exploded and caused a head injury to Phineas Gage in 1848. It was black powder, not dynamite, which was not yet invented.