IN THE FIVE DIVISIONS OF THE WORLD I HAVE BEEN
(Inscription from the grave of Hugh Whittel at Cypress Lawn)
A group of twelve persons, mostly camera club members, came to see the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma on the beautiful morning of Saturday, November 13, 2004. It seems that once you pass through the big stone gateway to the old Cypress Lawn Cemetery it somehow sucks you in and holds you. That might have something to do with the spectacular landscaped vistas, the many roadways to stroll and the multitude of engaging funerary monuments. You simply get lost in a multitude of potential subjects.
As you make your way through the huge, old cemetery hundreds of stone and bronze figures compete for your attention—reaching out to you, gesturing to you with granite arms, their mute mouths open, but unable to call out to you. You see the many guardians of the tombs poised and vigilant before their masters’ plots: Egyptian and Greek sphinxes, the Chinese Foo dogs (male on the right holding down a ball, female on the left holding down a kitten), pairs of regal lions, the Archangel Michael with his broadsword and numerous bronze gatekeepers from the Design and Art Deco periods, gesturing you into eternity, but barring you from contact with the remains. Sometimes you see grief stricken Victorian figures still weeping a century later for their long-gone sponsors. (What does it mean when an angel weeps bitterly upon your death? Does she grieve for the loss of your soul to the “competition”—or is she distraught at your entry into her realm? Forgive me for being so presumptuous, but I suppose I’d like the angels to be cheering because I’m coming to join them!) Well, needless to say, the Victorians were an egocentric bunch, purchasing expensive stone mausoleums and statuary to insure that their names were enshrined. Nowadays most people get a stone tablet laid into the turf so the maintenance crews can quickly buzz over the grass with their lawnmowers. I must admit that I’d rather have a comely marble angel trumpeting my demise rather than a trifling red granite footnote set down into a lawn somewhere.
Colma is a place where you simply can’t deny our eventual fate. There are all sorts of death-related businesses within a few square miles—florists, stonecutters, mortuaries and 17 cemeteries dedicated to various ethnicities and religions. (There’s even a cemetery for your pets!)
Colma came into being because of various laws passed by the state of California and by the city and county of San Francisco. A state statute passed in the late 1800s prohibited burials anywhere except within a cemetery established by a municipality, county, church, ethnic organization or military reservation. In 1900 San Francisco passed an ordinance stating that no further burials were to be allowed within the city limits. (Land prices were soaring and developers even coveted the property of the dead!) In 1912 San Francisco ordered all bodies (save for those at the military cemetery at the Presidio and at Mission Dolores) to be disinterred and transferred to the newly established cemetery city of Colma. Litigation continued until the late 1930s and hundreds of thousands of bodies were transferred to Colma during those years. The end result was manifest on last Saturday’s field trip—graves almost as far as the eye could see. There are an estimated 1.5 million gravesites in the various cemeteries at Colma.
Most of our group dissipated and ranged through old Cypress Lawn, but some ventured into the other bone yards. Keith and Susan went to see Wyatt Earp over at the Hills of Eternity. Doug and I went to check out Pet’s Rest and read the odd inscriptions on the animal graves. Just up the street was a large, modern Chinese cemetery, Golden Hills Memorial Park. The graves appeared uniform and spotless and they rambled up the sweeping hillside—Chinese prefer to be buried on a hill. Graves in the Chinese cemetery are generally unadorned and usually have white or red name inscriptions on them. If the characters are painted white the person is dead and if the characters are painted red the person is still alive. Behind the back fence at Pet’s Rest I saw the Eastern Orthodox/Serbian cemetery. I chatted with one of the volunteer keepers of that cemetery and learned a few things. For instance, Eastern Orthodox graves generally are covered by stone slabs or by rocks or gravel so that you do not walk on the actual grave—it is considered disrespectful to the permanent residents. Some Orthodox graves have lanterns on them so relatives can light candles in their memory.
At Cypress Lawn I found a couple of the celebrity graves mentioned in various articles. Close to the north boundary I saw Steve Silver, of Beach Blanket Bingo fame and the smaller stone of Turk Murphy, San Francisco jazz bandleader. For future reference, I discovered that the grave of Emperor Norton I, San Francisco business tycoon and homeless eccentric, is in the Masonic Order’s Woodlawn Memorial Park.
While some of us were looking for celebrities, Dave was finding the resting places of his ancestors. He and Ann searched the catacombs across the street behind the mortuary at the modern Cypress Lawn Park.
Overall, in spite of the palpable sadness of death, the group photographed fervently in hopes of capturing a small sampling of the subject matter available to us. As far as I could determine everyone was very happy to be at this incredible repository of human remains. And I felt much better at having avoided the depression that usually stalks me when I shoot by myself at this fabulous cemetery. (The nice lunch we shared at Pasta Pomodoro also made this field trip to the “City of Souls” something to grin about.)
© 2004 S.R. Hinrichs