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California’s Mysterious City of the Dead

The one thing none of us can escape in life is the inevitability of death. It comes for us all, and there will be a time when we occupy a grave rather than a home, an unsettling thought indeed. For the most part, these tombs, graves, and places of the dead remain out of sight in secluded graveyards and cemeteries out on the fringes of society where they can let these lost souls rest in peace. Yet, there are some places where the dead seem to take center stage, and one is a town in California where corpses far outnumber the living. This is the city of the dead.

The story of this unusual town of the dead begins in the city of San Francisco, California back in the 1900s. It was a time of great growth for the city, which had started as a small Spanish mission town but saw the population surging increasingly steadily in the days of the Gold Rush of 1848, with the the small town soon blooming, its population doubling and tripling as more and more people made their way here looking for riches. Considering its location on a peninsula, there was not really anywhere for all of this development and the influx of people to go, and land became a scarce, luxury item. Then came a series of tragedies that hit the city in quick succession.

Colma, California

In 1900 the city was devastated by the Bubonic plague, followed by the Great Earthquake of 1906 and its resulting fires, which wiped out most of the city and killed scores pf people. With so many people dead in such a small area, and growth amazingly still continuing unabated, the decision was made to stop using the limited available land for cemeteries. Not only were there just too many bodies piling up, but the land that already harbored bodies was looking more and more desirable as real estate, and so city officials got to thinking about how to solve their land and dead body situations in one fell swoop. In 1912 the solution was found at a sparsely populated scrub ridden patch of land to the south of the city called Cow Hollow.

At the time, the area only had a few hundred residents, and it was mostly open rural land, close enough to San Francisco to make it viable as a cemetery, yet far enough away that those dead bodies didn’t cause a fuss or spread any diseases. The city’s funeral parlors began buying up tracts of land at Cow Hollow for use as graveyards for its dead, and the area became designated as a necropolis. The city began digging up bodies in San Francisco and re-interring them at Cow Hollow en masse, with tens of thousands of bodies moved to the area in short order. Rather morbidly, many of these bodies were buried here in mass, unmarked graves or without headstones due to the families unable to pay for proper burials or to have the headstones relocated, and some of the bodies were never actually moved at all either due to oversight or carelessness. In some cases, these mass graves hold tens of thousands of bodies in a jumble of corpses, all because the families could not afford the $10 fee to have them put into a proper grave. One such mass grave contains the bodies of an estimated 55,000 Catholics, and another is known to hold around 30,000 forgotten souls. In the case of bodies left behind, right up into the present day construction projects in San Francisco often turn up bodies that were not successfully re-interred at the time, and it is unknown just how many corpses remain under the city from that tumultuous era.

Moving corpses

The number of cemeteries in Colma would grow until there were eventually 17 of them in this one little town, with most of the land devoted to harboring the dead. In the meantime, the town grew as more people came to work in the funerary and cemetery business, and in 1924 it was finally incorporated into San Mateo County as the city of Colma. However, the population of the dead greatly surpassed that of the living. While the permanent living population hovered at around 1,000, between the years of 1920 and 1941 it is estimated that around 150,000 corpses were buried at Colma, including numerous notable figures such as Wyatt Earp, jeans pioneer Levi Strauss, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, famous railroad-accident survivor Phineas Gage, world famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio, and many more. When World War II hit, the region grew exponentially, and so did the number of dead bodies at Colma, until there were over a million dead bodies here, outnumbering the living by 10 to 1, and earning it somber nicknames like “City of the Dead,” “City of Souls” and “City of the Silent.”

In modern times there are thought to be over 2 million people buried in this one small town and its 17 cemeteries, compared to its living population of around 1,700, the dead accounting for 78 % of the land area and 99.9% percent of the residents, and the city often uses the humorous motto, “It’s great to be alive in Colma.”  To this day it remains a curious place more known for its dead than the living, a true city of corpses, where nearly every road leads to a cemetery and where there are no doubt plenty of ghosts as well. The city of Colma remains a curious historical oddity and a truly unique location for those looking for a peek into macabre history.