The Town Where the Dead Outnumber the Living

BrokenSphere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
BrokenSphere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0 / BrokenSphere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Visitors passing through Colma, California, may get an uneasy feeling if they pay attention to their surroundings. By way of scenery, the small town south of San Francisco offers 17 cluttered cemeteries. The total number of bodies interred there is estimated to be 1.5 million, which means Colma's dead population is nearly 900 times greater than its living population of 1700.

The town's morbid claim to fame is a result of laws passed in San Francisco in the early 1900s. At the turn of the 20th century, the city was struck by an epidemic of the bubonic plague. It was also in the middle of a gold and silver boom, and land within the city limits suddenly seemed too valuable to hand over to the dead. In an effort to conserve real estate—and out of growing concerns over the contagious nature of dead bodies—San Francisco outlawed burials in 1900.

This move, however, angered many residents. The city's west side was already home to four sprawling cemeteries, and locals considered them a nuisance. The burial ban also meant that less money was coming in to maintain the graveyards. The sites fell into disrepair and some troublemakers started treating them as their personal playgrounds. In 2017, San Mateo County historian Michael Svanevik told KQED about reports of people stealing skeletons to use as Halloween decorations and playing soccer with loose skulls.

Gravestone of Joe DiMaggio
Gravestone of Joe DiMaggio / Christopher Eugene LeeFollow, Flickr // Public Domain

San Francisco ultimately decided to solve its cemetery problem by moving the graves elsewhere. Between 1920 and 1941, more than 150,000 bodies—nearly all of the city's dead—were relocated to Colma, which at that point was mostly empty farmland. Close to a century later, many San Franciscans still end up in Colma after their passing.

Colma spans a mere 2.2 square miles, and almost 75 percent of it is zoned for cemeteries. Famous figures buried there include Wyatt Earp, Joe DiMaggio, William Randolph Hearst, and Levi Strauss. At Pet’s Rest Cemetery, the most famous grave belongs to Tina Turner's dog.

They may get less attention than their deceased neighbors, but the residents of Colma have a good sense of humor about where they live. The sign that welcomes visitors to the town is made of granite instead of metal, and graveyards there are officially known as "memorial parks." Perhaps the best summation of the town's attitude is its motto: “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma!”