Colma is a city of cemeteries − San Fran’s official cemetery, in fact − truly a city of the dead. Unlike New Orleans, Colma’s dead population outnumbers its living by a thousand to one! Within the town’s two square miles are 18 cemeteries − 17 for humans and one for pets. The city’s live population consists of about 1500 people (2010 census) while its dead number 1.5 million. Certain notables are buried here, including William Randolph Hearst, Wyatt Earp, Vince Guaraldi, and Joe DiMaggio. However, what really interested me in Colma was the Poole monument at Cypress Lawn Cemetery (Jennie Roosevelt Poole was a cousin of president Theodore Roosevelt.). This weeping angel (above) captured my interest ten years before when I first saw a photo of it in Doug Keister’s book, Going Out in Style. Its beauty enthralled me, and as I would be in the area, I had to see it in person.
Though I visited several cemeteries in Colma during my two-day stay, my sights were set primarily on the Poole monument. The statue itself did not disappoint, though it was difficult to photograph. This beautiful white marble sculpture is on a hill of sorts, and I could have used a stepladder to get a better angle. Also, the first day I was there, the weather was a bit dismal and there were sprinklers on near the statue! That’s a drawback with these lovely well-maintained garden cemeteries. The first day I also photographed in nearby Hoy Sun Ning Yung Cemetery and The Italian Cemetery. I planned my return the next morning in an attempt to photograph the Poole angel, sans sprinklers. (You don’t think Ansel Adams got that shot of Half Moon Dome on his first visit to Yosemite, do you?)
|Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Colma, CA|
|Holy Cross Angel|
And speaking of Twain, back in 1850 when he worked as a reporter for Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, he levied this strong opinion about San Francisco cemeteries:
"A prominent firm of undertakers here own largely in Lone Mountain Cemetery and also in the toll-road leading to it. Now if you or I owned that toll-road we would be satisfied with the revenue from a long funeral procession and would "throw in" the corpse--we would let him pass free of toll − we would wink placidly at the gate-keeper and say, "Nevermind this gentleman in the hearse − this fellow's a dead-head." But the firm I am speaking of never do that--if a corpse starts to Paradise or perdition by their road he has got to pay his toll or else switch off and take some other route. And it is rare to see the pride this firm take in the popularity and respectability of their cemetery, and the interest and even enthusiasm which they display in their business." − Mark Twain (www.notfrisco.com)
As a result of the Gold Rush of 1849, many saw California as the land of opportunity and flocked to Sacramento and San Francisco. By the late 1800s, the latter was becoming so developed that its government leaders decided the land was too valuable to be wasted on the dead:
"...eviction notices were sent out to all cemeteries to remove their bodies and monuments. Colma then inherited hundreds of thousands of bodies. Many went into mass graves as there were no relatives to pay the $10.00 for removal." (www.colmahistory.org)
San Fransisco's cemeteries were closed, with a parade of hundreds of thousands of bodies headed for Colma. Colma became San Fransisco’s official burial space and in 1900, the City and County of San Francisco passed an ordinance that there were to be no more burials allowed in San Francisco. Although the monuments and tombstones from the original cemeteries were dumped in San Francisco Bay, the angels did not totally disappear − I found this one painted on a wall in Haight-Ashbury.
|Poole Angel (double exposure)|
|Santa Cruz Roadside|
Edward Weston, one of my photographer idols, lived and photographed in Carmel in the 1930s. He kind of lived life in the fast lane, but then most great artists are a bit eccentric. (I’ll bet not many people know that one of the medium’s heavyweights, Robert Frank, was the photographer and filmmaker of the Rolling Stones’ most famous unreleased film, Cocksucker Blues.) The Weston Gallery is actually run by Weston’s family. So a visit to the gallery is sort of like vicariously spending time with Weston himself. (As an aside, one of the items in which I take greatest pride is my rejection letter from the Weston Gallery, from when I sent them some of my cemetery photography back in the early 1990s.)
Weston Gallery Website for examples.)
|Weston Beach, Point Lobos|
Toward the end, I felt a bit of what Weston must have felt every day he was there, when the light faded to the point where you could no longer photograph. I think it was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had in my life, feeling as he must have felt amidst this stunning natural beauty. You want to make hundreds of photographs of the rocks, try to capture the limitless abstract shapes and details. But then heaven’s curtain begins to close on you. I wonder if Weston ever felt he truly captured the images for which he strived so hard? I think it’s a bit like the feeling I had of not getting the perfect shot of the Poole Angel. So close to elation, but never attaining it − like searching for the Grail. As the fog slowly enveloped everything, it was time to release the doves and go home.
|Ed at Weston Beach|
Bella Morte Website, truly wonderful firsthand walk-thru accounts of each of Colma's cemeteries
Video, Nancy and Michael Visit Colma, City of Cemeteries
Robert Frank NPR story, "The Americans - The Book that Changed Photography"
Cypress Lawn Cemetery
Weston Gallery Website