Let’s talk about Buena Vista Park. Did you know it’s full of old, repurposed tombstones?
Oh, you did not? Well you must not have been on any local ghost tours and/or spent more than 5 minutes with me.
Before we talk about Buena Vista, though, we have to talk about cemeteries in San Francisco. Specifically – there are none.
Well, almost none.
Some grave stones embedded in a wall
In 1901, San Francisco banned all new burials within city limits. The large format, traditional burial grounds were taking up too much room in a rapidly growing city with living folks to house. Once new burials stopped, so did revenue, and the cemeteries fell into disrepair. They became decrepit, which led to awesome behavior like people going there to get drunk, have sex, AND STEAL SKELETONS *YES THAT HAPPENED*. As the crypts were damaged and broken into, “Entire skeletons were carried away to be used as Halloween decorations” and there were reports of people “playing soccer with skulls.” I SHIT YOU NOT HASHTAG BORN IN THE WRONG DECADE.
The city and the residents were fed up, and the cemeteries were moved. Politics of the dead being what they were (and are), it took some time, some laws, and some court decisions to move the process along. The last cemetery’s remains were relocated in 1937 after a court decision authorized the sale of the land. And because I spent a lot of money on a law degree that I don’t use, here’s that decision.
It’s worth noting that the Jewish cemeteries were among the first to voluntarily move out of San Francisco, where anti-semitism was a problem. WAS, not IS – HAHAHHAAAA JK swastikas were found at Buena Vista Park just last month. People remain fucking assholes.
The bodies buried in city cemeteries were relocated to Colma. I could spend all day writing about this, but KQED’s Bay Curious has already done a terrific job documenting the story. You should definitely lose an hour of your life down this rabbit hole – they have some beautiful photos, videos, and audio. It might even inspire you to go to Colma! They have more than car dealerships, you know.
When the city relocated the bodies, they did not relocate headstones, markers, crypts, or anything else. Most people were re-interred in mass graves, because the families could not afford to buy a new plot, or could not be found. The cemeteries sold the stone products to the Department of Public Works for a few pennies each, and they were used in construction projects, which is how they ended up in Buena Vista Park. Cemetery stones were used to build many things in the city, including the breakwaters in the Marina and Aquatic Park and the Wave Organ near the St. Francisco Yacht Club.
In Buena Vista Park, the stones were broken up and used to line the pathways and gutters and to build the retaining walls. For the most part, the carved parts of the grave markers were placed face down, and only the smooth portion of the stone is showing. There are a few places, though, were you can clearly see writing. You can also see the carved edges of headstones in parts of the retaining walls. The patterns of the cut stone are lovely, and you’d never know that they were made from discarded tombstones if some creepy bitch didn’t tell you. YOU ARE WELCOME.
As for the cemeteries, there are officially still two remaining in San Francisco – one at the Presidio and one at Mission Dolores. There’s also the beautiful Columbarium in the Richmond, which is a mausoleum for cremated remains.
Unofficially, it seems like there’s a shitload of bodies that were missed in the haste to relocate cemeteries. You can’t sink a shovel to put condos up without hitting some unmarked graves. This basically makes San Francisco one giant Poltergeist Part Five waiting to happen – but that’s another story for another blog post, my friends.
Grave markers line a paved pathway
Bits of grave stones
Bonus Content, MURDER EDITION:
Buena Vista Park is hilly and pretty wooded, which makes it a good place to hide and to get up to stuff you might want to hide. It used to have the reputation of being a cruising spot for gay men, and a place for all kinds of people to get it on in the bushes. I asked the Gay Lawyer Mafia (my friends) about it, and they told me that spots like this were more popular before the rise of hookup apps, but some people still get a thrill out of totally anonymous semi-public action, so you can still find that in the city. If you watched HBO’s Looking, you may remember the scene with an anonymous park hand-job – that was rumored to be Buena Vista Park.
In 2011, one of these encounters went wrong and a man actually died. His hookup PUT THE DEAD MAN’S BODY IN A TRASH CAN AND SET IT ON FIRE, as you do when you’ve accidentally choked someone to death during sex in a park. He was acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter. There have been other murders and deaths in the park, but that one is the FUCKING YIKES-IEST and I didn’t want you all to miss out. Once again, YOU’RE WELCOME.