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The Old Calvary Cemetery Grounds Are Right Under Your Feet

The Old Calvary Cemetery Grounds Are Right Under Your Feet
Photo via Fern Hill Tours
By Nuala Sawyer - Published on May 19, 2014.
Do you live between Masonic and Parker, and Geary and Turk? If so, congratulations! Your house is standing on what used to be one of the largest cemeteries in San Francisco. We hope you're not scared of ghosts.

We were first tipped off to the spooky history by Twitter personality We Built This City, and we resolved to find out more. Built in 1860, Calvary Cemetery was the eastern-most cemetery in the "big four", which included Odd Fellows', Masonic and Laurel Hill cemeteries. At the time, the Richmond was its own settlement, set back from the hustle and bustle of the rest of San Francisco. The cemeteries acted as a buffer in what at the time was an under-populated rural area. However as the city's population grew, real estate quickly became a problem. In 1894 Richmond had 3,000 residents, while the local cemeteries housed over 300,000.

It's estimated that in its 77 years of operation, 55,500 bodies were interred at Calvary.  Plots cost $0.60 a foot, meaning that for a baby the cost averaged around $10 (about $250 nowadays if you adjust for inflation). For an adult, you were looking at more like $15. 

An 1887 excerpt from The San Francisco Morning Call stated:

Calvary is the most populous cemetery of San Francisco at the present time. When first opened it was in the country; it is now between Parker and Masonic avenues and Geary and Turk streets. It has been gradually filling up with coffins for these twenty-six years, and now the headstones in some parts of the grounds seem as thick as standing corn. Hardly a day passes that three or four funeral processions do not climb the hillside leading to the entrance gate. It is indeed a city of the dead. . .

To get really morbid, there was also a section of Calvary that was dedicated solely to suicides and children who died without being baptized. It was located in a small area on the western slope of the hill, which after studying the map may have been where Anzavista and Barcelona streets are. 

By the 1930s, the mass graveyard relocation project was heavily underway, with thousands of corpses being relocated to Colma. Claiming that Calvary was on hallowed ground, the Archbishop fought the relocation. In 1937 he lost the battle, and Calvary residents were moved south over the next few years. A priest was in attendance for each disinterment, and family members were allowed to watch if they wanted. 


(Calvary Cemetery after being cleared, 1947. Photos: FoundSF)

By the time 1947 rolled around, the bodies of the dead had been transferred, and construction began on the Kaiser hospital and new housing. Perhaps yours?

If you'd like to pay homage to the former residents of our neighborhood, you can find the transported residents of Calvary Cemetery in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The vast majority of the bodies are located in a five- acre burial mound with no individual markers.