A Town Where the Dead Outnumber the Living 1,000 to One

Colma, Calif., got all of San Francisco's overflow in the early 20th century
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 5, 2016 1:06 PM CST
A Town Where the Dead Outnumber the Living 1,000 to One
A woman places flowers on a casket at a funeral service in Colma, Calif., on Aug. 10, 2010.   (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

A tiny California town that the New York Times calls "more necropolis than metropolis" isn't far from where the Super Bowl will be played in the San Francisco Bay Area on Sunday. But any traffic in Colma (aka "the City of Souls") over the weekend is more likely to be from a funeral procession. The town boasts 1.5 million dead residents—and about 1,600 living ones—in 17 graveyards across 2 square miles or so, supplemented by a significant number of florists, per KQED. Why such an abundance? Mainly because being in San Francisco is just as exorbitant for the erstwhile as it is for the alive and kicking. Burials were halted in San Francisco in 1900 for a number of reasons, the main one being that cemeteries "sat on prime real estate," as the Times puts it.

Cemeteries fell into disrepair and became vandalism targets after the ban. "Entire skeletons were carried away to be used as Halloween decorations," and skulls were reportedly used for soccer games, a local historian tells KQED. So the city went even further in 1912: It uprooted 150,000 already-buried bodies and moved them to Colma graveyards. Some of the disinterred were put back into private plots in Colma if their families ponied up a small fee; others were simply placed in mass graves, including one that reportedly holds nearly 40,000 Catholics at the Holy Cross cemetery. "We are are the city of souls, but we are really protecting the cemeteries," the town's vice mayor says. "There is an emotional attachment to them." (Moscow cemeteries are going high-tech.)

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