Where the dead outnumber the living California town was founded on 13 cemeteries.

January 17, 1992|By Peninsula Times Tribune

COLMA, Calif. -- Scattered among the imposing granite mausoleums and rows of tombstones, families share peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, soda and potato chips.

Children play hide-and-seek behind the polished headstones, laughing and darting between the reminders of lives long past. Over the hill, couples take a lazy canoe ride on the duck pond that graces one of the city's 13 cemeteries.

It's a pleasant scene Ted Kirschner, longtime Colma city councilman, remembered with fondness. In his picturesque, northern Peninsula city, the dead outnumber the living by a 1,000-to-1 ratio, and residents have learned to live in harmony with their deceased neighbors. Cemetery officials estimate there are more than 1 million people buried in Colma's dark, mineral-rich soil.

But Kirschner, 72, sees this communal -- albeit slightly off-beat -- lifestyle vanishing as quickly as youth. Nearly gone are the days when families would take a drive to the city of cemeteries for a picnic, a leisurely stroll or even a quiet moment to mourn the dead.

"People used to visit the cemeteries religiously. Now you never see anybody," said Kirschner, maneuvering his 1985 blue Buick Regal along a winding cement pathway that cuts through lush, rolling hills and tombstones.

"The dead are forgotten. People have different ideas these days. They don't revere the dead any more," he said. "I don't even go [to the cemeteries] anymore, and I live next door to them."

At least, parents still take their children to feed bread to the swans and water birds at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery duck pond.

"You can't get a parking space on Sundays," Kirschner said.

Also, golfers still play a few rounds near grave plots at Olivet Cemetery and farmers continue to cultivate flowers and vegetables in the shadow of nearby tombstones. But much of the interaction between the dead and the living in Colma has disappeared, he said.

Many of the grassy aisles that separate the rows of tombstones are vacant. Parking lots sit mostly empty. Funeral processions still stop traffic at intersections, but they don't rumble by in solemn veneration as frequently as they used to, Kirschner said.

However, this city of about 400 registered voters remains devoted to its cemeteries. (Kirschner, who has spent the past decade on the city council, likes to crack the local quip: "Whenever we need to get some votes, we dig 'em up someplace.")

Colma locals agree the loyalty residents feel toward the cemeteries stems as much from tradition as from anything else. Cemeteries first planted roots in Colma -- or what was then unincorporated farmland -- in 1887, when San Francisco city fathers passed laws forbidding burials and cemeteries within city limits. So cemetery owners simply packed up their belongings and moved south.

But burials have slowed in recent years as more and more people opt for cremation, Kirschner said. The Neptune Society, a cremation services business, has made significant inroads into the cemetery business in recent years, industry officials said.

Those who do choose to be buried may not get the luxury of a fancy tombstone. Rising maintenance costs and space limitations have forced many cemetery owners to offer only small, embedded burial plaques instead of elaborate headstones, Castagna said.

But one place that hasn't lost its popularity in Colma is Coattail Malloy's, a historic tavern built in 1877 near a circle of cemeteries. Its current owner, Lanty Malloy, said the old-time bar is a popular hangout for mourners eager to lift their spirits after a funeral.

"If they come in sad, they leave happy," said Malloy.

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