Calif. city prefers to let Halloween pass by quietly

October 31, 1994|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Special to The Sun

COLMA, CALIFORNIA — COLMA, Calif. -- In this tiny city, where hearses are as prevalent as taxicabs, generations have perfected the art of grave digging and 15 funeral processions creep down the main street every day, Halloween is a delicate subject.

Last year, Dennis Sullivan had just finished lugging a casket into the back room of Molloy's Tavern for a Halloween party when in walked a group of mourners fresh from a funeral. He feared their reaction to the joke.

"I thought, 'Oh, shoot, we've got a coffin back there,' " said Mr. Sullivan, the bartender at Molloy's. One of the mourners headed straight for the coffin, looked inside at the ghoulish dummy body and mercifully began to laugh.

"She said, 'Look, we've brought Bill with us!' " he recalled. "After a few drinks, she wanted to climb in."

While revelers in San Francisco plan a wild Halloween night romping through closed-off streets in bizarre costumes, Colma, where San Franciscans meet their eternal rest, is hunkering down. Cemetery managers plan to post security guards around the tombstones. Dead quiet is the optimal ambience.

Colma was established in 1924 for the sole purpose of storing the dead of San Francisco, 12 miles to the north. It is thought to be unique in the nation: a 2-square-mile town largely populated by the dead -- 1.5 million of them.

"It's the only necropolis," said Kent Seavey, the historian at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, where the U.S. flag flies permanently at half-staff. "We made Ripley's Believe It or Not."

Serafin Mora, general manager of Cypress Lawn, was asked if any big Halloween events were planned.

"Oh, no," he gasped.

Police say they have had a few pranks over the years in the city's 16 cemeteries, including a raucous party inside a mausoleum, knocked-over tombstones and two dead chickens stuffed in the mouths of two stone lions, surrounded by lighted candles.

But so far no major pranks.

Two cemetery tour groups are coming through in honor of Halloween, both deadly serious. "I made it clear to them that if anyone showed up in costume, I wouldn't go," said Michael Svanevik, a free-lance tour guide and author of a forthcoming book about Colma called "City of Souls," who will be showing them around.

The town has long attracted tombstone tourists who come to see sculptures honoring the famous dead and stunning Tiffany stained-glass-decorated catacombs. With Mr. Svanevik, they'll hear the story of how San Francisco may be a fabulous place to live, but you can't spend eternal life there.

At the turn of the century, San Francisco real estate developers persuaded the city to pass an ordinance forbidding burials in the pricey ground within city limits. Cemetery owners bought up land in rural Colma, and by about 1940, developers had persuaded city officials to have bodies in every San Francisco graveyard but two exhumed and moved to Colma.

For all its peacefulness, Colma is not what every San Franciscan has in mind for a final destination. "Spend eternity in Colma?" sniffed Vandana Halverson, funeral director for the Neptune Society in San Francisco, which offers cremation vaults in the city. "It's pushing it."

But most end up there. Publisher William Randolph Hearst is buried in Colma, as is bluejeans magnate Levi Strauss.

Baseball slugger Frank C. "Lefty" O'Doul rests under a slab marker that reads ".342 Lifetime." Singer Tina Turner's dog is buried here, wrapped in mink. A Hell's Angel named Harry the Horse also rests here, alongside his Harley.

The most popular dead man in town is Wyatt Earp, the Old West gunslinger who survived the shootout at the OK Corral before coming to rest at Hills of Eternity. A Kevin Costner movie about Earp has launched a pilgrimage to Colma; the film's tag line notes that the cowboy is buried here.

Oddly, for a town built around the somber business of cemeteries, Colma has another identity: the bustling center of a large number of what some regard as examples of the land of the living dead, the discount store. Thriving Target, Home Depot, Kmart and Toys R Us stores boost the town's living population from 1,100 to 40,000 a day and 300,000 a day around the holidays.

The stores generate so much tax revenue the City Council has to think of ways to spend it.

As a bumper sticker sold at City Hall says, "It's great to be alive in Colma."

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