Angels and Ashes- A Walk Thru Colma

I love to walk. Am fascinated with  history and  genealogy. And who isn’t fond of a good temple? Taken  together , its no surprise I periodically enjoy a stroll through a cemetery. And there is perhaps no better place to go than a small town just south of San Francisco. Amble #23 took me to Colma.

For those not from the area, Colma is the home of San Francisco’s dead, a real live (?) Necropolis. A century ago, with land already at a premium, the cemeteries in San Francisco were removed from the city , the last departing by 1912, and they were given a new home here.  A Necropolis indeed, Colma is a veritable cemetery mall, and virtually everything in the town revolves around this industry. There are 1.5 million deceased in Colma to go along wth 1,600 actual residents still breathing air. I am actually more surprised by the second number, its not clear to me where they tucked this many people beyond a few homes and apartment buildings.

This walk is actually fairly convenient from BART, as you can take it to Colma, walk thru town, and end at the next station; South San Francisco.  Here’s the route, and as you can see, it’s mostly cemetery:

It doesn’t take long to become immersed in all things funerary once leaving the Colma Station. And after passing a monument shop, and what else, a florist, I arrived at Woodlawn Cemetery. I did not intend to walk through it, but rather take in what may be the finest administrative building in the town. But as I walked up , I smelled something very odd. It was smoke, but it definitely wasn’t wood that was burning if you get my drift. I can’t describe the smell actually, it wasn’t that offensive, but because I knew what it was, I nearly wretched. Here is the building, and there goes Uncle Ed up into the clouds. I backed away slowly.

My main destination this day was Cypress Lawn, a large and scenic cemetery on both sides of El Camino Real. I focused on the east side. A good cemetery layout ideally combines varied topography, along with enough mature trees and landscaping to highlight the monuments. And of course, it therefore requires enough of a monied populace to erect massive crypts, and that wasn’t a problem here. So up I went, passing several idyllic looking ponds, not a person in sight, but what seemed like thousands of birds. They all flocked to me as I walked. They kept pace with me for a spell, to the point that I became a bit concerned. Then a car pulled up and stopped behind me, and the birds swarmed the car. I ran through this gate.

My mind wandered  to  inspirations for this setting,that is the classical temple in the landscape, and the painting of the Romantics came to mind. For example the American Thomas Cole, who captured well the spirit of the eternal – fading light on a fading empire:

It is this tradition I believe that many of these monument seek to capture. To that end, perhaps more evocative to visit at sunset, or on a fog shrouded day. But alas, void of any emotional attachments to the entombed, this made for  a delightful walk on a crisp summer afternoon. Most crypts do take the classical temple form, and they generally are arranged to maximum effect for the most affluent. I walked amongst them:

For those with slightly less means, one can purchase the equivalent of eternity in a row house:

Statuary of course is also encouraged:

This was a quiet day at the cemetery, and in town. In the cemetery, it was for the most part me and the grounds crew. Out walking on the road itself, and through the town, it was as quiet. There were few around, and certainly no one walking on the street. And what commercial activity exists supports this “company town”. So, looking to purchase a sphinx in an honor of a loved one, not  a problem. A latte, good luck:

Another draw to the cemetery is a pilgrimage to the grave of the famous, or infamous. There are many well-knowns in these cemeteries, I had seen William Randolph Hearst’s tomb, and even Wyatt Earp. But I had one grave on my list this day. It was a few cemeteries down on the mall, Holy Cross, a predominately Catholic cemetery. I was looking for the Yankee Clipper, Joe Dimaggio. It was not hard to find, in fact its popular enough that they have added a parking space nearby. People leave bats , balls, gloves, and no doubt many wishes that Joe might bless their swing, or cure them of their slump.

Once I was done with Joe, I made my way back to the road and headed to the end of this amble. I passed the edge of the pond, and there were the birds again, assaulting a car. Now I understood why -the people in the car fed the birds prodigious amounts of food. As I passed a few started following me. I channeled my best Tippy Hedren and backed away, slowly.

 All in all, a very pleasant couple of hours,- I made a note to come back here and sketch or paint. The amble ended at South San Francisco’s BART station, and its newish “transit-oriented’development”, and that did offer a bit of commercial activity,as  I was dying of thirst. While I appreciated and needed the Starbucks, the development itself offered little else. It looked like so many of these things that could be anywhere, stucco buildings painted “condiment colors” (ketchup and mustard).

Oddly, these buildings that held the living felt more dead than those that celebrated the deceased. This is the architecture that results when we demand the least common denominator. Even the plazas, spaces that always show up bursting with life in the renderings that promise a new beginning to the expectant community, were lifeless, treeless expanses around the cavernous station.

As I sat sipping my Starbucks TM Hibiscus Cooler, my thoughts drifted to broad swaths of green and the Yankee Clipper. It occurred to me a baseball field could fit in this huge plaza. Yeah , that would help. That or a handsome crypt.

This was Hike 23 in my chronicling 50 urban ambles in my 50th year. 

Hike 23 : 4 miles

Distance traveled  to date:  149 Miles


2 thoughts on “Angels and Ashes- A Walk Thru Colma

  1. Are your ambles strictly solitary affairs? Do you ever invite companions? Or have they remained silent partners thus far? Is there some kind of waiting list I can get on? Maybe for the big 25 Halfway Walk?

    1. Mostly solitary, as they tend to be meditative. But there has been some silent partners. But I welcome fellow amblers, and there will many opportunities to join me in the second half of the year.

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