In Marin County

Though I think about death every day -- how can one not with the media's insistent reporting of every earthquake, bombing, murder, death -- since it is, after all, the "goal" of life, cemetery visiting is not something I do but about once a month. I've had divine moments of contemplation, great adventures, and miracles happen in cemeteries -- while ambling among the tombstones singing Xoomij for the dead.

Xoomij (pronounced Hoomi), originally from Asia, is a kind of singing which is not only hauntingly beautiful, but easy to do. David Hykes, the greatest Western exponent of "overtone" or "harmonic singing" (other names for Xoomij), claims you can sing up to seven tones at one time. I've only managed three. But, because you barely open your mouth, it's ideal not only for cemeteries, but for mausoleums, which are often of marble with vaulted ceilings. The music reverberates and multiplies until the pure notes of one voice sound like a whole chorus of angels -- and no one can tell where the celestial music is coming from.

Other things I enjoy doing in cemeteries include reading the gravestones, solitary picnicing, musing, needlepointing and writing poetry. I don't much like to talk or listen to the living in a cemetery, so mostly I go alone. I stroll and sing, think about the Gods, the angels, and the dead.

Cemeteries intrigues me, especially when I'm depressed. So recently, being down, way down, I skipped out on a tentative date with the living and went to visit Marin County's Mount Olivet. A Catholic cemetery which is marvelous to view from the 101 Freeway, as you flash through San Rafael's Terra Linda, with its live oaks and tall, old-fashioned gravestones scattered among the golden tufts of California grasses.

I arrived there in a dreary, suicidal mood immediately made worse, for -- though I did not hear the Freeway, as I had feared to do -- I heard a fearsome barking of dogs. I mean, real Edgar-Allen-Poe-loud-long-and noisome dogs. "Ye Gods," I thought, "is it the Pound? It must be the City Pound." I hurried along a eucalyptus lined road to see if I could see what they were doing to the dogs, but all I saw was a group of temporary-World-War-II-army-shed-like buildings.

All the most beautiful sites under the lines of live oaks and among the ancient gravestones, were intolerably, ringingly, relentlessly filled with a cacophony sure to drive one mad, unless, of course, one were deaf -- or... Poor dead, I commiserated, to "live" throughout eternity in such a din.

I followed the road as it rose and rose, spiralling around a steep hill and, just as the howling of the dogs began to fade in the distance, the noise of the Freeway cut in. 101 zooming by, three lanes North: swish swish swish; three lanes South: swish zoom swish. Oh to be dead! I thought, stone cold and out of it!

Further along the high road, I passed diminutive Palladian houses for the Italian dead. A little fox stopped to stare at me. She stared so long, I thought it must be someone's pet dog. But when I got a bit closer, she darted between two of the pillared and pedimented houses -- for they are all free standing, not "condos" for the dead, and have paths between them.

The roar of the traffic would have disturbed even Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Outraged at such unquiet sleep provided for our ancestors, I began to "come to life." Anger, a little internal fire -- I began to enjoy myself. One way or another, cemeteries always cheer me up.

Again, I rounded the hill, the road now spiraling down. The hill was so steep that some of the dead, it seemed, must be standing upright or risk tumbling sideways from their graves. Again, I came within hearing of the mad howling of the dogs. Finally, unable to find one quiet spot, I decided to settle for the dog din. I chose to sit under a magnificently contorted live oak on a lovely flat slab fitted into a large plot outlined with rectangular blocks of marble. It was one of those plots that looks as if it would be comfortable for two and a half people: you know what I mean, extra spacious for two, and elbow-touching for three.

I sat down, took out my stitching, slapped at the flies, and wished I had worn some tight underpants beneath my shorts, for immediately the ants began to crawl up my legs. But it was hot and sunny and smelled of dry dust -- my favorite kind of discomfort. I began to stitch. I was working on the visual translation of a North Indian Classical drum composition, making a set of drum covers for my tabla teacher, Swapan Chaudhuri. How long would it take, I wondered, to tune out the hellish barking of the dogs.

I stitched for a long time.

When I finally looked up I was facing another rectangular two-and-a-half-person plot filled with a scattered mound of very dry clods. The marble blocks that outlined the plot were as big as giant loaves of bread. On the middle one at the lower end was carved "J. Smith." There was no date to indicate if it was occupied or not. I stopped stitching.

My maiden name was "Jan Smith." Transfixed, I was in despair enough to welcome any nudging from the cosmic consciousness. Above the outlined plot was another, not quite so large. Its middle stone read "P. Smith." Above it was a column with a number of names carved in it, one of which was Patricia Smith. Quick as a hummingbird my mind darted, remembering that I owned a bible inscribed to Pat Smith. For, fifty-some years before, I had gone to Sunday School under an assumed name. (It was difficult for a little girl, long before the praenomen was recognized as a name in itself, to be called "just Jan." I spent my childhood saying, "No, it's not Janet or Janice or Jeannette or Janine, it's Just Jan.") There was no "J" name on the column. Hmmmmmmm.

The ants were nibbling. I moved to the tomb two over to look at J. Smith's place from another angle -- and put in a few more stitches. Dha te te dha dha te te dha ge tu na ge na, I recited the tabla composition from the needlepointed pattern. More ants, more nibbles. I sometimes think that when they talk about hell on earth they mean insects crawling, or even the thought of insects crawling, on your hot, sensitive, private parts. But, Ah! I had forgotten the dogs!

They were no quieter, but human hearing is one quarter sound and three quarters attention. Enough of Mount Olivet, I decided, and took one last spiral stroll around the grounds, admired the euphonious Italian names, sang a little more Xoomij, and left.

Driving away I discovered that the kennels next door belonged to Guide Dogs for the Blind, a howling and, it seemed, popular tourist attraction, for there were at least three tour busses parked in front. A few weeks later, wanting to apply for Social Security, where do you suppose I found the office? -- across the street from Mount Olivet!

In San Francisco

Crossing the Golden Gate -- did you know the passageway between San Francisco and the Headlands of Marin County is called "The Golden Gate?" The bridge is named after the straits which General John Freemont dubbed, in 1846, "Chrysopylae" translated as "Golden Gate." Crossing the world's most famous bridge to America's most beautiful city, you arrive in another ideal and beautiful place for cemeteries.

In San Francisco, there are three cemeteries: My favorite, and the oldest, is the one at Mission Delores. On June 17, 1776, just five days before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, six years before the church itself was built, the first mass was celebrated on its site. Its cemetery has a wealth of fine old tombstones, ancient cypress, exuberant flowers and, if you're lucky, sun -- or even in the fog it is an ideal place for meditation.

The military cemetery, established in 1884 and officially known as the San Francisco National Cemetery is in the Presidio. It is vast and rests on one of the most spectacularly beautiful hill sides in all of California, a hillside the living would literally pay millions to inhabit. However, unlike the other "last resting places" in San Francisco, it has been dedicated "forever." It is an absolutely glorious place for a little Xoomij and a few stitches.

The third cemetery within the city limits of San Francisco is the Pet Cemetery, also on the grounds of the Presidio. Turn down McDowell or Cowles road. Watch carefully, for the vast pilings to earthquake-proof the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge is encroaching upon the pets from the north. Two huge signs, courtesy of Toxic Substances Control 510-540-3724, are tacked to the graveyard's white picket fence. They warn both in English and in Spanish: "CAUTION, HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCES AREA, UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS KEEP OUT!" One can't tell if by "Hazardous Substances" they're referring to the beloved cat and dog bodies, or if it was just a convenient place to tack the signs for the Freeway work. And how, one might ask, is one to know if one is enough of an "authorized person" if all you want to do is mourn a little beside, say, Jane, the Chinese Water Dragon's grave? Maybe the signs are an ominous prelude to an eviction notice, and a trip -- as with their human counterparts -- South.

But for now, the cemetery is full of pets, dozens of pets: cats named Cutie, Poco, Rusty, Regina; dogs called Duke, King, Bali, Sally; Willie the hamster; Snowball who appears to have been a mouse; and just "pet:" Mugwawp Ming, Duke of Vaughn, Sahai, Lady Bug, Pudge; and Mr. Bird. They lie there asleep, some behind little fences, some under granite tombstones. A number of especially poignant markers are inscribed: "Unknown."

Jane, the Chinese Water Dragon, her headstone notes, belonged to Emily, and was described as "a lizard who lived with Mr. Iguana and Lucy Rabbit."

But that's it! That's all!

I know each of these San Francisco Cemeteries. I love them. And being one who just happens upon the places she loves, these three cemeteries always seemed so satisfactory to me, that it didn't occurred to me that there were no others!

When people said: "You know about the San Francisco cemeteries?" I'd nod, agree and enthuse. It took some time to get smart enough to say: "Know what? What do you mean?"

Think about it.

For a city of a half million people (to say nothing of the dead over a period of, however you want to calculate, 200 or 10,000 years) one military cemetery, one pet cemetery, one small adobe-walled enclosure... Its not enough!

Ah! It was like Eve biting the apple. Cruuuuuunch! In a word, though you're not yet forbidden to die in this paradisiacal city, you can't get buried in San Francisco. You haven't been able to opt for eternal sleep on its forty-seven square miles of peninsula since 1901.

On March 30, 1900, Mayor James D. Phelan approved Bill No. 54, Ordinance No. 25, "Prohibiting the Burial of the Dead Within the City and County of San Francisco from and after the First day of August, 1901. A few lucky military corpses got interred up to 1962. But now, for more than thirty years, no one, except a few cats, dogs, mice, and alligators have been buried (legally) in San Francisco.

Quite a number of bodies get dug up.

Digging foundations in San Francisco can be as adventurous as archeological work at Xian in China, but here the bodies are not made of clay, they are bones, real bones. A few years ago, as they dug to expand the Palace of the Legion of Honor, they turned up bodies, beings, have beens.

In 1914, when the Board of Health closed the then existing cemeteries it sent out notices to all persons owning or claiming lots in Calvary, Masonic, Odd Fellow and Laurel Hill cemeteries to remove all bodies. They had been declared "a public nuisance and a menace and detriment to the public health and welfare."

Laurel Hill Cemetery on Lone Mountain fought for forty years in court to keep the dead in place. Other people, of course, were gleeful at being able to speculate in the former real estate of the dead.

For the dead, all the dead, from Laurel Hill as well as North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Yerba Buena, etc., whether Irish, Russian, Native American, or Anglo Saxon Protestant, French, English, Swedish, Polish, Japanese, Filipino, Black, Hungarian, etc. were evicted and ordered South.

However, even though the hired grave-movers moved the tombstones, they often failed to move the bodies: our ancestors, the pioneers. So, though there are just three cemeteries in San Francisco, there are bits and pieces of the dead and burial memorabilia scattered round about, like, for instance, the breakwater behind the St. Francis Yacht Club composed of the marble and granite of early markers (carted there at 80 a ton). At the end of the jetty some of the stones form a sound organ. There are a few Chinese markers on the Lincoln Golf Park, and many bodies beneath. One can read old maps and retrace the cemeteries' acreage. Try it you may be surprised at what turns up! the lore that is remembered.

In Colma

Meanwhile, South, in and around Colma, the dead outnumbered the living by about 10,000 to 1, The old dead (who got moved) as well as the new dead are now ensconced in what I am inclined to call "the -lawns": Woodlawn, Greenlawn, Cypress Lawn, Sky Lawn, as well as in the Chinese, Italian, Greek, Jewish, Serbian, etc. etc. etc. cemeteries and -- another Mount Olivet.

The only way to legally remain in San Francisco forever is, if suitably crisped, as an ash at the Presidio -- though that may change now that the "guard" has changed and that historic military holding has gone civic; or, again as an ash, in a niche in the Columbarium -- a place a little beyond belief, but lovely for Xmij. Located at 1 Lorraine Court, it is run by the Neptune Society. Mauve and white behind a locked gate, it looks like an escapee from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, that same Exposition from which the Palace of Fine Arts (rebuilt) survives. It will certainly do if you're dedicated to the idea of resting forever in San Francisco.

Recently, I learned there was a little grave juggling "down under" in Marin County as well. Those originally buried in San Rafael's mission cemetery were disinterred in 1884, and moved to Mount Olivet, where J. Smith either does now or will some day rest beside the Freeway and the dogs.

Is the Bay Area unique in its "trans-migrations" for the dead? I don't know. New Orleans, of course, is known to empty out its crypts fairly soon after you stop paying the rent.

None-the-less, if you're depressed or just out for some rare moments of truth, beauty and reflection, take your lunch, take your stitching, visit a favorite cemetery, sing. Even "dog," remember, is "God" spelled backward.

Or Out There

Or, as an alternative (especially if you're stuck at your computer) you can visit not only a Pet Cemetery in Cyberspace -- "give your pet a decent burial," it suggests, in memory of all those shabby disposals in the kitchen garden, down the toilet, in the dump -- but human "memorial-yards," too. Already, there are many "celestial cemeteries" out there some place. So, as Colma and the earth fill up, the left over San Franciscans will, no doubt, come to join the rest of us out here -- in Cyberspace.

Most recently revised on Halloween, 2003, JH

Copyright © 2006 through 2015 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:

Other cemeteries and cemetery lore can be found in silence.

Other Jan Haag travel stories about America include CROSSING THE COUNTRY, SAN FRANCISCO, and MISSION WALK, which was first published in "Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World."

Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.






21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context