Odd Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco: 1865
San Francisco’s Odd Fellows Cemetery was unique in its time. This picture, likely taken from the top of the recently completed Columbarium in 1897, shows the cemetery spread out towards the summit of Lone Mountain.

Odd Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco: 1865

Odd Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco: A History, 1860’s thru 1932

Originally located in the undeveloped ‘Outside Lands’, in what is now referred to as the ‘Inner Richmond’ District of San Francisco, ‘Odd Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco’ was legally deeded to the Odd Fellows Organization and officially opened in November 1865. Bordered by the city streets: Geary and Turk Streets, Parker Ave and Arguello Blvd, the cemetery consisted of 27 acres.

Ornate stone fencing with broad paths and landscaping proved a wonderful place for San Franciscans to spend a day in the sun…or fog
Ornate stone fencing with broad paths and landscaping proved a wonderful place for San Franciscans to spend a day in the sun…or fog
Looking west across the Yerba Buena Section, the area is now the site of homes and Rossi Playground and Pool.
Looking west across the Yerba Buena Section, the area is now the site of homes and Rossi Playground and Pool.

Cemeteries Planned to be Park-Like Setting

The Odd Fellows site, as well as the surrounding 3 other cemeteries; Laurel Hill, Calvary, and Masonic cemeteries were planned and developed to be ‘green and park-like’. Established before the development of Golden Gate Park, these cemeteries provided ‘green space’ for the growing City. They sported walking paths, broader ways for ‘horse & buggy’, and large open areas for community events. Families would spend afternoons strolling the beautiful landscaped acres, catching the views of the growing City and surrounding hills, but by the 1880’s conditions surrounding the cemeteries gradually changed.

Originally placed far from development, the growth of the City now spread west and barren sandy landscapes now sported new housing, improved streets, and city transit.

Looking north from Masonic Cemetery towards Odd Fellows on the western slope of Lone Mountain. Note the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tamalpais in the background. Also note the extreme sandy conditions of the area. Prior to the development and growth of San Francisco, wind swept sand and dunes were the predominant feature of the area. Sand proved a very unstable soil for wood crosses, headstones, and monuments. It also took copious amounts of water to maintain the large ‘green’ landscaped grounds.
Looking north from Masonic Cemetery towards Odd Fellows on the western slope of Lone Mountain. Note the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tamalpais in the background. Also note the extreme sandy conditions of the area. Prior to the development and growth of San Francisco, wind swept sand and dunes were the predominant feature of the area. Sand proved a very unstable soil for wood crosses, headstones, and monuments. It also took copious amounts of water to maintain the large ‘green’ landscaped grounds.

Failing Business Model

With a business model providing funding by the sale of gravesites, the early years for Odd Fellows were good. Landscape, amenities, and grave sites were well kept, but as the cemetery grew full, funding for care of cemetery green spaces and grave sites became difficult. At the time, ‘perpetual care’ funding of cemetery grounds was virtually non-existent and many of the dead had no one to care for their grave site. With funds diminishing, conditions within the cemeteries rapidly deteriorated, especially at Odd Fellows and Masonic.

Above and Below. Masonic Cemetery is representative of what was taking place within the cemeteries as funding dwindled in the 1890’s. Overgrown trees and shrubs, weeds, damaged stone work, and unkempt family plots were common place.
Above and Below. Masonic Cemetery is representative of what was taking place within the cemeteries as funding dwindled in the 1890’s. Overgrown trees and shrubs, weeds, damaged stone work, and unkempt family plots were common place.
Above and Below. Masonic Cemetery is representative of what was taking place within the cemeteries as funding dwindled in the 1890’s. Overgrown trees and shrubs, weeds, damaged stone work, and unkempt family plots were common place.

A Novel Plan - Encourage Cremation

The ‘Odd Fellows Cemetery Board’ had recognized their dilemma and in the 1890’s had developed a novel plan for the encouragement of cremation. An ultra-modern crematory opened on the cemetery grounds in 1895 followed in 1898 by the magnificent Odd Fellows Columbarium and its surrounding grounds.

The ‘Odd Fellows’ Columbarium was a work of art and remains so today. It is the last remaining building from the original Odd Fellows Cemetery and is now operated by ‘The Neptune Society’.
The ‘Odd Fellows’ Columbarium was a work of art and remains so today. It is the last remaining building from the original Odd Fellows Cemetery and is now operated by ‘The Neptune Society’.

Circumstances Worked Against The Plan

But again, circumstances worked against their plan and finances. In 1902, the City government folded to political pressure and banned further casket burials within city limits. The ban also included the burial of ‘cremains’ unless specifically interred in a family plot. Despite the Odd Fellows cremation services being competitive and local, the growth of ‘less expensive’ burial services in Colma further diminished the group financially. 

With the ban on burials, the deterioration of the cemetery properties continued. As the City’s residential growth steadily surrounded them, the value of cemetery lands grew rapidly. With these factors in play, there soon came a loud and vocal movement to close all the cemeteries within the City, remove the dead, and rebury them south of the City, in Lawndale (now Colma). Several members of the Odd Fellows Cemetery Association also privately and separately looked south to Lawndale. In 1904 this private group secured acreage for a new ‘Odd Fellows Cemetery’ and new burials. It was named GreenLawn Cemetery.

The original ‘Green Lawn’ Plot Map from 1904 indicates the owner of the area as Odd Fellow Cemetery Association. This is in error as the purchase of GreenLawn was made separate from Odd Fellows. The owners were individuals who had held positions on the board of the association but had made the purchase with other investors as a private group.
The original ‘Green Lawn’ Plot Map from 1904 indicates the owner of the area as Odd Fellow Cemetery Association. This is in error as the purchase of GreenLawn was made separate from Odd Fellows. The owners were individuals who had held positions on the board of the association but had made the purchase with other investors as a private group.

Arguments and Litigation Ensued

In San Francisco, the arguments and litigation for and against the removal of the cemeteries had grown steadily since the first ‘arguments for removal’ in the mid-1880’s. Conditions within the cemeteries became deplorable. Constructed on the western sand dunes of the City, landscapes soon withered and died, weeds proliferated, graves were left unattended and unprotected, and with further damage incurred from the 1906 earthquake, the fate of Odd Fellows Cemetery appeared sealed.
In 1910, the US Supreme Court validated the City’s ‘ban on burials’ declaring it ‘constitutional’ and the flood gates to the courts swung open. For all entangled in this mess, the years became decades as family plot holders, cemetery owners, developers, churches, and the City itself became embroiled in a maze of lawsuits, counter-suits, and court battles. Amidst it all hope was still held by many that the situation could be remedied. Various plans to preserve City heritage with plaza and ‘monument’ areas and money for maintenance soon fell before the pressure of city ballot measures, California State Legislature enactments (1st and 2nd Morris Acts), and eventually California State Supreme Court involvement. Finally, in 1932, the first forced removal of ‘San Francisco’s dead’ from ‘Odd Fellows’ commenced with 26,000 ‘innocent remains’ removed to GreenLawn Cemetery in Colma.
And with that simple word, ‘removal’, the saga of the ‘Odd Fellows’ dead began. Read more on that here.

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