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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.