History of Colma – “The City of Souls”

The town of Colma, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area is known as the “City of Souls,” because it is home to several cemeteries, including Cypress Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park.

In fact, approximately 1.5 million “souls” reside in Colma, which was officially founded as a necropolis in 1924. Because of this, the tongue-in-cheek phrase “it’s great to be alive in Colma” is commonly associated with the town.

Colma’s origins are linked to California’s Gold Rush, which ushered in an influx of residents who later needed to be buried. Fast forward to the late 1800s, and the city of San Francisco was becoming less open to housing the bodies of the deceased, declaring that cemeteries were nuisances and health hazards. Many also viewed the cemeteries as a waste of what could be valuable real estate.

One carriage ride changed it all. Pillars of the Past, written by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett, notes that Cypress Lawn founder Hamden Holmes Noble was passing by what was then Laurel Hill Cemetery. He noted how much the cemetery had deteriorated since he arrived in San Francisco in the 1860s. Noble’s friend suggested that he should get into the cemetery business, saying it would be “a great thing for San Francisco.”

In 1892, Noble and his associates purchased 47 acres in the Colma Valley to create Cypress Lawn, located about 10 miles south of San Francisco. Funeral parties could access Cypress Lawn by taking the Southern Pacific Railroad. The eventual creation of the electric trolley line allowed the public to visit Cypress Lawn even more easily.

In the early 1900s, officials passed a series of laws that essentially “evicted” the dead from San Francisco. Because of this, thousands of bodies needed to be relocated. Over the years, Cypress Lawn received the 35,000 people who were laid to rest at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The area where the re-interments are located was later officially renamed Laurel Hill Mound and was dedicated in 1954.

Since its founding in 1892, Cypress Lawn has become home to well over 300,000 of the deceased. Its tranquil and stunning landscape, which includes an arboretum home to many different species of trees, has become a destination for locals and tourists alike. Click here to learn more about our free docent-led trolley tours and more information about planning your visit.