In Colma


I moved to San Francisco after a lifetime on the East Coast and hadn’t even finished unpacking before I turned sixty. Everything about my new circumstances was strange. I no longer went to work. I did not know anyone. All the goodwill and stature and community I had built up after a career as a Philadelphia lawyer was gone. I did not know what to do with myself. Somehow, without noticing, I had become old.

I didn’t give up. I seized on that line from the Four Quartets: Old men ought to be explorers. I would be an explorer. I would explore my new home in the Fog City and see what I could learn. But even as I did, I could not beat back the questions arising in my mind. I did not know if they were arising because I was new to San Francisco or because I was new to being old.

* * *

“Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” the envelope said, “Details inside.”

The letter was addressed to Charles Kennedy, a tenant who formerly lived in my rental house. A lot of mail comes to former renters and I throw it in a drawer to season for a few months before I throw it out but this one caught my interest: it was an advertisement from something called the Trident Society. The envelope was addressed in that faux handwriting you can get a computer to do for you by shopping for a custom typeface. What caught my eye was that bold wording on the envelope: “Free Pre-Paid Cremation! Details inside.”

I paused over the oxymoron. How could anything that was free be pre-paid? And how weird to get an advertisement for cremation. I don’t think I have ever been solicited for cremation during the lifetime I had lived on the East Coast. Was this some San Francisco bit of weirdness? And the exclamation point after Cremation? What about cremation would bring one to exclaim?

* * *

They talk about the fog all the time. San Francisco is a city of “micro-climates”. You determine where you live by the amount of fog you can tolerate. If you come from the East it is hard to follow. Why would fog be a mattersome issue? But as you live here and you see it roll in, you start to get it. The day can be brilliant blue one minute and then you’ll see a thread of fog blowing across the sky and you look a little bit behind it and the thread will be attached to a tendril of fog and that tendril will be attached to a tentacle and what comes behind is as big as a new territory. It all moves so fast that in a moment the fog is over you and what had been a brilliant, glorious Indian summer day, the kind of day that makes your body vibrate, is gone gone gone and you are in the wispy damp grey flannel of a cloud.

They’ve named the fog here. They call it Karl. Karl has his own Instagram account with 485 posts and 245 thousand followers.

* * *

There used to be many cemeteries in San Francisco but at the turn of the century the Board of Supervisors passed a law that said no one could be buried in the city. You could be cremated if that was what you wanted, but no more burials. In subsequent years, the Supervisors went further and required the existing cemeteries to vacate city limits. And so human remains were dug up and moved to new cemeteries to the south. Indeed, the town of Colma – on the Peninsula, just south of the city – was founded as a necropolis, a kind of an Empowerment Zone for cemeteries. There are supposedly more than 1.5 million people buried in Colma. The living population of the town is less than two thousand. The dead outnumber the living by something like a 1,000 to 1. If it comes to a fight, put your money on the zombies.

When I first read the report, it passed right over me. But 3 or 4 days later the question came oozing up into my consciousness like water through a basement floor. Why can’t you be buried in San Francisco? I had never heard of a law like that before. I could understand it if there weren’t any cemeteries. I could understand if the cemeteries were all filled up. But I couldn’t understand the idea that human remains were banned from San Francisco. Maybe I am sentimental, but if I were a lifelong San Franciscan, I would want my remains buried where I had lived.

There was something cosmetic and artificial about the prohibition of human burial. As if this wasn’t a real city, but a Disneyland. A place you could buy your way into, but you couldn’t actually stay. Where you could rent, but never own. I looked on the Internet to see if there were any other cities with such a cruel rule and I did not find any, though my search was at best haphazard.

I tried to imagine why the Board of Supervisors banned burials. I thought it might be health or sanitation, but as a race we have been burying our dead since time began. Perhaps the realtors in San Francisco resented the fact that cemetery companies were selling valuable San Francisco land without paying a broker’s commission.

Whatever the rationale, you can’t actually leave your heart in San Francisco. If it is still beating, you take it with you. And if your heart no longer beats, it is part of your mortal remains and prohibited in the City by the Bay. You’ll have to leave your heart in Colma.

* * *

For all of the talk of fog no one mentions the foghorns. If you are on the bayside of Pacific Heights or in the Marina or Cow Hollow or Sea Cliff or Russian Hill you share your bedroom with the foghorns. They are mounted on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are two on the tower that is closest to San Francisco. They sound together and issue a single long deep resonate blowing rumble, like the sound of a didgeridoo, but even lower. That low note sounds for two seconds – two long seconds – and then there is quiet for 18 seconds. And then it sounds again.

In the middle of the bridge there are three smaller foghorns that, among themselves, make two different but connected sounds. Their timing and pitch are very different from the slow deep rumble of the big foghorn. A one second blast is produced by 2 of the horns and is followed one second later by a one second blow from the third of the middle-span foghorns. The first sound – a mid-tone, almost whistling, blow – is notable less for its actual sound than for the punctuation it gives to the basso of the foghorn on the near tower. And if the first tone is punctuation, the second is the color of the punctuation. Just a little teapot bit of emphasis. Ta-Dah. The two-toned sound tells the pilot of a tanker where the middle of the bridge lies. Ships leaving the Bay stay to the Marin side of the two-tone horn, tankers coming into the Bay stay to the right, but always to the left of the big throaty rumble that issues from the belly of the city-side horn.

The timing of the near-side and mid-span horns creates a continuous loop – the stately, grave and mournful soundtrack to life in the City:


They turn the foghorns on whenever the fog is lower than the deck of the bridge. The horns go on a lot. One source says they average two and a half hours a day throughout the year. After a while you no longer really hear them; you connect at a deeper level. My skin absorbs the sound and it vibrates through my body until it reaches bone, where it takes residence. When the foghorns have been sounding for a while I find that all my bodily rhythms are aligned with that big bass sound. Basso profundo. My breathing, my blinking, the beating of my heart, they all line up with the deep rumbling music. There is a peace that comes over me when the foghorns start, a peace much more a part of San Francisco than the cable cars or the hills or even the brilliantine blue sky of the Indian Summer.

* * *

Only two cemeteries remain in San Francisco: The National Military Cemetery and the Pet Cemetery. Both are on Federal land in the Presidio and therefore safe from City legislation.

One afternoon in late September I go to the Military Cemetery. I am vaguely planning a scavenger hunt for one of my kids and, for reasons that no longer reveal themselves to me, I think this might be a perfect venue. Twenty-three acres overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Row after row of plain white gravestones, each with the name and rank of a soldier and also his birth and death dates. An excellent place for a scavenger hunt.

The cemetery is on the same hill that Pacific Heights is on, and as it spills down the hill towards the Bay, it makes for a different feeling than a cemetery on flat ground. Here the white gravestones undulate on the hill in waves as you walk, and should you be there on a foggy day, as I was, it seems as if the fog is flowing downstream through a field of white stones in a creek bed.

I came into the cemetery from the Golden Gate side and that gate was locked to vehicles. I remembered the old joke: the cemetery was so popular, people were dying to get in. There was a sign that cast shade on my plans for a scavenger hunt: “Respect the dignity of this place. No picnicking, jogging, or recreation of any kind.” I felt I was ok on the picnicking and jogging, but a scavenger hunt could be considered – at least by the uninitiated – to be a form of recreation.

I put that concern to the side and climbed over the wall into the cemetery. This was the first time I had seen the cemetery looking downhill. I was startled to see that on the backside of the gravestones there were names of women. Mary Mae, Stella, Harriet, Louisa. Not every stone had a woman’s name on it, but many, perhaps most, did. The women’s gravestone faces did not have the military adornments accorded to the men on the other side. They were very plain and very white. The cemetery was for the fallen military. Their spouses – read that as wives – were allowed in and given space on the back of the husband’s stone, breathing life into the old saw that behind every good man…

On each of the wives’ gravestones there was a birthdate and a death date. Each one also one had a first name and a middle name or initial but no last name, just the words “His Wife” so you’d need to go around to the front side and see what her husband had been named in order to tell who she was.

I don’t find cemeteries particularly unsettling but I found looking into a sea of names of long dead women genuinely creepy. Maybe not the best place for a kid’s birthday scavenger hunt.

* * *

I am a sucker for a good pet cemetery. I don’t usually admit to it – it brands you as slightly twisted – but there is something precious in a place where beloved pets are laid to everlasting rest.

The Presidio Pet Cemetery, located next to the Presidio National Military Cemetery, is just a few hundred yards from the entranceway to the Golden Gate Bridge. Here the mortal remains of the pets of soldiers find peace. Brownie and Little Bit and Robby Shakespeare – a hamster, bird and military horse, respectively – lay together in immortal repose.

I do a little research on the Pet Cemetery and find an article published in a journal called Markers, a scholarly magazine apparently devoted to the study of grave markers. The article is called: “Best Damn Dog We Ever Had’: Some Folkloristic And Anthropological Observations On San Francisco’s Presidio Pet Cemetery” by Richard E. Meyer and David M. Gradwohl.

Not only are Messrs Meyer and Gradwohl fine tour guides to the Presidio Pet Cemetery, but, like me, they appreciate the contrast between the Pet Cemetery and the Presidio National Cemetery with its 28 acres of orderly white gravestones with the names of the wives on the back. They draw a vivid picture, dead accurate to my eye:

The immediate sensation upon entering the Presidio Pet Cemetery is one of wild and riotous disarray, a mélange of homemade marker styles and graveside decorations which, in its total informality and seeming spontaneity, might suggest a relationship to the National Cemetery not unlike that of base canteen to parade ground.

They go on to conclude that the comparison is quite in the Pet Cemetery’s favor:

Quite ironically, one feels in this contrast that the pet cemetery is somehow more human than its actual human counterpart if, indeed, ingenuity, innovativeness, causative thought, emotion, and a sense of aesthetics are among the hallmarks of our species.

* * *

Quite by chance I learned that there was another fine pet cemetery in the Bay Area. I was in a restaurant in the Mission and stopped into a store called The Woods that advertised its wares as “curiosities, oddities and bric-a-brac.” Just my kind of place. I stopped in and poked around among the stuffed armadillos, paper mache heads of Chinese dancers, clusters of arrows arranged like a bouquet of flowers. I was on my way out when I noticed a framed photo on the wall of a small headstone beneath a somber sky: “Shadow, Our Beloved Companion, 1985 – 1999”

“Where is that?” I asked the woman who tended the store. She came out from behind the counter to peer at the photo with me.

“It’s the Pet Cemetery in Colma,” she said, “My husband took it. He loves pet cemeteries. He did a book on them. See?” She pointed onto a shelf where there was a stack of leaflet-sized books. I picked one up. It was called Small Rewards by Stan Banos.

I leafed through the book, filled with black and white photos of headstones and memorials. Many were from the Presidio, but others came from all over, including some from Paris and London. A number were from Colma.

Mr. Banos had a great eye for a tombstone:

Here lies some great hamsters

Tweek 1999-2000

Buffy 12-99 to 11-9-00

They will be missed

Small Rewards was not exactly bedside reading but I bought it and kept it at hand for ready reference because I knew that I had to take a trip south and visit the pet cemetery in Colma. It had the loveliest of names: Pet’s Rest.

* * *

Back in Philadelphia my kids had an au pair from Germany named Gerda. I remembered one day driving to work.

“Hey, Gerda,” I said, “that’s the oldest cemetery in Philadelphia. One of the oldest in the country.”

“Do they have a time when they can get rid of them?”

“The dead people? No. I don’t think so.”

“In Germany I think it is 20 years.”

“Really? They just get rid of them?

“German land is very valuable.”

“After 20 years, the bodies are decomposed,” I said.

“Although I heard that there is a problem with that in America.”

“What sort of problem?”

“People here eat too many conservatives.”


“They eat so much conservatives that their bodies don’t decompose very well.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Oh, yeah. They’ll be around forever.”

* * *

I arrived at Pet’s Rest as a supporter and an admirer. I had no chip on my shoulder. The usual evil voices in my head were quiet this once. I had neither disrespect nor satire in mind. I was at Pet’s Rest to pay my respects. I was there “to kneel,” as Eliot said, “where prayer has been valid.”

* * *

Free pre-paid cremation. What the hell did that mean? The whole thing bugged me. I wondered if I should open the envelope from the Trident Society, but it felt wrong to open Charles Kennedy’s mail. Besides, I had a better idea. I was in San Francisco, after all, this was the kind of situation where an explorer would turn to Yelp for information.

I typed the word “cremation” in the category section. I was looking for the Trident Society but I was immediately distracted by the five-star review of the services that one Nicolette G. obtained at an outfit called “City Cremation”. Nicolette’s review debunked an earlier review from Alexandra W. In fact, Nicolette was really glad she hadn’t read Alexandra’s review before she experienced City Cremation for herself. She pointed out:

“I am sure everyone reacts differently to a death in the family. From what I can tell, it seems like Alexandra needed some human contact and hand holding to get through making these kinds of arrangements, which is totally valid, but City Cremation is not that kind of funeral home…”

Having read Nicolette’s review I had to go find Alexandra’s. She reported,

On Friday morning I called the hospital and found my mother’s body had not yet been picked up.

I immediately faxed a letter to the hospital tell them NOT to release her body to City Cremation.

I got a call back within two minutes from a woman who was very concerned to save the deal. She said she had not gotten my fax. Oh really? Nor the two emails I sent after the fax, REFERRING to the fax?

Then when I complained about the lack of communications she attempted to upsell me to their parent company Pacific Internment… I hung up on her in the middle of her sales pitch. I would never EVER let these people near my mother’s body. If their customer service with the surviving relatives is so poor, imagine how they would treat the deceased, who can’t tell any tales?”

I knew I was getting overly bogged down in the drama at City Cremation but I was captivated by what a Yelper named CL had to say. CL said that what Alexandra complained about is

EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED. I didn’t need some stranger to tell me how sorry they were about my loss. I am an agnostic, as was my beloved husband. And I believe for the living. I wanted his remains disposed of as cheaply and efficiently as possible. I did not want or need to have direct contact with anyone from the crematorium! I had my children and my friends for that.

I loved that line, “I believe for the living.” I had no idea what it meant but there was an assurance and positivity that seemed profound. Maybe I could get it on a t-shirt.

I yelped the Trident Society again. There weren’t any reviews but they provided me with a contact website where I was able to learn that the Trident Society provided “America’s most trusted cremation services, including cremation pre-planning and green cremation.” With a few clicks I was able to learn that “pre-paid cremation plans save you even more money. Cremation costs increase every year – choosing yours now locks in your plan at today’s lower price.”

That was helpful insight, but I was no closer to understanding free pre-paid cremation. The website clearly suggested that cremation cost money. In fact, it looked like it was an increasingly expensive option. The beauty of a pre-paid plan was it locked in today’s pricing and protected against rising future costs, but still nothing made clear how the pre-payment could be free.

* * *

The Internet reveals that the Trident Society has been building a Memorial Reef where cremated remains may be placed. The website explains:

The Memorial Reef is an awe-inspiring, affordable and smart Memorialization option that is a fitting alternative to traditional cemetery burial. An enduring habitat for marine life, the Reef is also a reaffirmation of life afterlife. The Trident Memorial Reef, is a unique man made reef that resembles the legendary Lost City, located just three miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida. The Trident Memorial Reef is 16 acres in circumference and 40 feet below the surface of the Ocean. The Reef houses the cremated remains of hundreds of people who wanted forever to be a part of the renewal of life.

The Trident Society – now I get the name – touts a new approach to visiting departed loved ones:

Boat activity at the site is brisk, with families chartering boats or taking their own to snorkel or simply be at the site. Some family members actually become dive certified, enabling them to visit the site, to see their loved ones and monitor the Reef’s growth. Many of our local families dive the reef on a regular basis to visit their loved ones. One family, in particular, has been out 5 times in as many months.

Of course not every “placement” at the site is the same. There are “standard” ones of course, but, for the discerning, there are premium placements. I particularly enjoyed the Lion Column placement. Among “smart Memorialization options” the Lion Column could hardly be surpassed.

* * *

Pets’ Rest was tucked in between two of Colma’s many human cemeteries. Trim and tidy, with trees and the shade of a shrub marking the rear of the property. Final home for Grisha and Pudding Salazar and Goldilocks.

I wandered around taking it all in. What a nice and cheerful place. I loved everything about it. I turned to leave and it was then that I noticed the mural. Big and blue, it nearly covered the wall I passed as I entered. I hadn’t noticed it then, but as I started to exit I couldn’t miss it:

What was this about? On the left there was an azure pool where flamingos dunked their heads and frogs cavorted. Just above and to the right of that pond, there was a green lawn of sorts, kind of a putting green, and on that green there was a collection of critters: snakes and turtles, rats and spiders. Above the green and dominating the mural was a concrete staircase ascending into the sky.

The steps of the staircase were populated with higher order animals – pheasant and skunk and rabbit and squirrel. Mostly they faced upwards, climbing that staircase behind a cat bathed in light emanating from the glorious fog-white horizon.

At the very top, floating in the sky, there was a big dog with a key around his neck and a halo on the top of his head. The dog faced the staircase, watching patiently, benevolently, as the animals made their way to the top.

The staircase was clearly a stairway to heaven. The dog had the key to the gates of heaven around his neck. I wasn’t really sure why the dog was there. I studied some religion in college and I know that we tend to create deities in our own image – faster, bigger, more beautiful. What was that cat going to think when she arrived in heaven and found that a damn dog ruled the roost?

Were the critters down on the putting green, not on the staircase welcome on the pathway to heaven? Or were they, what, in training? Noviates? Didn’t they qualify for an afterlife? Where was the dividing line?

I thought about it for a while and then I had an Ah Ha! moment; Saint Peter was a busy guy. He didn’t have time to meet animals at the pearly gates. He had to delegate that job to a different saint, and who better than Saint Bernard? Yes, that was it. Saint Bernard was tending to the souls of the dead pets as they arrived at the door of heaven.

Before leaving I decided to take one more gravesite photo for posterity and I turned back into the cemetery proper to snap a photo of the joint gravestones of Peppy and Missy. Peppy’s marker had a standard missive, but Missy’s contained another clue to unraveling the mystery of the mural:

God is Dog spelled backwards.

Now everything made sense, or at least more sense. The Saint Bernard at the top of the mural wasn’t just a stand in for St Peter. He was God. And the owners of Pet’s Rest? They were dyslexic.

* * *

I looked into renting a Boston Whaler to explore the Bay. A company called SF Bay Rental and Marine Services, operating out of the Oyster Point Marina, looked like a plausible choice. I checked out the website that covers the boat rentals and was immediately distracted by the other marine services they offer. Those services include:

Scattering Ashes at Sea – From $198

The Vessel Kansas City, our 40 foot utility/towboat and former Naval Crew Boat, is ideal for scattering ashes at sea. Up to six friends or family members may accompany the Vessel Kansas City on her journey to scatter ashes at sea. You can request a permit for scattering ashes at sea in San Mateo County or the San Francisco Bay at the time of cremation. The Kansas City is ideal for Military and non-Military ceremonies, is non-denominational and is an affordable low cost, no frills, effective way to scatter ashes in the San Francisco Bay.

I wondered if there is really was such a permit. I googled up “scattering ashes permit” and found a series of paid Google ads for Ash Scattering at Sea. Turns out that companies like Oceanic West and Atlantis Memorials and Eternal Reefs are more than happy to provide affordable but memorable ways to remember a loved one.

One of them, Ashes at Sea, explains California Funeral Law as it relates to Burial at Sea:

To legally advertise and scatter ashes off the coast of California, a person must be licensed through the California Department of Consumer Affairs. This is called a Cremated Remains Disposer license or CRD. This is in addition to any licenses issued by the Coast Guard. Our license number is CRD 399.


We have found that many California boat companies advertise burial at sea illegally which means that they are not following all the legal requirements put in place for your protection by the CA Department of Consumer Affairs. While some of these boats may be less expensive, unfortunately they are ignoring the law.

I found a website at where one Captain Smitty invoked the “Circle of Remembrance” and reminded us that “Mother Earth and her oceans take back what she has given”. Captain Smitty was not ignoring the law; according to the website he held a State of California Cremated Remains Disposer License (Number 476). I wondered if he introduced himself at cocktail parties as a Cremated Remains Disposer or was the term Captain enough?

* * *

I haven’t spent much time contemplating funerals, though I helped my mother decide on how my father was to be laid to rest and then, ten years later, I helped to make the same decisions for her. I am pretty sure that the words “green burial” were never used in those discussions. I don’t suppose it mattered much – my father and mother were of the after-me-the-deluge school and I would have respected that – but I wondered whether green burial was taken seriously in San Francisco.

Of course, for a matter like that I turned to Yelp. I quickly found a discussion page titled “Green Deathmatch: Burial vs Cremation”. There were dozens of posts.

Paul B said:

When I die, cut me open and harvest the useful bits, then burn the rest. Then snort me with some coke.

Patricia, Hon of Hons, wanted liturgy:

Cremation and scatter my ashes off Tomales bay. And play Warren Zevon’s wonderful song “keep me in your heart for a while”.


You can compost me or make Soylent Green. Or maybe freeze drying, yum. I personally don’t want to end up in Body Worlds or used for research though.

GIR was clearly working out her philosophy on the thread. She explained why she didn’t want to be used for research:

Well, from what I’ve heard about certain unsavory parts of it, including a black market in parts, I am just not comforable with the notion of being a ‘part’ of it. I am also terribly shy, just the idea of my mortal remains being used so pains me.

I hadn’t even gotten used to the idea that cremation was greener than burial – frankly who knew that burial was pollution?

I learn that cremating a corpse takes 2 to 3 hours and 1,800 degrees of heat. According to my source, this means a release of “73 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” but even worse, “in many cases dental compounds, such as filings, also go up in smoke, spewing harmful mercury vapors into the air.”

These outcomes are avoided through a third alternative called resomation. In resomation the body is placed in a steel chamber with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide, then the pressure in the vessel is increased to 145 pounds per square inch and the temperature raised to 356 degrees. After just a few hours “the corpse is reduced to bones that are then crushed into a fine white powder.”

I am left with an unappetizing picture in my mind – the chamber seems like a combination of a cider press and a crockpot – and the poor human body nothing but a soggy disintegrating mess slithering off the leftover bones into a human soup with nothing but a sad and final plop. I think of a stanza from Perfect Blue Buildings, a song by the Counting Crows:

I got bones beneath my skin, and mister…
There’s a skeleton in every man’s house
Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hangs on everybody
There’s a dead man trying to get out

* * *cide to see what I might be able to buy in Colma if I decided to eschew cremation and resomation in favor of traditional burial. I go to something called the Final Arrangements Network, an outfit with the slogan “The First Place to Look For the Last Thing on Your Mind.” There I find available sites in a Colma cemetery for $4,000 bucks. But this is the price offered by the cemetery itself – the “new” price – and who wants to pay retail for a forever resting place? The website invites me to join the Final Arrangements Network in order to see the discounted prices being offered by existing owners – turns out there is a brisk secondary market for gravesites for the economy minded shopper – but I decline the invitation. I have a strong stomach as far as this business of death is concerned, but I am not sure I want to be getting emails on my iPhone all day long notifying me of new listings.

* * *

The evil voices in my head kept urging me to turn back to Pet’s Rest. I didn’t want to do it; I liked the vision of a carefree riot of graves and remembrances. But something about that mural had made me wonder if all was as beatific at Pet’s Rest as it seemed to be. Somewhat fatalistically, I turned to the Internet to see if I could find out anything further about Pet’s Rest and its owners.

I quickly learned that by 2006 Pets Rest had buried more than 10,000 pets, including, birds, turtles, dogs, cats, rabbits, goldfish and cheetahs. But in May of that year, some 350 families received a letter from a gentleman named Phillip C’de Baca, who inherited the cemetery from his father and mother-in-law. The letter advised various pet owners that their pets were buried on land that Pet’s Rest had leased from Cypress Abbey, an adjoining cemetery. Despite Mr. C’de Baca’s attempts, at the end of the lease term, Cypress Abbey had declined to extend the lease or sell the land to Pet’s Rest. That meant that hundreds of pets would need to be disinterred from the land and removed to another section of the pet cemetery. The dead pets – like the early decedents buried in San Francisco – were being evicted.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, that letter was not well received. Pet owners were outraged that they had not been told that their loved ones were buried on leased land. (Seriously, how could you bury a pet forever on land that had only been leased?) More than a hundred drove to Colma to get answers and register their unhappiness. Shirley Tufo, who had buried seven pets at Pet’s Rest, filed suit to enjoin the disinterment. According to newspaper reports, her request for a preliminary injunction was denied but court records show that the case remained in litigation for the next year. I tracked down the docket of the case and it showed that the matter was sent to mediation in May of 2007. No word if a settlement was reached, but presumably there was because the jury trial scheduled for October was vacated and no further action appeared in the case.

I turned to Yelp for more information, but the timeframe of the disinterment drama appears to have preceded Yelp’s emergence as the Bay Area’s paper of record. The oldest of the 60 plus reviews only dated back to 2007 and did not mention the land grab by Cypress Abbey. Nonetheless, there were many reviews of Pet’s Rest. While some were positive, I found a lot of unhappy customers, none more so than Shari B who authored a lengthy review in 2010. She began by saying, “the cremation experience I had at Pet’s Rest scarred me for life.” She documented the basis for her conclusion in this vivid passage:

The worst and most traumatic thing, and again I didn’t know this wasn’t normal until this last experience, but they took my cat’s bones and dumped them into a dirty bucket and then took a shovel and started to crush them up in a horribly violent manner right IN FRONT OF ME! The guy knew I was watching him and when I saw him doing that I ran to him and grabbed the shovel and begged him to stop which he did. He just looked at me and said “it’s the cycle of life”. WFT!? No, you are violently crushing the remains of the most beloved creature I’ve ever known. THAT is not the cycle of life. I told him to just leave them whole and put them in the bag as it which he did. God, I will NEVER forget that horrible experience as long as I live.

As bad as Shari’s experience, Steve J’s interaction affected him even more profoundly. He was having his pet cat assisted into a “long nap” by a vet in his San Francisco home. He called Pet’s Rest and made arrangements for the body to be picked up and taken to the cemetery for cremation. That afternoon a driver from Pet’s Rest arrived with a “cremation bag” for the cat to make the trip. Steve reports that:

I walked downstairs to meet the driver and asked for the bag. He gave me a white, 13 gallon, .90 milliliter bag with red drawstrings (aka, a GLAD garbage bag; I know this because I have some in the cabinet).

Perplexed of mind and red of eye, I paused, then went back upstairs to tend to Alex….

Curious, I discovered use instructions for these bags at The instructions note, in part:

1. Lift the bag from the container by pulling the drawstrings on each side of the bag.
2. Knot the drawstrings for added security.
3. Lift the bag by the drawstring and toss into garbage.

* * *

I solved the mystery of the free pre-paid cremations. I just put the phrase into Google – exclamation point and all – and I was soon clicking the arrow to start a video on U-Tube where a gentleman named Charles Woodbury did a bit of stand-up comedy about an envelope he had received from an outfit called the Neptune Society with the same teaser on the front that had come to my rental house. He was good enough to open the letter in his video and read it aloud, thereby sparing me the need to open Charles Kennedy’s mail. Turns out that the letter invites the addressee to enter his or her name in a contest conducted by the Neptune Society. The Prize? One “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!”

Clever marketing, I suppose, but it didn’t work with me. I didn’t need a contest with a chance to win cremation; I could just play the game of life.

* * *

I type the words “secret places” into Yelp and find myself directed to a place called the “Wave Organ,” a hard to find landmark in the Marina section of the City.

Stephanie W explains that

To the east of the Golden Gate Bridge, past long lawns of green grass, yacht clubs, and pigeon filled piers sits a special San Francisco monument. A long strip of land curves around the Bay, leading towards a unique natural instrument to play.

The peninsula’s end presents a collection of curiously constructed columns and structures. Peculiar pipes emerge like periscopes from behind the grey granite walls. Carefully carved stones create sheltered seats, surrounding a small courtyard that sinks into the sea. As waves wander through the space starts to perform for you. A symphony of strange sea sounds sing from each pipe. The unusual notes range from high to low, each pipe gives a mighty blow. Where can you enjoy unbeatable views of the sea while listening to this interesting harmony?

The one. The only. San Francisco Wave Organ.

Jesse M. gives it 5 stars:

The whole concept of the structure is splendidly creative. It’s kinda like what you would get if the Blue Man Group could have a baby with Stonehenge.

Ericka C. incites my interest even further when she reports that she
Thought this was a place to dump bodies when we came at night. …You will not like the water when it looks like a sea of crude oil.

I went down to the Marina and walked past the yacht clubs all the way out to the end of a promontory that reaches into the bay. At the very end, at the edge of the water, there is a little pocket park that seems to be built with the same stones you would see in a cemetery.

It turns out that is exactly what they are. Laurel Hill, the last of the San Francisco cemeteries to obey the order to vacate, was closed – and its residents disinterred – in the 1930’s. The cemetery offered the now unneeded tombstones and monuments to friends and families of the dead, but, as one academic study of the sad affair stated, “the response was less than overwhelming.” Laurel Hill appealed to various San Francisco historical societies, begging them to take the markers, but received almost no interest. Finally, the City cleared the remaining headstones and monuments and used them for sea walls at Aquatic Park and the municipal yacht harbor. The jetty on which the Wave Organ stood was built with material taken from the demolished cemetery, “providing a wonderful assortment of carved granite and marble,” and some of those very materials were used in the construction of the piece.

The musicality of the Wave Organ sprang from concrete tubes built into the water’s edge. To get the effect you press your ear into one of a dozen landside tube openings. You listen into the blackness of the pipe. When the waves slosh into the water edge of the pipes, you hear a deep slurping as the bay’s water runs in and out.

Not a symphony. Sepulchral music, made possible by the bodies buried in San Francisco, dug up and repotted in Colma, their unwanted grave markers repurposed into the Wave Organ.

* * *

One night that Fall I lay in my bed with the foghorns booming. It was 3:23 A.M. The foghorns had been sounding for three days and while I loved the sound of the foghorns, three straight days was a long time for them to be blowing. Their boomings had begun to take on that quality you occasionally find in a classic film, where an atmospheric condition becomes so pervasively intertwined with the story that it becomes an actual character, as integral to the story as the plot.

For a while I thought about the movies where that happens, but then I started thinking about the foghorns again and now it seemed that they hadn’t just been blowing for three days, they had been blowing forever. If you didn’t like the sound of foghorns – there was that mournfulness to them – you could go crazy listening to them this time of year. It was as if they were saying:

you are old… you are old… guess what… you are old… you are old… guess what…

I lay in my bed and counted the seconds between booms like counting sheep but it was no good. I wasn’t going back to sleep; I was up and the only question was whether I would lay alone in bed with the booming and chew on the meat of foghorns or some other equally gloomy topic, or get up and move around.

There was a line somewhere in the Four Quartets – I couldn’t remember if it was The Dry Salvages or Little Gidding, I could never keep them straight – that said that in the period between midnight and dawn time stops and time is never ending. And wondering exactly how Eliot said it made the decision for me.

I got out of bed and went to my study and dragged out the poem so I could check whether I had remembered it right. Turned out that I’d gotten it correctly and while that might have made me feel better at some other time, now I was too busy thinking about the booming of the foghorns to give myself a pat on the back.

I dressed and drove to the Marina. I parked in the lot just past the yacht clubs. The night was raw and wild. Wind skimmed water from the bay, turned it into mist and flung it at me violently as I walked down the long promontory to the jetty. The hoodie I’d put on as I left the house was heavy with moisture.

The Wave Organ was dripping in the dark.

I was alone.

I put my ear to one of the tubes and listened into the shivering blackness. The mouth of the tube startled my ear with a cold kiss. From deep below, I could hear the Wave Organ’s sloshing music, filling the space between the grave and stately boomings of the foghorns. I was floating at sea in the night, my raft lashed together with oddly buoyant gravestones.