The Town Where the Dead Outnumber the Living

Visitors passing through Coloma, California, may get an uneasy feeling if they pay attention to their surroundings. By way of scenery, the small town south of San Francisco offers 17 cluttered cemeteries. The total number of bodies interred there is estimated to be 1.5 million, which means Coloma’s dead population is nearly 900 times greater than its living population of 1,700. The town’s morbid claim to fame is a result of laws passed in San Francisco in the early 1900s. At the turn of the 20th century, the city was struck by the bubonic plague. It was also in the middle of the gold and silver boom, and land within the city limits suddenly seemed too valuable to hand over to the dead. To conserve real estate, San Francisco outlawed burials in 1900. San Francisco ultimately decided to solve its cemetery problem by moving the graves elsewhere. Between 1920 and 1941, more than 150,000 bodies—nearly all of the city's dead—were relocated to Colma, which at that point was mostly empty farmland. Close to a century later, many San Franciscans still end up in Colma after their passing.