Colma, California

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Colma, California
Holy Cross Cemetery
Official seal of Colma, California
"It's great to be alive in Colma"
Location of Colma in San Mateo County, California
Location of Colma in San Mateo County, California
Colma, California is located in San Francisco
Colma, California
Colma, California
Location of Colma
Colma, California is located in San Francisco Bay Area
Colma, California
Colma, California
Colma, California (San Francisco Bay Area)
Colma, California is located in California
Colma, California
Colma, California
Colma, California (California)
Colma, California is located in the United States
Colma, California
Colma, California
Colma, California (the United States)
Coordinates: 37°40′44″N 122°27′20″W / 37.67889°N 122.45556°W / 37.67889; -122.45556Coordinates: 37°40′44″N 122°27′20″W / 37.67889°N 122.45556°W / 37.67889; -122.45556
CountryUnited States
CountySan Mateo
Incorporated as "Lawndale"August 5, 1924[1]
Name changed to "Colma"November 17, 1941
 • Mayor[2]Joanne F. del Rosario
 • City Manager[3]Brian Dossey
 • Total1.89 sq mi (4.90 km2)
 • Land1.89 sq mi (4.90 km2)
 • Water0.00 sq mi (0.00 km2)  0%
121 ft (37 m)
 • Total1,507
 • Density796.93/sq mi (307.78/km2)
 United States Census Bureau
Time zoneUTC−8 (PST)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−7 (PDT)
ZIP Code
Area code(s)650
FIPS code06-14736
GNIS feature ID1658303

Colma (Ohlone for "Springs")[5][6] is a small town in San Mateo County, California, on the San Francisco Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area. The population was 1,792 at the 2010 census. The town was founded as a necropolis in 1924.[7]

With most of Colma's land dedicated to cemeteries, the population of the dead—not specifically known but speculated to be around 1.5 million[8]—outnumbers that of the living by a ratio of nearly a thousand to one. This has led to Colma's being called "the City of the Silent" and has given rise to a humorous motto, formerly featured on the city's website: "It's great to be alive in Colma".[7][9]


The most common origin of the name "Colma" is the Ohlone word mean "springs" or "many springs".[10][5][6]

There are several other proposed origins of Colma. Erwin Gudde's California Place Names states seven possible sources of the town's being called Colma:[11] William T. Coleman (a local landowner), Thomas Coleman (a local resident), misspelling of Colmar in France, misspelling of Colima in Mexico, a re-spelling of an ancient Uralic word meaning death, a reference to James Macpherson's Songs of Selma, and two Ohlone possibilities, one meaning "moon" and one meaning "springs".

Before 1872, Colma was designated as "Station" or "School House Station", the name of its post office in 1869.


The community of Colma was formed in the 19th century as a collection of homes and small businesses along El Camino Real and the adjacent San Francisco and San Jose Railroad line. Several churches, including Holy Angels Catholic Church, were founded in these early years. The community founded its own fire district, which serves the unincorporated area of Colma north of the town limits, as well as the area that became a town in 1924.

Heinrich (Henry) von Kempf moved his wholesale nursery here in the early part of the 20th century, from the land where the Palace of Fine Arts currently sits. The business was growing, and thus required more space for von Kempf's plants and trees. von Kempf then began petitioning to turn the Colma community into an agricultural township. He succeeded and became the town of Colma's first treasurer.

In the early 20th century, Colma was the site of many major boxing events. Middleweight world champion Stanley Ketchel fought six bouts at the Mission Street Arena in Colma, including two world middleweight title bouts against Billy Papke and a world heavyweight title bout against Jack Johnson.[12]

A panoramic view of Colma, California, looking down from San Bruno Mountain

San Francisco cemetery relocations[edit]

Colma became the site for numerous cemeteries after San Francisco outlawed new interments within city limits in 1900, then evicted all existing cemeteries in 1912. In the 1910s many of the roads to Colma were not maintained.[13] Bodies were transported by street cars in San Francisco down Valencia Street in the Mission District; which resulting in many mortuaries and funeral homes in this location for quick access to Colma.[13] Approximately 150,000 bodies were moved between 1920 and 1941 at a cost of $10 per grave and marker. Those for whom no one paid the fee were reburied in mass graves, and the markers were recycled in various San Francisco public works.[14] The completion of the relocation was delayed until after World War II. The main rail line between San Francisco and San Jose running through Colma had been bypassed in 1907 for a route closer to the San Francisco Bay shoreline, and the former main line was repurposed as a branch line to move coffins to Colma. Decades later, the right-of-way for the rail line through Colma was purchased by BART for use in the San Francisco International Airport extension project.[14]

The Town of Lawndale was incorporated in 1924,[14] primarily at the behest of the cemetery owners with the cooperation of the handful of residents who lived closest to the cemeteries. The residential and business areas immediately to the north continued to be known as Colma. Because another California city named Lawndale already existed, in Los Angeles County, the post office retained the Colma designation, and the town changed its name back to Colma in 1941.[14]

Aerial view of Colma, city of cemeteries, from the south

Notable interments[edit]

Many, if not most, of the well-known people who died in San Francisco since the first cemeteries opened there have been buried or reburied in Colma, with an additional large number of such burials in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery. Some notable people interred in Colma include:


Aerial view of 280 Metro Center (lower center) in Colma, California

Originally, Colma's residents were primarily employed in occupations related to the many cemeteries in the town. Since the 1980s, however, Colma has become more diversified, and a variety of retail businesses and automobile dealerships has brought more sales tax revenue to the town government.[7][17] In 1986, 280 Metro Center opened for business in Colma; it is now recognized as the world's first power center.[18][19]

Geography and geology[edit]

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 1.9 sq mi (4.9 km2), all land. The town's 17 cemeteries comprise approximately 73% of the town's land area.[7]

Colma is situated on the San Francisco Peninsula at the highest point of the Merced Valley, a gap between San Bruno Mountain and the northernmost foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range.[20][21] The foothills and eastern flanks of the range are composed largely of poorly consolidated Pliocene-Quaternary freshwater and shallow marine sediments that include the Colma and Merced Formations, recent slope wash, ravine fill, colluvium, and alluvium. These surficial deposits unconformably overlay the much older Jurassic to Cretaceous-aged Franciscan Assemblage. An old landfill about 135 deep existed at the site developed by the 260,000 sq ft (24,000 m2) mixed-use Metro Center.[22]

Colma Creek flows through the city as it makes its way from San Bruno Mountain to San Francisco Bay.


Colma station on BART and SamTrans buses serve the city.


Colma has one private school, Holy Angels School, a Catholic school for preschool through 8th grade.[23]

Colma belongs to the Jefferson Elementary School District, which has two schools in Colma: Garden Village Elementary (grades K–5) and Benjamin Franklin Intermediate (grades 6–8). High school students typically attend Westmoor High School in the Jefferson Union High School District.


Historical population
Census Pop.
U.S. Decennial Census[24]

Informally, as of 2006 Colma had "1,500 aboveground residents ... and 1.5 million underground".[7]


The 2010 United States Census[25] reported that Colma had a population of 1,792. The population density was 938.6 people per square mile (362.4/km2). The racial makeup of Colma was 620 (34.6%) White, 59 (3.3%) African American, 7 (0.4%) Native American, 619 (34.5%) Asian, 9 (0.5%) Pacific Islander, 366 (20.4%) from other races, and 112 (6.3%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 708 persons (39.5%).

The Census reported that 1,763 people (98.4% of the population) lived in households, 0 (0%) lived in non-institutionalized group quarters, and 29 (1.6%) were institutionalized.

There were 564 households, out of which 217 (38.5%) had children under the age of 18 living in them, 271 (48.0%) were opposite-sex married couples living together, 110 (19.5%) had a female householder with no husband present, 42 (7.4%) had a male householder with no wife present. There were 44 (7.8%) unmarried opposite-sex partnerships, and 8 (1.4%) same-sex married couples or partnerships. 91 households (16.1%) were made up of individuals, and 31 (5.5%) had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.13. There were 423 families (75.0% of all households); the average family size was 3.45.

The population was spread out, with 390 people (21.8%) under the age of 18, 178 people (9.9%) aged 18 to 24, 532 people (29.7%) aged 25 to 44, 488 people (27.2%) aged 45 to 64, and 204 people (11.4%) who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36.4 years. For every 100 females, there were 92.7 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.9 males.

There were 586 housing units at an average density of 306.9 per square mile (118.5/km2), of which 224 (39.7%) were owner-occupied, and 340 (60.3%) were occupied by renters. The homeowner vacancy rate was 1.7%; the rental vacancy rate was 2.3%. 738 people (41.2% of the population) lived in owner-occupied housing units and 1,025 people (57.2%) lived in rental housing units.


In the census[26] of 2000, there were 1,191 people, 329 households, and 245 families residing in the town. The population density was 624.6 people per square mile (240.8/km2). There were 342 housing units at an average density of 179.4 per square mile (69.1/km2).

There were 329 households, out of which 36.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.1% were married couples living together, 11.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 25.5% were non-families. 17.3% of all households were made up of individuals, and 10.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.47 and the average family size was 3.92.

In the town the population was spread out, with 24.7% under the age of 18, 8.9% from 18 to 24, 31.7% from 25 to 44, 19.1% from 45 to 64, and 15.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females, there were 87.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 86.9 males.

The median income for a household in the town was US$58,750, and the median income for a family was US$60,556. Males had a median income of US$32,059 versus US$29,934 for females. The per capita income for the town was US$20,241. About 3.4% of families and 5.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 4.8% of those under age 18 and 3.7% of those age 65 or over.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Harold and Maude, (1971), a dark comedy about a death-obsessed young man and a vivacious older woman, filmed scenes at Holy Cross Cemetery and elsewhere on the Peninsula.[27]
  • Tales of the City (novel and 1993 miniseries) has a minor character named Candi Moretti, a waitress whose name tag says she is from Colma.
  • Colma (1998), the fourth studio album released by guitarist Buckethead, makes reference to the town of Colma.[28]
  • Alive in Necropolis (2008), a novel by Doug Dorst.
  • Colma: The Musical (2007) is an American independent film that was shot on location in Colma and Daly City.[29][30]

Further reading[edit]

  • A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco's Lost Cemeteries (2005) a documentary about the relocation of cemeteries from San Francisco to Colma.[31]
  • Colma: A Journey of Souls (2014) a documentary film about the history of Colma.[32]


  1. ^ "California Cities by Incorporation Date". California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions. Archived from the original (Word) on November 3, 2014. Retrieved August 25, 2014.
  2. ^ [1]. Retrieved on 2019-01-20.
  3. ^ City Manager Home. Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  4. ^ "2020 U.S. Gazetteer Files". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved October 30, 2021.
  5. ^ a b City of Colma - History
  6. ^ a b Colma Historical Association - Newsletter #120
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Pogash, Carol (3 December 2006). "Colma, Calif., Is a Town of 2.2 Square Miles, Most of It 6 Feet Deep". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
  8. ^ "Why are there so many dead in Colma? And so few living". Retrieved 26 February 2021.
  9. ^ Smookler, Michael (2007). Colma. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 9780738547275. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
  10. ^ "And Just How Are Things in Colma, Calif.? Awfully Quiet, Night and Day". New York Times. April 21, 1996. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  11. ^ Gudde, Erwin G. California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (4th ed.). University of California Press. p. 86.
  12. ^ "Stanley Ketchel - Boxer". October 15, 1910. Archived from the original on May 18, 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  13. ^ a b Wells, Madeline (2021-10-14). "'Sworn to secrecy': Ex-employees say The Chapel's ghost was real". SFGATE. Retrieved 2021-10-14.
  14. ^ a b c d Branch, John (February 5, 2016). "The Town of Colma, Where San Francisco's Dead Live". The New York Times. Retrieved January 11, 2018.
  15. ^ a b c Roisman, Jon (November 6, 2014). "Local Jewish history comes to life at cemetery walk".
  16. ^ Roisman, Jon. "Local Jewish history comes to life at cemetery walk". J. The Jewish News of Northern California. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 7 November 2014. Actors, many of them professional, portrayed a number of local Jewish luminaries, such as Levi Strauss, Alice B. Toklas and Joshua Abraham Norton, a late 1800s San Francisco celebrity better known as “Emperor Norton.” [...] notable Jews buried there, including Julie Rosewald (America’s first female cantor) and Josephine Earp (wife of famed lawman Wyatt Earp, who is buried at her side).
  17. ^ Boudreau, John (12 June 1994). "Couldn't you just die? Necropolis USA: One town's underground economy". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  18. ^ Laird, Gordon (2009). The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. p. 68. ISBN 9781551993287. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  19. ^ Pacione, Michael (2009). Urban Geography: A Global Perspective (3rd ed.). Milton Park: Routledge. p. 249. ISBN 9780415462013. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  20. ^ Colma Cardroom Project, Environmental Impact Report, Environmental Science Associates, prepared for the city of Colma (1993); IV.B. "Geology and Soils" Archived 2015-07-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  21. ^ About the Mountain: Topography and Climate Archived 2015-07-25 at the Wayback Machine, San Bruno Mountain Watch (nd).
  22. ^ M.Papineau, B.George, J.Buxton et al., Environmental Impact Report for the Metro Center, Colma, California, Earth Metrics report 10062, prepared for the city of Colma and the California State Clearinghouse (1989)
  23. ^ "About Us". Holy Angels School. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  24. ^ "Census of Population and Housing". Retrieved June 4, 2015.
  25. ^ "2010 Census Interactive Population Search: CA - Colma town". U.S. Census Bureau. Archived from the original on July 15, 2014. Retrieved July 12, 2014.
  26. ^ "U.S. Census website". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  27. ^ "Harold and Maude Bay Area Filming Locations". Harold and Maude homepage. Archived from the original on 15 September 2019. Retrieved 26 April 2018. Bay Area Location: Holy Cross Cemetery on Old Mision[sic] Road in Colma.
  28. ^ "Colma - Buckethead — Listen and discover music at". Archived from the original on 10 March 2016. Retrieved 15 February 2016. The album was recorded for Buckethead's mother as she was ill with colon cancer and he wanted to make an album she would enjoy listening to whilst recovering. The title of the album makes reference to the small town of Colma near San Francisco, California, where "the dead population outnumber the living by thousands to one".
  29. ^ Manohla Dargis (July 6, 2007). "Big Teenage Dreams, Small-Town Doldrums". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-05-28.
  30. ^ "Colma: The Musical". GreenRockSolid. 5 July 2007. Archived from the original on 6 May 2019. Retrieved 8 July 2007.
  31. ^ Bressler, Janice (July 3, 2018). "New film highlights history of Richmond's lost cemeteries". Richmond ReView / Sunset Beacon. Retrieved October 5, 2018.
  32. ^ Livengood, Carolyn (October 30, 2014). "Veterans Day to be observed at Golden Gate National Cemetery". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved October 5, 2018.

External links[edit]