540 F Street
Colma, California 94014
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
With a mere 40 acres to its name, one might be tempted to suppose Colma's Italian Cemetery wouldn't have a great deal to offer. In truth, such a supposition could not be more incorrect! Here, in this admittedly-diminutive space, the proprietors of the cemetery have done an amazing job of serving the needs of the deceased and their families for well over 100 years. The Italian Cemetery boasts six modern community mausoleums, one older (more traditional) building and a host of small, family mausoleums, including the awesome Fugazi Chapel (1916) which stands in the middle of the so-called "Old World" section of the cemetery. It is easily the largest private monument in the graveyard. The Fugazi Chapel is not open to the public.
A word of caution before we begin our tour. Driving down some of the narrow, stone-paved roads can be tricky, especially if one happens to be behind the wheel of a large car or (worse) SUV. Bella Morte recommends "hoofing it" if you're not adept at negotiating tight turns and narrow passages.
On the day we visited, the sky was gloriously overcast...the cloud cover dense and gunmetal grey. This added to the sense of somehow being out of time in this most magical place. There is a distinct European feel about Italian Cemetery, especially when strolling past the rows of mausoleums or family crypts. These crowd, shoulder to stone shoulder, in long rows which rise or descend in concert with the terrain. There is precious little green space in the cemetery and this, too, adds to the feeling of having been dropped into a graveyard somewhere in Europe.
One thing we noticed almost immediately were the unusually long lists of names on the tombstones which rise above the crypts that occupy several of the cemetery's many streets. Upon closer inspection, we determined these are not traditional graves, but rather the "doors" to crypts which must extend some way down into the earth below. Many of the upright tombstones in this area feature beautiful porcelain or ceramic portraits. Most are oval, though one will come across an occasional rectangle as well. Indeed, our hands-down favourite porcelain in Italian Cemetery belongs to a gorgeous young woman whose name (alas) we failed to record. The porcelain features a photo of this woman, clothed in a traditional black mourning dress, her clasped and upraised hands enfolding a rosary. She kneels before a tiny home altar upon which rest two flickering candles, a crucifix and a framed image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The woman's long, dark, sensuous hair appears to cascade to her waist. Written in the lower left corner is this poignant caption: "Praying for my beloved mother." The custom of affixing these portraits was, for the most part, European. For a long time, one would only encounter them in ethnic cemeteries. Another good example is found in Chicago's Bohemian National Cemetery. Happily, the custom is enjoying a renaissance and it is becoming increasingly common to see these photographs on contemporary memorials.
There is another area of the cemetery where these little portraits proliferate...but we will get to that momentarily.
The clustered mausoleums are also quite fascinating. Constructed with little or no space in between, they give the impression of being cozy little town homes rather than tombs. One almost expects to see apron-clad neighbors leaning against the gates, merrily conversing with each other as the aroma of garlic, onions and cilantro waft through the sweet Californian air.
At the end of one of the little streets, the old Receiving Vault Mausoleum stands open for visitors. Built in 1905, it retains an air of dignity sometimes lacking in more modern structures. Standing sentry just inside the doorway, a sublimely serene angel wearing a gold circlet set with a red diadem holds an enormous shell containing "holy water." At the back of the mausoleum, a Tiffany-style window depicting a spray of roses flanked by climbing lilies allows light to spill over the marble-front crypts. We were heartened to note that even in this old building the crypt front vases were filled with brightly-coloured (all right, gaudy!) artificial flowers. Of course, it was not the garish display that pleased us, but rather the deep familial love evidenced by these mementos given so many decades after the corpses were entombed. Indeed, the Italian Cemetery is everywhere covered with flowers, trinkets and gifts.
Now...back to the aforementioned issue of portraiture. There is, as mentioned earlier, another section of the cemetery with myriad photographs. It is the Infant's Section, located in one of the handful of grassy areas on the grounds. Here, silent rows of upright stones, each, in typical Italian fashion, topped with a different youthful angel, stand in memory of children long-since deceased. Almost every stone has a porcelain affixed. In some photos, children sit astride crude wheeled toys... in others, they stand or sit in their Sunday finery. But the "Infant Photo Bella Morte Favourite" is a post mortem picture of an infant resting on an embroidered pillow. The photo has been somewhat degraded by time and weather, and the delicate stone, covered in lichen, has seen better days--but this merely adds to the charm. For the alert taphophile, post mortem photos are rare treasures. One must be observant as the corpses are sometimes posed in very lifelike attitudes. Dead giveaways (bad pun) are unnaturally stiff limbs, open eyes that appear to be painted on (clue: they often were!), and photos that appear to have been shot horizontally but are displayed vertically in an attempt to make the deceased look as if s/he is standing. Other, more subtle, indicators to look more closely include a traditional supine position and seated photos where something seems not quite right. Of course, the most obvious post mortem photos are those taken with the corpse plainly displayed in its coffin.
Far from being a mere morbid pastime, the 19th century popularity of post mortem photography derived from the fact that the art of the the photo was in its infancy and the cost was prohibitive. Oftentimes, families would not pay for such an extravagance until it was absolutely necessary i.e. after a death. Too, the attitude towards mortality was different. Death was thought of as a natural, inevitable eventuality and accepted as such as opposed to the (unfortunate) modern tendency toward denial. Deceased children were often photographed in the arms of parents posed in attitudes of grief. Early on, photos of adults showed them just as Death's touch had transformed them. It was not uncommon to see dried blood beneath the nostrils or obvious ravages of disease left untouched. Later, corpses began to be displayed on beds of flowers, or in attitudes of animation. One popular means of photographing the dead was to pose the body in a chair with a plain background. As neither the body or the background moved, long exposures were possible and the result was an approximation of a live person merely sleeping in a chair. Oftentimes, these are indistinguishable from pictures of the living. Sometimes, open eyes were painted on the deceased's closed lids to add a sense of animation. For those interested in this topic, a quick Internet search under "Post Mortem Photography" will be an excellent means of learning more about this fascinating subject. The Burns Archive published two books: SLEEPING BEAUTY I and SLEEPING BEAUTY II. The first is out-of-print and available copies sell in the hundreds of dollars. The second volume is still available for around $80.
Another thing one will notice in the Italian Cemetery is the voluptuous bodies of some of the angels! One particularly enticing example is in our gallery. No doubt, you'll be able to locate her!
Although well-maintained, the newer mausoleums suffer the plight of many modern structures made for this purpose...they are uninspired and dull. Most offer temperature-controlled space, and that is certainly a plus. But few provide room for expressions of individuality. Sadly, Italian Cemetery in Colma succumbs to this modern malady. Still, this is its only bad point and we cannot recommend strongly enough that visitors to the Bay Area who love cemeteries put this charming boneyard near the top of their "must see" list.
By the way, in spite of its name, the Italian Cemetery is not for Italians only! One may be of any race, creed, nationality, faith (or lack thereof) and choose an eternal home in this lovely and timeless place.