WOODLAWN MEMORIAL PARK
1000 El Camino Real,
Colma, California 94014
Bella Morte Rating: 3 Tombstones
As cemeteries in Colma go, Woodlawn is definitely not at the top of our list of favourites. We were certainly excited as we approached the grounds, though. The fortress-like office and mausoleum complex with its two massive archways that span the drive to allow the passage of incoming and outgoing traffic seemed the guardians of what we thought must surely be a magical kingdom beyond. Sadly, this was not the case. We found nothing of particular note to hold our interest on the grounds or their history save for the fact that, during that great mid-Twentieth Century exodus of the dead from cemeteries inside the San Francisco city limits, Woodlawn welcomed 40,000 displaced souls to the refuge of her peaceful acres.
Well...there is one other historical tidbit we'd like to share...
During the aforementioned exodus of the deceased, the remains of one rather special former resident of the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco were relocated to Woodlawn amidst a great deal of excitement and elaborate ceremony. The object of all this attention was a gentleman named Joshua Abraham Norton, though he'd most certainly have preferred that we refer to him by his official title: Norton I - Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
Born in England in 1819, Joshua's parents immigrated to South Africa when their son was two years old. In 1849, at the age of 30, having collected $40,000 as his inheritance, Joshua moved to San Francisco where, by 1853, he had amassed a small fortune in the real estate market; however, his success was short-lived. Five years later, in 1858, he declared bankruptcy after having lost his wealth in a failed attempt to corner the rice market. Rather than trouble himself attempting to rebuild his fortune, Joshua came up with a much simpler plan. On 17 September, 1859, he took out ads in a number of San Francisco newspapers proclaiming himself "Emperor of These United States." Upon further consideration, he added the title "Protector of Mexico" some time later. He then proceeded to print his own currency (legal tender from "The Imperial Government of Norton I") which, oddly, the suddenly infatuated citizenry of the City by the Bay began to honour with amazing frequency. The Emperor had stormed the hearts of San Franciscans and became their beloved son. Arrested in 1867 by a police officer who felt "The Emperor" should relocate to an asylum, the resultant public outcry and demand for his release resulted in a quick end to Norton I's detainment...and a public apology from Police Chief, Patrick Crowley. Magnanimously, the Emperor issued an Imperial Pardon for the officer who had committed an act of treason.
During his reign, Norton the First issued numerous proclamations and decrees, among which were the following:
Referring to San Francisco as "Frisco" became a crime punishable by a $25.00 fine.
The United States was dissolved.
Citizens of San Francisco were to donate money to Mr. Frederick Marriott to support his experiments with airships.
The city of Sacramento was ordered to clean its muddy roadways and place gaslights on all streets leading to the capitol building.
The Grand Hotel was to furnish the Emperor free rooms under penalty of banishment.
Again, these are only a few examples from the lengthy and amusing list of the Emperor's orders and decrees. Of course, most were ignored, but the citizenry humoured him nonetheless and the proclamations continued until 8 January, 1880 when the Emperor departed for another kingdom. The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed the news the following day with an obituary headline reading "The King is Dead," and a throng of 30,000 is said to have comprised his funeral cortege.
The expenses for the penniless Emperor's casket and gravesite at the Masonic Cemetery were covered by a businessmen's club and, when his remains were moved to Woodlawn in 1934, the cemetery donated his headstone. A simple, upright slab of granite, the tombstone is inscribed:
of the United States
Protector of Mexico
Joshua A. Norton
Enough of history now...
As stated earlier, the grounds of Woodlawn, although not completely without merit, left us generally unimpressed. Ditto for the newer of two community mausoleums which houses bank after bank of uninspiring glass-fronted columbaria whose largely Asian residents share their urn space with stuffed animals, photographs, jewelry, statues and, in several instances, watches...a few of which we noted with wry regard were still ticking! Signs within the building instruct that no incense is to be burned inside. Rather, visitors are directed to granite holders with pre-drilled holes filled with sand in the parking area. These were filled to capacity with spent sticks of incense left by mourners as well as a random candle, several cans of some type of Asian beverage, as well as a fruit offering in the form of a single fresh orange.
At last, we turn our attention to the older community mausoleum which swayed us to rate Woodlawn a three tombstone, rather than a two tombstone, haunt.
A part of the aforementioned office and gatehouse complex, this mausoleum beckoned us in by way of a walk surrounded on both sides by stone walls surmounted by a profusion of red, pink, white and purple impatiens (Ah...November in California!) The site of comely urns espied through the amber-tinted windows ahead caused us to quicken our pace and, once inside, to catch our breath at the site of the elegant niches, private family crypts, unique urns, stained glass and statuary. From Fabergé to Murano, many of the mausoleum's high-class tenants were housed in stylish urns modeled on the work of masters. Of course, not everyone was bedecked in such finery and many more simple, though none-the-less attractive, urns also sat on display behind their glass windows. Other niches were fronted with bronze or granite.
We spent a considerable amount of time in this lovely edifice, enjoying all there was to see. In regard to the numerous sculptures, our favourites were the bronze images of a well-muscled male and bare-breasted female who held aloft (sadly empty) candleholders. And then, there was the marble figure of a woman we assumed to be Salome. With her sensuous body and alluring pose, she certainly appeared lovely enough to have coaxed Herod into providing her the head of John the Baptist...but that is, as they say, another story....