How S.F.s biggest Jewish cemetery was turned into a park

The dead. We bury them as soon as we can. We leave the bodies of the deceased alone and are supposed to use a simple wooden coffin. Some of us do not adorn grave with flowers, only stones.

I contemplate these customs on a fecund hillside in San Francisco’s Dolores Park, as my dog leaps down the slope to catch a ball in midair. It’s an early outbreak of spring. I’m tempted to plant tomatoes and sunflowers.

I come to this sunny spot every day. Its beauty is only one aspect of my experience, though. I’m standing on ground that 110 years ago was the biggest Jewish cemetery in the Bay Area.

This isn’t just a Jewish phenomenon. Many of the parks in San Francisco are the former resting places of the dead. Former, because in the 19th century the Board of Supervisors decided that all that valuable land could be better used as real estate. Under the pretext that the proximity of the bodies to homes and businesses was a health hazard, the cemeteries around the city were gradually evicted to the south, to that curious quiet community we know as Colma.

As city parks go, Dolores Park is a lively and somewhat decadent place. The crest of the southern slope is infamously known as “Speedo Beach” because of the number of men who will lie out in nothing but their tight “swim trunks” on a hot day. Infrequently, there are drugs deals and juggling hippies. There are also families and mariachis and tennis players.

I don’t just see the recreation — I see the history. The founders of Jewish San Francisco rested here in the Hills of Eternity (owned by Congregation Sherith Israel) and Home of Peace (owned by Congregation Emanu-El). There was also a third, smaller cemetery run by Congregation Beth Israel-Judea.

The park was split down the middle between the two big cemeteries. Eight thousand people were buried in my dog park, according to Judy Edmonson, manager of the “new” site of the Emanu-El cemetery in Colma.

Jews are particular about death. I couldn’t imagine the families of the dead learning that the bodies would be moved. What if I was told that the bones of my grandparents had to be dug up and put somewhere else? I’d freak out.

Now imagine 8,000 Jewish bodies in the late 19th century. How do you move 8,000 bodies approximately eight and a half miles in 1889, presumably by horse and buggy? How do you do this and observe proper Jewish customs for respecting the dead?

Imagine the emotions. Imagine the labor, the spiritual struggle.

I’ve helped carry the coffins of several people from the hearse to the gravesite. The weight always feels unbearable. The feeling resides in the stomach. It’s a visceral knowledge that you are supporting the weight that this person once supported themselves, with their will, their vital essence. The journey is made slightly easier by the thought that you are bringing their body to the place it will rest forever.

But what if it’s not forever?

My first reaction when I found out about the move was to wonder if and when Jews are allowed to move bodies.

According to Rabbi Judah Dardik of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, what’s paramount in burial and the subsequent care of the dead’s remains is “the honor of the deceased.” You can exhume a body and move it if, for example, it is going to be placed near the remains of loved ones. Or if where it’s buried is going to be turned into a city park.

“Moving the remains of the deceased is one of the most serious things one can do in Judaism,” Dardik told me. If a body has decomposed into the earth, some of the earth around the body is collected and taken. Even though the soul has moved on, the body was a shell that served the soul during its time on Earth.

Also, the day the body is exhumed the family is supposed to sit an additional day of shiva. And someone from the family should accompany the body on the journey to its new resting place.

It’s a strange feeling, looking at the grass in the park and thinking of the wrenching scenes which must have happened right where a couple is playing Frisbee. I have to believe that the shells of the souls that rested in the ground here are at peace eight and half miles to the south, and that they would tell me to stop being morbid and enjoy my life before I too come to rest in a beautiful grassy place like Dolores Park.

This is Jay Schwartz’s final column. He can be reached at [email protected].