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'It's great to be alive in Colma!'

Jeff Chiu / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pet's Rest employee Teresa Hernandez, right, walks her dog, Lord, as she shows a customer around Pet's Rest cemetery in Colma, Calif., in 2006.

The Colma, Calif., town motto — “It’s great to be alive in Colma!” — has a cryptic meaning to those familiar with grave undertakings. In Colma, the dead outnumber the living nearly 1,000 to one.

“We have 17 cemeteries — one exclusively for beloved pets,” said Mayor Helen Fisicaro. “The cemeteries are like our parks. They are absolutely beautiful, and people come from all over to enjoy them.”

Colma, with a population of about 1,600, is the final resting place for more than 1.5 million deceased. She said the dead provide a living for numerous florists, landscapers, monument erectors and other funeral-related businesses. 

Death became a Colma growth industry nearly 100 years ago when neighboring San Francisco deemed its real estate too precious to squander on the dearly departed, according to Pat Hatfield, president of the Colma Historical Association since 1993. Suddenly, final resting places became transitory.

“All the cemeteries were evicted,” she said. “The graves needed to be moved outside of city limits.”

City leaders settled on Colma, less than 10 miles south of downtown San Francisco, in San Mateo County.

“It was convenient,” Hatfield said. “Colma was as close as funeral homes could get and still be able to get back in one day.”

The hectic and trying relocation process resulted in what today is a community of uncommon peacefulness.

“The cemeteries are each so beautiful and all have their own personalities,” Hatfield said, adding that the cemeteries share characteristics as diverse as San Francisco.

Many are like ethnic neighborhoods without the restaurants. There are Serbian, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Chinese and Jewish cemeteries.

Most popular is Pets Rest Cemetery, home to the graves and lovingly rendered monuments to more than 13,000 dogs, cats, ocelots, goldfish, monkeys, turtles and even cheetahs, said owner Philip C’de Baca.

“People are really moved by what they see here,” Baca said. “They realize there are certain things everyone has to do when any human dies. But the love people show a pet is really above and beyond.”

Many famous Californians born elsewhere live in perpetuity in Colma. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, jazz musician/"Peanuts" theme composer Vince Guaraldi and Manson murder victim and coffee heiress Abigail Folger are among the eternal residents at Holy Cross Cemetery; William Randolph Hearst is at Cypress Lawn; Wyatt Earp, a man who became famous in Tombstone, Ariz., has his own tombstone in Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, as does blue jeans icon Levi Strauss.

Mark Fontana is a Colma chiseler in the best sense of the word. His grandfather, Valero Fontana, in 1921 founded the family mason business now going four generations strong.

He’s built mausoleums worth $500,000 and said the average amount spent on a monument is “between $2,000 and $5,000.” He hastens to add that the numbers diminish the personal investment unseen in the work contracts.

“We don’t advertise, and in Colma, we’re always busy,” he said. “This is one of those businesses where people pay us and then they send us thank you notes. It’s very gratifying.”

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Chris Rodell is a Latrobe, Pa., contributor who blogs at www.EightDaysToAmish.com