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Colma, California
Town of Colma
Colma, from the roof of the BART station parking garage. Portions of Daly City are in the background.
Colma, from the roof of the BART station parking garage. Portions of Daly City are in the background.
Official seal of Colma, California
"It's great to be alive in Colma"
Location in San Mateo County and the state of California
Location in San Mateo County and the state of California
Country United States
State California
County San Mateo
Incorporated as "Lawndale" August 5, 1924
Name changed to "Colma" November 17, 1941
 • Total 1.909 sq mi (4.945 km2)
 • Land 1.909 sq mi (4.945 km2)
 • Water 0 sq mi (0 km2)  0%
121 ft (37 m)
 • Total 1,792
 • Density 938.7/sq mi (362.39/km2)
  United States Census Bureau
Time zone UTC-8 (PST)
 • Summer (DST) UTC-7 (PDT)
ZIP code
Area code(s) 650
FIPS code 06-14736
GNIS feature ID 1658303

Colma is a small incorporated town in San Mateo County, California, near the northern end of 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.

With most of Colma's land dedicated to cemeteries, the population of the dead outnumbers the living by over 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, now recorded on the city's website: "It's great to be alive in Colma."


The origin of the name Colma is widely disputed. Before 1872, Colma was designated as "Station" or "School House Station", the name of its post office in 1869. Currently, there seem to be seven possible sources of the town's being called Colma:

  • William T. Coleman, allegedly known as the "Lion of the Vigilantes" and a significant landowner in the area
  • Thomas Coleman, a registered voter in the district in the 1870s
  • A transfer name from Europe: Alsace has a Colmar
  • A re-spelling of an ancient Uralic word meaning death
  • A literary origin from MacPherson's Songs of Selma, in one of the Ossianic fragments
  • Native American languages:
    • "Kolma" means "moon" in one dialect of Costanoan, or Ohlone, who lived in the area; however, this name does not appear on any design ("diseño") of Indian rancherias at the time
    • An undisclosed Native American word meaning "springs"
  • A corruption of Colima, a Mexican place name meaning volcano, but also ancestors.

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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 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.

Hienrich (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 (in what was known as "Cow Hollow") in San Francisco. The business was growing, and thus required more space for Hienrich's plants and trees. Hienrich 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. Famed middleweight world champion Stanley Ketchel held 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.

San Francisco Cemetery relocations

Colma became the site for numerous cemeteries after San Francisco, in 1900 outlawed new interments within city limits, then in 1912 evicted all existing cemeteries (though the actual process of removal was delayed until after World War II); these events are the subject of A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco's Lost Cemeteries (2005), a documentary by Trina Lopez.

The Town of Lawndale was incorporated in 1924, 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.

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.

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

Notable interments

Many, if not most of the well known people who died in San Francisco since the first cemeteries opened here 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:

  • Cypress Lawn Memorial Park
    • William Henry Crocker, business magnate
    • Charles De Young, San Francisco Chronicle founder
    • Phineas Gage, famous 19th-century medical curiosity
    • William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon
    • John McLaren, horticulturist
    • Turk Murphy, jazz musician and bandleader
  • Hills of Eternity and Home of Peace (side-by-side cemeteries)
    • Wyatt Earp is buried next to his wife, Josephine Marcus Earp
    • Julie Rosewald, America's first female cantor
    • Levi Strauss, denim trouser pioneer
    • Alice B. Toklas is not buried in Colma, though there is a large Toklas tombstone for her and markers there for some of her relatives
  • Holy Cross Cemetery
    • Joseph Alioto, San Francisco Mayor
    • Pat Brown, 32nd governor of California
    • Patrick and Terence Casey, the San Francisco brothers team of pulp writers
    • Frank "the Crow" Crosetti, New York Yankees shortstop
    • Joe DiMaggio, baseball player
    • A.P. Giannini, Bank of America founder
    • Vince Guaraldi, jazz musician
    • James D. Phelan, senator
  • Woodlawn Cemetery
    • Henry Miller, California cattle rancher
    • Joshua Abraham "Emperor" Norton, a late 1800s San Francisco celebrity known as "Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico"
    • José Sarria, LGBT political activist who styled himself "The Widow Norton" in reference to Norton

Geography and geology

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.

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. 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.

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


Colma (Bart Station) (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and SamTrans buses serve the city.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1880 188
1930 369
1940 354 −4.1%
1950 297 −16.1%
1960 500 68.4%
1970 537 7.4%
1980 395 −26.4%
1990 1,103 179.2%
2000 1,191 8.0%
2010 1,792 50.5%
Est. 2015 1,520 −15.2%
U.S. Decennial Census

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


The 2010 United States Census 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 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 art, entertainment, and media

  • A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco's Lost Cemeteries (2005), by Trina Lopez, documents the relocation of cemeteries from San Francisco to Colma
  • Colma: The Musical (2007) is an American independent film that was shot on location in Colma and Daly City. The film has won several special jury prizes at local and international film festivals.
  • Colma: A Journey of Souls (2014), is a documentary film about the history of Colma, produced by Kingston Media.
  • Colma (1998), the fourth studio album released by virtuoso guitarist Buckethead, makes reference to the town of Colma
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