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Remembering San Francisco's Ornate 'Funeral Streetcars'

When the city banned burials, it turned to the “Cemeteries line” to ferry the dead out to the ‘burbs.

An advertisement for funeral-car service, circa 1911. (SFMTA)

Imagine waiting for a streetcar only to spot a coffin-shaped carriage coming over the hill, packed with black-clad figures and bearing the name “FUNERAL CAR.” Would you run for the bushes, or risk meeting the Grim Operator, ready to harvest both your fare and soul?

Though they might sound like a gothic-horror relic, such “funeral streetcars” did indeed ghost the tracks of early 20th-century San Francisco. Specifically they ran on two lines from the city—which banned new burials in 1902—to the adjoining southern town of Colma. There the somberly decorated cars would disgorge the living and the dead into a number of cemeteries, where the dead would be cremated and/or interred.

A seating arrangement inside of funeral streetcar, circa 1903. (SFMTA)

Whether intentionally or not, the specially designated carriages, with their glazed exteriors and streamlined edges, sometimes resembled giant, moving caskets. Here’s more on their history from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which maintains a selection of funeral cars among its historical photo collection:

The line that performed this service was the 14 Mission, in its incarnation as a streetcar line. Prior to the 1920s, the 14 Mission was also known as the "Cemeteries line" because it continued down Mission Street in to Daly City, then onto the cemeteries in Colma. Cemetery service via Mission Street stopped in 1921, as increased competition from automobiles led to a decline in demand for streetcar funeral services.

Before the 1906 Earthquake and Fires, the Cemeteries Line ran a slightly different route via San Jose Avenue. The Cemeteries streetcars were ornate inside, with wicker furnishings, cushions, rugs, and curtains.

San Francisco wasn’t the only city to deploy streetcars for mourners and the dead. Chicago used them in funeral processions around the turn of the 20th century, and Los Angeles’ Descanso streetcar, which transported bodies away from the city, still remains on view at a California railway museum.

A new funeral streetcar sits at Olivet Memorial Park, circa 1905. (SFMTA)
Wood panels and coat racks inside a new funeral car, circa 1905. (SFMTA)
The curtain-clad windows of a funeral streetcar at the Geneva Car House Yard, circa 1903. (SFMTA)
Rows of seats for mourners inside a new car, circa 1905. (SFMTA)
Another new funeral car at Olivet Memorial Park, circa 1905. (SFMTA)
Wicker chairs meant for the living line a funeral streetcar around 1905. (SFMTA)

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.