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Forgotten San Rafael Graveyard Gets New Life

Charlie Kelly had walked the serene dirt trail separating San Anselmo and San Rafael’s Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery for years. But one day last winter, he suddenly noticed the thick brush and poison oak cloaking the sharp hillside were concealing a secret — an old gravestone.

As Kelly ascended the steep hill, he noticed more and more stones listing beneath the unchecked vines and branches; one grave from 1871, another from 1879. For Kelly, whose parents are buried in the cemetery proper, this was some sort of rogue graveyard, forgotten by time and apparently abandoned by humans too.

“Suddenly these headstones popped out of the forest floor,” said Kelly, a Marin County mountain bike pioneer, “and I go ‘man I walked past here so many times, why didn’t I see those?’”

Kelly began visiting the forlorn plot of graves with gardening tools, clearing away the brush and taking photos. He began to concoct stories in his head about the origin of the graves and what might have happened to their inhabitants. Some held children, someone from Germany and other far-off lands, some buried before San Rafael even officially became a city.

“Clearly anyone who was born in the early part of the 19th century and is buried here,” Kelly reasoned, “came from somewhere else.”

Kelly posted his photos of the graves to a Facebook site called Lost Marin, devoted to the area’s fading treasures. He immediately struck some sort of community nerve, as hundreds of viewers shared Kelly’s wonder of why the graves were allowed to fall into such disrepair and neglect when they were clearly at the edge of a fully functioning cemetery.

“The why and the where,” Kelly said, “you could write novels about that stuff.”

Mount Tamalpais Cemetery officially became a cemetery in 1879, bearing most of the San Rafael’s founders. The sixty-five acre park is the resting place of politicians, artists – even members of the Pointer Sisters.

When asked about the seemingly abandoned grave site, cemetery director Jack Thornton hopped in his golf cart to investigate. He ambled down dirt roads originally carved out for horse and buggy, winding past grave-covered hillsides holding the likes of Sally Stanford, the famous madame; past the graves of children who died of disease following the 1906 earthquake – past the Eddy family whose name is on a famous San Francisco street.

He drove to the unchecked thicket where Kelly first discovered the graves, standing on the dirt path, surveying the hillside and its tangles of brush, spotting some of the headstones stifled by the foliage.

Back in his office, Thornton pulled out an original map from 1880, and a log back from the same era to identify the area.

“Ah,” he said, identifying the plot as “Section J”.

He pointed to the antique map, using a magnifying glass to look up a grave number in section J — cross referencing it in a book that listed the graves and their inhabitant along with a smattering of information.

“This is a real old section,” Thornton said. “They haven’t had any burials here I’d say in maybe 80, 90 years.”

Thornton thumbed through the log book looking up more graves from section J.

“Got another one here,” Thornton said. “Jacob Archer, he was from Bavaria – 1879.”

As to the hullabaloo over the state of the abandoned graveyard, Thornton reasoned it was abandoned because the hillside had shifted over the decades to the point it was no longer accessible. He said the dangerous slope, along with the thickets of poison oak made it too dangerous for his gardeners to even maintain. So at some point in its history, the cemetery had allowed nature to take its course. But, he said, that didn’t mean it was completely forgotten.

“We’ve got a map that shows exactly who’s here and where it is if somebody wanted to visit them,” Thornton said, “at your own risk.”

Kelly doesn’t mind the risk, wading through the poison oak over weeks to locate all the graves on the overgrown hillside. He theorized some of the more elaborate stones had cost a great deal of money, while some were so sparse and modest, they only listed a name and a date of death.

“We know very little about the people whose markers are here,” Kelly said, looking at a headstone where tentacles of moss had climbed its stone face.

Kelly said he was at least satisfied that people now knew these graves were here, and maybe others would step up to care for them, in a way bringing them back into the world of the living.

“I just think that we should remember these people and say their names,” Kelly said. “Because that’s why they’re engraved on a rock.”

Source: NBC Bay Area

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