top of page
  • Writer's pictureMalia Miglino

The Ultimate Guide to California’s Historic Cemeteries.

From North to South, I have drained the state of California dry when it comes to their historic cemeteries. For the past 15 years I have taken innumerable roadtrips throughout the state in the quest to find the best burial grounds. Can I list them all here? No! But I will share a large chunk of my favorites. Buckle up for the ultimate macabre roadtrip through the Golden State.

*not all photos are mine, see captions for original location.

Northern California

If you're looking for New England style towns, proper seasons and some truly incredible cemeteries, then Northern California is the place for you. Here are my favorite NorCal burial spots. (Just make sure to bring weather appropriate shoes...unlike I always do.)

Sacramento Historic City Cemetery EST. 1849

photo credit

I can't tell you why I'm not a huge fan of Sacramento, the capitol city of the state has always left me feeling a little...ick. However, I will always stop just so I can wander this perfect cemetery. Established in 1849, this Victorian cemetery feels almost like something from Savannah. The 44 acres of cemetery is home to a 600 person mass burial pit of victims of the 1850 Cholera epidemic that swept that city. It's also home to many notable burials including many politicians but most interestingly (to me at least,) is it's the final resting place of none other than Alexander Hamilton's son, William, who died of Cholera in the city. Unlike the others, he was actually given a proper burial and impressive monument.

Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland EST. 1863

You know the most famous park in the country, Central Park of NYC and you know how famed garden architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed it? Well, he also designed this cemetery making it not only the first independent landscaping commission he took on but the ONLY cemetery he would design on his own. Established in 1863, the cemetery would become the burial ground for the who's who of the Bay area. Today, visitors often come to see the grave of chocolate giant Ghirardelli and if you're more of a true crime fan, then you probably are also coming to see the grave of the Black Dahlia aka Elizabeth Short. Her murder to this day is still the most popular unsolved murder in Los Angeles. After having traveled the world and seeing hundreds of cemeteries, I can attest that this one holds up to the best of them. An absolute must see.

* Last time I went they were only allowing family members into the cemetery. I haven't returned to see if it's been re-opened to the public. A very nice gate guard allowed me in so if it is closed to the public, try a nice word, it can go a long way!

If you're interested in getting the full history of this cemetery and it's inhabitants, you can do so here.

Ferndale Historic Cemetery, Ferndale EST. 1870

I'll never forget researching new towns to visit on my mom & my annual roadtrip when I happened upon an article on Ferndale claiming it was one of the most complete Victorian towns still in existence in America. I was already sold but then I saw a photo of their historic cemetery; a gorgeous Victorian necropolis that crawled up along a steep hill overlooking the picturesque town and out to the ocean. That was it, I had to go. The plot of land was purchased for burial use in 1870, but the first *recorded* burial is in 1877. The view and headstones are absolutely worth the steep and sometimes treacherous climb to view. If you would like to visit with the early pioneers and settlers of the area, I highly recommend you do but just make sure to wear appropriate footwear so you don't become a resident yourself.

Pioneer Cemetery & St. Canice Cemetery, Nevada City EST. 1850s

What's better than one historic cemetery? How about two? Of all the gold rush towns in California, Nevada City just may be my favorite. Not only does it look straight out of a Hallmark movie, but it is rife with historical buildings and gorgeous albeit somewhat hidden, cemeteries.

Located next to each other, the Saint Canice Cemetery and the Pioneer Cemetery are both worth a visit. There's just something romantic about these Victorian cemeteries tucked away in the woods. They date back to the 1850s with St. Canice in far better condition than the Pioneer cemetery. Endless iron gates and marble headstones marking the short lives of MANY children cover the grounds of St. Canice while the Pioneer cemetery is all but bare, most of the wooden headstones not surviving the test of time. There is one impressive sarcophagus still standing proudly which is the grave of Aaron Augustus Sargent who introduced the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

I truly could not recommend this town and these cemeteries more. Make sure if you visit to also pay a visit to the Empire Mine State Park.

Ione Public Cemetery , Ione EST.1849

Ione may be famous for the Preston Castle, but this barren cemetery is definitely worth a visit of its own. What first struck me about this burial ground, is the desert atmosphere despite it being surrounded by lush trees. There is a desolate energy to the place which may have to do with the people buried there. Situated in Amador country, many settlers came to the area during the gold rush despite there not being any gold in the immediate area. What it became, was a stop for people on their way to the gold mines so a town full of shops, breweries and grain mills popped up in order to supply hopeful miners. The cemetery changed ownership and names many times and when bigger ones were built in more prosperous areas, this one was sort of left behind. I fell in love with it a bit and I think you will too.

Amador City Pioneer Cemetery , Amador EST. 1851

You're going to feel like you're trespassing when visiting this cemetery but I promise, you are not. Located essentially behind homes, this pioneer cemetery is overgrown in the most beautiful way. What I love most is that despite how dilapidated some of the graves are, many have historical plaques telling a brief history of the person. I always particularly love this touch and wish it were done more often.

Fun fact about this cemetery? Due to the rocky ground, digging graves was often too tedious so they opted to use dynamite. If that doesn't say mining town, I don't know what would.

St. Patricks's Catholic Cemetery, Jackson EST. 1860s

Located next to the Jackson City Cemetery, this massive Catholic Cemetery is home to a very special mass grave; 27 of the 47 miners who died in the 1922 Argonaut Mining Disaster are laid to rest here. Another notable grave is that of Marie Suize aka Madam Pantaloons who dressed as a man to work the mines. I think of all the cemeteries in this area, this one gives the best snapshot of the lives and occupations of the people who worked and lived in the area. To be honest, Amador county is teeming with burial grounds. Do yourself a favor and take the day to explore all of them in the area.

Notable Cemeteries in the Surrounding Area.

Oak Knoll Cemetery, Amador City EST. 1905 w/ burials dating back to 1870

Immaculate Conception Parish Cemetery, Sutter Creek EST. 1850s

Odd Fellows Cemetery, Sutter Creek EST. 1854

Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Cemetery, Jackson EST. 1860

Presidio Pet Cemetery, San Francisco EST. Unknown

photo credit

A trip to San Francisco may raise a question, "where are all the cemeteries?" Well, in 1900 the city banned all burials due to overcrowding and in 1912, they took further action and actually kicked out the dead, exhuming and moving all bodies South to the city of Colma. Today there are only 3 cemeteries left within the city limits; the National Cemetery located at the Presidio, San Francisco de Asís cemetery, the oldest cemetery in San Francisco at Mission Dolores and this one, the pet cemetery, also located at the Presidio. What I love so much about this one is all of the handmade headstones for the beloved pets that made so many of the Military families stationed here happy when it was still an Army outpost. Although there's not an exact establishment date on the cemetery, we know it was probably around the 1950s. Today it is home to over 400 pets. It's also the only cemetery on this list that makes me emotional when I visit it.

The entire city of Colma.

photo credit New York Times

The smallest city in San Mateo County jokingly boasts that they have more dead residents than living...and they're not lying. The so called "City of Souls" has 1,509 living residents and a whopping 1.5 million graves. The 16 cemeteries that fill this tiny town are all spectacular which is why I can't, won't and don't have the energy to highlight each one. The ultimate destination for any dark tourist or taphophile. Be warned you'll need a whole weekend just to visit each cemetery. If you want a quick cheat sheet of some famous graves and where to find them, here ya go -

Hearst Family - Cypress Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park, Colma

Wyatt Earp - Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, Colma

Joe DiMaggio - Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, Colma

Lillie Hitchcock Coit (my favorite) - Cypress Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park, Colma

Central Coast

Come for the wine, stay for the cemeteries. The Central Coast of California is home to some haunting cemeteries full of legends and ghosts.

Evergreen Cemetery, Santa Cruz EST.1858

Something you should know about me is that I will travel long distances for graves, especially those of working women, if you know what I mean. I don't quite remember how it was that I stumbled upon the story of Marie Holmes, the 21 year old English prostitute who in 1898 killed herself by drinking carbolic acid, but I knew I had to find her. Her story was beyond upsetting and even had a crazy twist. It's said that she was suffering from melancholy, tuberculosis and missed her daughter who she'd had to leave behind. After her death, the Madam of her brothel paid for her funeral and the other women who she worked with, pitched in to buy her a headstone ... which would go missing. That was until a hiker in 2012 found it, 114 years after she'd died. The headstone has since been put back, along with a larger monument on top of her grave containing a poem. Her grave, it is said, was located by her daughter, who had come to say goodbye to her mother. This is just one incredible story from this forested coastal cemetery. This is a don't miss cemetery of the highest degree.

If you're interested in getting the full history of this cemetery and it's inhabitants, you can do so here.

Purissima Cemetery, Half Moon Bay EST. 1868

Have you ever stumbled upon a natural burial site? Well...I did, unknowingly. When I stopped off at the Purissima pioneer cemetery, I thought I was going to find old wooden headstones, possibly some nice stone monuments and I did, but I also found burial mounds containing natural burials of recent deaths. This is because in 2017 Ed Bixby purchased the land which contained this abandoned cemetery and turned it into a natural burial ground. It was unnerving at first because I wasn't expecting it however, by the time I had left I had discovered that of the 58 pioneers that were buried here before being abandoned, the majority of them were children. THAT was unnerving.

*The cemetery is literally off of a small mountain road and it's a bit of a climb to get to the burials. Keep in mind this is an active cemetery and the natural burials are mounds of earth so be mindful.

If you're interested in getting the full history of this cemetery and it's inhabitants, you can do so here.

Pleasant Valley Cemetery, San Miguel EST. 1887

This cemetery gets points for being the one and only cemetery located on a vineyard..Graveyard Vineyards in fact, a brilliant winery who took their unusual location and used it to their advantage.

Established in 1887 when a man named James E. Huston's wife JoAnna passed away. He gave one acre of the one and one half acres of his land to the no-longer standing Pleasant Valley Presbyterian Church. His wife was the first burial. Unfortunately, the city had sold the land on accident as a delinquent property and most of the cemetery records were lost. They fixed their error and the cemetery is now back in use averaging 3 burials per year. Sadly, the cemetery that had since it's beginning not charged for plots, started charging in 2017. Today you can stop off at the cemetery before starting the climb to Graveyard Vineyards where you can enjoy wine with cheeky names like Scream and Tombstone White.

If you're interested in getting the full history of this cemetery and it's inhabitants, you can do so here.

Adelaida Cemetery, Paso Robles EST. 1880s

It was about time we featured a haunted cemetery, am I right? Adelaida cemetery had its first burial in 1878 when the second wife of Wesley Burnett, Mary K Burnett, died. However, the cemetery wouldn't be incorporated until 1905. The area of Adeliada was first settled in the 1850s and became known for its Mercury mines which you can imagine made things...interesting. Perhaps it's due to mercury leaks in the water that caused people to be paranoid of things like witches OR perhaps it was the people driven mad by the mercury that gave this place a more supernatural reputation, but whatever the case, stories of ghosts and witches are rife in the area.

The most famous ghost story associated with the cemetery is that of Charlotte Sitton. Charlotte was a 19 year old alleged wife of a local minister who committed suicide after losing her infant daughter in the diphtheria epidemic of 1890. It is said that you can see her ghost wearing a long white gown leaving flowers on the graves of children on Friday nights. On my many trips to this cemetery I've yet to catch a glimpse of her myself but there is a grave of a woman named Charlotte Sitton who died in 1890 so there may be truth to this story yet.

*To get to the old section of the cemetery on the hill you are going to have to climb, keep that in mind when you go.

If you're interested in getting the full history of this cemetery and it's inhabitants, you can do so here.

Arroyo Grande Cemetery District, Arroyo Grande EST. 1800s

Sort of like with Colma, the area of Arroyo Grande is full of cemeteries, some that are in pretty good condition like the Arroyo Grande Cemetery (featured above) but many others are overgrown, abandoned and require a bit of sleuthing. The area was originally the ancestral land of the Chumash Indians who suffered the same upsetting fate when Spanish Missionaries moved into the area. The area is rich in culture and fun little cemeteries to wander through and if you're into antiquing (like myself) definitely stop into the town for some shopping.

Arroyo Grande Cemetery

Branch Family Cemetery

Saint Patrick's Cemetery

Halcyon Cemetery

Nordhoff Cemetery, Ojai EST. 1870

Located in the Ojai Valley, Nordhoff cemetery is almost all that is left of this town that originally attracted White settlers due to the area's legendary healing and spiritual properties. Author Charles Nordhoff had written a book listing California as a healing place for travelers and it was him that the town was named after. This cemetery houses all of the areas pioneers but it surprisingly is still an active cemetery but don't get excited because all plots are currently spoken for. In fact, there are over 17,000 people buried here and its a true smorgasbord of tragic histories from murders, wars and epidemics. The cemeteries claim to fame is actually it's ghost story which is, well, about a dog.

If you're interested in getting the full history of this cemetery and it's inhabitants, you can do so here.

Notable Cemeteries in the Surrounding Area.

Cemetery Memorial Park, Ventura EST. 1860s - Watch the documentary on this cemetery by Brandon Alvis here.

Santa Barbara Cemetery, Santa Barbara EST.1867

Southern California

From Hollywood Stars to executed criminals; these SoCal cemeteries encapsulate the entire history of this great state. Thought you knew about the cemeteries here? Think again. Time to visit Dracula, the birthplace of the state and so much more.

Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles EST. 1884

Of all the cemeteries in Los Angeles, of which there are plenty, Angelus-Rosedale stands out amongst the rest. Namely because it was the first to open the cemetery to all races and creeds, a truly unheard of and progressive notion in 1884. Due to this, the cemetery is home to probably the most eclectic cast of characters in any burial ground in the city.

Here is a small sampling of some of the residents I am particularly intrigued by;

Phineas Banning & his family. - Known as the Father of the Harbor of Father of the Port of Los Angeles, one can thank Phineas for Los Angeles truly becoming the port hub that it did. However, it's his daughter Lucy that really has a story to tell.

Maria Rasputin - just the freakin daughter of THE Rasputin. Here's a fun video on her life in Los Angeles.

Harry Kellar - Magician and one of Harry Houdini's biggest inspirations.

Hattie McDaniel - One of the most notable African American actresses in Hollywood history, the first to receive and Academy Award and is a huge reason why the fair housing act was created. Learn more here.

* Keep in mind while visiting - this cemetery is notorious for not liking taphophiles and prohibits filming and photography within the cemetery without prior permission or permit.

Evergreen Cemetery, Boyle Heights EST. 1877

photo credit KCET

I don't think I'm far off when I say not a lot of cemeteries can claim to be a former potters field, prohibition speakeasy hot spot, resting place to a group of carnival workers AND city founders. Evergreen Cemetery however, can. This burial ground boasts being the oldest in Los Angeles, its not true but it is the oldest cemetery that is still a cemetery. With over 300,000 internments, this east Los Angeles burial ground has a distinctively unique view of DTLA and is probably the most representative of the cultural hodgepodge that is Los Angeles as far as residents go. Some of the first burials on site were that of the indigent who were buried in the section known as the potters field. Eventually they ran out of space a and a crematorium was built on site where they would now cremate all the unidentified people. Today, there is over 1,700 unknown cremated people buried here. Like Angelus-Rosedale, this cemetery accepted almost anyone except they had to be in their own segregated sections. The only people barred from entry were the Chinese, who were only allowed in the potters section. Additionally, they were the only ones who had to pay, $10 a body, to be buried in their own segregated section of the unknown. Eventually in the 1920s, a fully Chinese cemetery was created off site and it was reported that all bodies were to be exhumed from Evergreen and moved there. In 2005, a construction project near the Chinese section of the potters field revealed over 174 Asian male skeletons with various belongings like jade bracelets and opium pipes revealing the truth that not all bodies made it out.

Another interesting section of the cemetery is Showmen's Rest; the burial place of over 400 former circus and carnival workers. One of my favorite stories about this cemetery comes from the time of Prohibition, when the mortuary contained a speakeasy and there are multiple stories of drunken parties in the cemetery. A walk through the cemetery today will have you passing city founders like, John Strother Griffin, Jotham Bixby and Isaac Newton Van Nuys. You'll also pass former mayors, authors, actresses and a beautiful quilt of nationalities. When I visit I always feel like I'm seeing the true Los Angeles, not the gilded version. To be honest, it may be my favorite.

Other Los Angeles Cemeteries

Like I said previously, there are A LOT of cemeteries in Los Angeles and I chose to highlight my favorite historical ones and not the more well known Hollywood-centric ones but in the vain of being thorough, here is a complete list of other cemeteries you should NOT miss in Los Angeles and some of the stars that call them home.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery

- Johnny Ramone, Judy Garland, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Cecil B. Demille, Maila Nurmi & hundreds of others.

Forest Lawn Glendale

- Michael Jackson, Walt Disney (both in the same private Mausoleum), Elizabeth Taylor, William Wrigley Jr. & hundreds of others.

Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills

- Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher, Ronnie James Dio, Stan Laurel and hundreds of others.

Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial

-Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin, Natalie Wood, Rodney Dangerfield and many more.

Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery

- Sharon Tate, Bela Lugosi (FREAKIN DRACULA), Bing Crosby and many more.

San Fernando Mission Cemetery

- Bob Hope, Ritchie Valens and many others.

San Fernando Pioneer Memorial Cemetery alt. Morningside

- Established in 1874, this historic cemetery is closed unless giving tours.

For a video on my top 3, you can watch that here.

Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, Altadena EST. 1882

photo credit

Tucked above Pasadena is a vast and fantastic garden cemetery and mortuary that has been favored by Film & TV for decades due to its lush vegetation and beautiful monuments. The first 24 burials to take place on the property were actually moved there from private backyard graves in Pasadena proper, who were looking to sell their land and wanted a more permanent location for their loved ones. Over the decades, the cemetery has been home to legends of occultist activities performed by followers of Aleister Crowley, namely JPL founder Jack Parsons and Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard. Today, the cemetery which is still in active use, is home to a large selection of Silent Movie era actors and directors. I love this because it speaks to the area's often overlooked history which is that in many ways, this was Beverly Hills when Beverly Hills was still farmland.

Notable Cemeteries in the Surrounding Area.

Sierra Madre Pioneer Cemetery EST.1881

San Gabriel Cemetery EST. 1872

Savannah Memorial Park in El Monte EST. 1850s w/burials dating back to the 1840s.

Sunnyside Cemetery, Long Beach EST. 1906

Yorba Family Cemtery, Orange County EST. 1858 - Purportedly the oldest burial ground in CA.

Spadra Cemetery, Pomona EST. 1860s

photo credit Pomona Historical

As if I wasn't going to feature the allegedly haunted cemetery that is all that is left of a vanished town? Located underneath the freeway, the Spadra cemetery is all that remains of mysterious little town that started off as a part of the Rancho San Jose land grant that became home to many lower class families escaping war and poverty in the South. This brought a ton of horrific prejudice against the people in the area who often kept to themselves but accomplished things like creating the first school district in East Los Angeles County. The little town did well when the railroad had a stop there, but when the railroad was extended, people stopped coming to the town and the shops and such that were kept alive from the business started to close. The towns reputation didn't help either which consisted of tales of suicides, murders and other nefarious happenings. The nail in the coffin was more than likely that it was most famous for being home to the Pacific Colony; a home for the mentally disabled. With dwindling numbers, the town of Spadra was annexed by the city of Pomona in 1964 leaving very little of the town visible today. Even their cemetery is closed 99% of the time and is located on private property which is why visiting is only legal during tours. However, the cemetery with legends of hauntings have been long since a favorite for the local thrill seeker and trespassers are a constant problem.

The cemetery is definitely worth seeing but please do so while on a tour.

Agua Mansa Cemetery, Colton EST. 1840s

I first happened upon the Agua Mansa cemetery when I was researching La Llorona stories in California. The town of Agua Mansa whose name literally translates to gentle water, was a thriving and happy river town until 1862. The Great Flood of 1862 affected towns across the entire state but it literally washed away Agua Mansa, leaving nothing except it's cemetery. Situated atop the hill at the highest point of the town, many residents took shelter in the adjoining chapel as the river that had been their salvation for 20 some years became their destruction. Today the cemetery is a historical site and it's one of the few in the state that charges to explore. Many people come to try and catch a glimpse of La Llorona, the Mexican legend of a vengeful weeping woman who's husband was unfaithful and to get back at him, she drowned all of their children in the river. It's said that after she realized what she'd done, she drowned herself in the river to be with them. People claim to see a weeping woman wandering the cemetery and many believe it to be La Llorona who is still looking for her dead children, just as the land is waiting for the river to return.

Notable Cemeteries in the Surrounding Area.

Riverside Evergreen Cemetery EST.1872

Riverside National Cemetery EST. 1976 - officially the largest National Cemetery in the country with over 1,236.77 acres.

Julian Pioneer Cemetery, Julian EST. 1870

Thousands come to Julian each year for their apple goods, whether it be pies from Mom's or good ol' Julian hard cider, the small mountain town is definitely no stranger to tourists. Yet somehow, many fail to make the steep climb up the seemingly endless wooden staircase built into the hillside to visit the cemetery. Established in 1870 with the first burials being two teenage boys in 1875; the cemetery is a glimpse into the past when this town was a lawless gold mining haven. Disease, murder and mining accidents made sure this hillside cemetery was always full of action. The cemetery is famously known for being full of people who were buried with their boots on. A fun colloquialism meaning to die while employed, most namely the mines that dot the surrounding area. The plaque at the base of the cemetery stairs references the labor that went into burying people here. It retells of the burial of Mary Clough in 1896 who died during a winter storm and how it took 16 people carrying her casket on a sled from the church up to the cemetery in 3 feet of snow. Then how in 1924 when a road was put in, the act of having to physically carry the coffins and caskets up the walk was finally discontinued to the assumed relief of the townspeople. Of all the cemeteries I've visited in California, this is one of the only that I would call "creepy." Perhaps it's the damned walk up to it, or perhaps it's how the cemetery looms over the town below. A reminder that death is always watching and waiting.

El Campo Santo Cemetery, San Diego EST. 1849

We've arrived at our final resting place, if you'll allow my pun and it just happens to be the so called "Birthplace of California." San Diego is one of my favorite American cities, partly because it reminds me of a tropical version of my hometown of Seattle but also because their old town is still so complete. Before the Gas Lamp became the place to live in the Victorian era, everyone was living further North in the area now called "Old Town." Today the area is most famous for the Whaley House, the place some consider to be the most haunted house in America. That actually pertains to this cemetery because one the most famous burials is of Yankee Jim Robinson who famously stole a boat in the mid 1800s and was sentenced to death by hanging for his crime in the backyard of what is now the Whaley house. The cemetery itself is a bit of a hot spot of paranormal activity. Some attribute it to the paving over of a large portion of the cemetery to extend a street car line. Some of those graves are now marked by bronze "grave site" markers in the sidewalk surrounding the cemetery.

Like some of the other pioneer cemeteries in our list, many graves have little plaques describing the lives of the people buried there. It's a thoughtful addition to possibly one of the most important cemeteries in the state. Burials only took place from 1849 to the 1880s and it is believed at least 447 people are buried here with 18 at least being underneath the sidewalk. Many believe that the paranormal activity is because the souls are trapped from their graves being paved over. Others believe it's because of the violent and somewhat lawless nature of the town during active burials. To me? It's a lovely historic cemetery that gets unusually high levels of foot traffic by tourists thanks to the bustling tourist attraction the town has become. I'm glad it has and I'm glad these early settler's stories are continuing to get told year after year.

Notable Cemeteries in the Surrounding Area.

Pioneer Park formerly Calvary Catholic Cemetery , San Diego EST. 1870 - most of the headstones have been removed but the bodies remain. 1,800 are documented but upwards of 4,000 are believed to be buried there.

Odd Fellows Cemetery, Fallbrook EST. 1904

San Luis Rey Pioneer Cemetery, Oceanside EST. 1860s - was the Mission's answer to burying non-Catholics.

That concludes my ultimate guide to California's historic cemeteries. Have you been to any of these? I would love to hear your favorites and your thoughts in the comments below!

bottom of page