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If you’re looking for old graveyards, check under your feet. To an unusual extent, San Diegans unknowingly walk, drive, shop and play over corpses and coffins.
“It’s pretty stunning to live in an area where there are dozens and dozens of graveyards and cemeteries that have been developed over,” said Seth Mallios, a San Diego State professor who studies cemeteries. “I’ve never seen a ghost, but I consider San Diego to be spooky because of how it treats its permanent residents.”
Most notoriously, Pioneer Park in Mission Hills — a popular grassy spot complete with a playground — sits atop a 19th century Catholic graveyard. As I explained in 2010, about 800 bodies are still in the ground, but only a few headstones remain. The other headstones were unceremoniously dumped in the sticks at the municipal Mt. Hope Cemetery, where some rose from the ground during a storm and came back to haunt embarrassed city officials.
“It was like night of the living dead gravestones,” Mallios said. (There’s now a tombstone graveyard at Mt. Hope with an above-ground memorial to the headstones buried beneath. Click here for a photo.)
“For those of us growing up watching the movie ‘Poltergeist,’ the point was that you shouldn’t build on top of a cemetery,” Mallios said, but San Diego does this “unapologetically.”
In Old Town, tiny medallions in the street denote the sites of graves (hundreds were buried there), and many dead are thought to be buried at Presidio Hill in Presidio Park. Oceanside’s Hunter’s Steakhouse sits over a graveyard. (Think about that next time you’re tucking into some prime rib.) Seaport Village sits at Punto de los Muertos — Dead Man’s Point — where the Spanish buried their dearly departed in the 1700s.
And San Diego’s most famous and beloved dog, a 19th century mutt named Bum who has a statue downtown, spends eternity under did the now-defunct TGI Fridays in Mission Valley. Bum “fell on hard times multiple times,” Mallios said, and spent his final year at the now-vanished county hospital next to his burial spot.
Many local cemeteries remain untouched by development, and they offer many treats to visitors, including elaborate Victorian memorial statues, Greek and Egyptian-style crypts, elegant mausoleums, and touching epitaphs (a gravestone epitaph in Oceanside simply says “Mums.”)
Mallios doesn’t know where he wants to be buried. “I see gravestones get pulled out of the ground and thrown away,” he said. “Maybe I’m nervous about the whole process.”
He should be. Considering San Diego’s approach to the dead, he might come back as a ghost and end up haunting a parking lot.