Cemeterian Digs the 'City of Souls'

Man spent the last few decades "hanging around cemeteries."

By Mike Anderson
|  Monday, Oct 31, 2011  |  Updated 2:03 PM PDT
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Nickolas Marinelli works at the Italian Cemetery in Colma, Calif. The town has less than 2,000 living residents, but more than 2 million people buried there.

Mike Anderson

Nickolas Marinelli works at the Italian Cemetery in Colma, Calif. The town has less than 2,000 living residents, but more than 2 million people buried there.

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Working in a town known as the "City of Souls" is, by definition, an ominous-sounding career choice for Nickolas Marinelli. The cemeterian works at the Italian Cemetery in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco.

"We have over 2 million people buried here, but less than 2,000 people who are alive," he said. "The town motto is 'It's great to be alive in Colma.' "

Marinelli was drawn to cemeteries as a teenager in southern California, where he gave tours of movie stars' graves.

"I found cemeteries to be enjoyable, very quiet, contemplative places and I spent the next few decades hanging around cemeteries," he said.

As the Director of Community Relations at the Italian Cemetery, Marinelli does everything from taking the first phone call informing him of a death to arranging memorial services and ordering gravestones.

The job comes with a lot of grief, but he said it's rewarding "being there for people on the worst day of their lives and making a difference."

More than 100 years ago, San Francisco banned burials within the city and kicked out its cemeteries, so it started burying its dead in nearby Colma. Now the town of 2.2 square miles has exactly 17 cemeteries -- including the pet cemetery -- and a grave reputation.

"I've never met a ghost," said Marinelli, who thinks it's silly when people avoid visiting cemeteries to avoid an early death.

In fact, Marinelli encourages people to come visit the Italian Cemetery just for fun. It offers Italian language classes and has an annual festival that celebrates the people buried there. Marinelli even gives tours of famous dead people.

"It's a wonderful place to get to know people and to get to know the history and heritage of a community," he said.
 

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