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The San Francisco streetcars for dead passengers

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Funeral cars, which ran along the 14-Mission line, were a critical service after SF banned burials within city limits

A streetcar pulling up to a stone arch with a turret.
A funeral delivery to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.
Photos courtesy of SFMTA

For some San Franciscans in the early 20th century, their final trip in a streetcar was their final trip anywhere, as funeral streetcars bore the bodies of the recently departed to their final resting places outside city limits.

As the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency explains, the funeral car practice started when SF banned new cemeteries within city limits in 1901, touching off the booming funeral business in nearby Colma.

Private streetcar companies with specialized coaches for bearing caskets and mourners followed what’s now the 14-Mission Muni line south toward the burial site. The interiors were appropriately dark and somber with wood accents, wicker chairs, and velvet curtains.

Back then it was considered a practical way to get to outlying mortuary services in the days before auto ownership became common. It was also a classy and respectful send-off for the deceased.

As City Lab points out, “Whether intentionally or not, the specially designated carriages, with their glazed exteriors and streamlined edges, sometimes resembled giant, moving caskets” in their own rights—which, in a certain sense, they were.

Although SFMTA dates funeral streetcar service to the start of the last century, history site SF Museum claims that the practice started as far back as 1893. The San Francisco and San Mateo Railway companies would eventually deliver bodies straight to Woodland, Holy Cross, and Mount Olivet cemeteries in Colma—all of which remain in business today.

Funeral cars rolled on to the great hereafter in 1921 after the popularity of the automobile helped drive most streetcar businesses out of commission.

But the Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City says that funeral directors would sometimes transport caskets on the regular 40-San Mateo streetcar, all the way up until its discontinuation in 1949.

SFMTA archive provides a look at what an old school funeral streetcar looked like.

A black and white photo of a streetcar on a bridge over an SF street.
A funeral car near Geneva Avenue.
Wood-paneled walls and carpeted floors in a streetcar.
Inside one of the funeral cars.
Wicker chairs and heavy curtains inside a streetcar.
Train decor was tasteful yet somber.