Period Piece: Life and death at the Columbarium

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“This place scared the crap out of me,” says Emmitt Watson, caretaker, historian, and tour guide at the San Francisco Columbarium, the only nondenominational spot in San Francisco to be laid to rest. “When I opened the doors, the first thing I saw were two raccoons.”

The Columbarium is a remnant of an earlier era in San Francisco, an era when everything west of Laurel Heights was pretty much a huge graveyard. Built in 1898, the building with a stone rotunda was a landmark in a sea of headstones. 

As San Francisco expanded in physical size and population, the Western cemeteries became a contentious issue. Smell, crime, homeless encampments, and something referred to vaguely as the “putrefactive germ" in newspaper articles were all reasons that were cited to move the dead elsewhere and make room for the living.

So elsewhere it was. Colma, home to 16 cemeteries, became the destination for many a deceased San Franciscan. 

The large-scale digging-up and hauling-out took place over the course of the 1930s. Headstones were refashioned into Buena Vista Park’s gutters and a sea wall at Ocean Beach. Remains not claimed and paid for by family members were reburied in mass graves. No new cemeteries could be built within city limits, and in the midst of the literal upheaval, the Columbarium housed the cremated remains that were to stay. 

The building is endowed with a cathedral’s glory – all gleaming copper, huge archways, and light filtering down from a domed top. But the Columbarium spent almost half a century in utter neglect and abandonment before 1979. That’s when Watson’s employer, the Neptune Society (a cremation and funeral planning company), bought the property. Watson, responsible for this gleaming cache of human remains, struggled with cobwebs as big as his arm, broken stained glass windows, and feral animals. Now, the place is spotless, and smells faintly like a florist’s refrigerated stockroom.

The building sits abruptly at the end of a residential cul-de-sac. Emmitt Watson lives right next door. In a sense, his neighbors include Harvey Milk and Chet Helms, as well as at least 30,000 others (many stashed in the same urn). 

“Evidently it was meant for me,” says Watson of the Columbarium, and many San Franciscans apparently feel the same way. Glass cases along all three floors of the building display yellow “Reserved” signs. “Your niche in history,” reads a Neptune Society brochure. 

 

 

San Francisco Columbarium

Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat-Sun, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

One Loraine, SF

(415) 752-7891

www.neptune-society.com

 

 

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