Monday, April 9, 2007

A Place Where the Dead Are Alive

A jar of Gefilte fish and a Chinese takeout box fill Sally Marie Mendelowitz's niche, while Lily J. Moy's is centered around a baseball field, complete with painted onlookers. These are just a couple of the thousands of niches found in San Francisco's Columbarium, a resting place for cremated remains.

Located off Anza Street on Loraine Court just a few blocks away from USF, the 109 year old columbarium is hidden among residential homes. It is the only cemetery in the Richmond District and the last remaining landmark left that was part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery which spanned 27 acres. Along with other cemeteries that encompassed San Francisco, it had to be relocated to Colma after the city's board of supervisors prohibited further burials and sales of cemetery lots in 1902.

Designed by B.J.S. Cahill and built in 1898, the Greek and Roman inspired three-story building is the final resting place of early San Francisco's many founding families. According to caretaker and tour guide Emmitt Watson, the building fell into disrepair throughout the years after being passed from one organization to another. For thirteen and a half years the columbarium was abandoned until 1980 when the Neptune Society bought it and Watson was brought on to restore the old building. "This was one nasty, filthy place," said Watson. He described finding the building infested with mushrooms, fungus, and mold. He also found pigeons and raccoons living inside, as well as a homeless man trying to make a fire in the entryway.

Although the floors, walls, and urns have been cleaned up and he has uncovered beautiful mosaic tiles, stained glass windows, intricately carved walls, and shiny (bronze, marble, brass, and silver) urns, he said that there is still a lot to be done. Watson pointed out that he painted the walls with light colors because he wanted to brighten up the place, to make it pleasing to those who visited. "When you say cemetery, people think dark and cold. I wanted it to represent life."

Watson, who said he is known as "the man that keeps the dead alive," watches over approximately 7,500 niches, some with "residents" and others on reserve. Throughout his 20 years of working at the columbarium, he has formed a connection with its present and future residents, finding out their stories and telling visitors about them. He pointed to a niche with two fresh tomatoes on flower holders and shared the story of the couple who grew tomatoes in their backyard. When the wife died, the husband would always put a fresh tomato at her niche. After he passed away, close to four years ago, Watson has taken over the duty of replacing the tomatoes. "That's what they wanted. How can I not do what they wanted?" he said. He nicknamed the couple the "Tomato King and Queen."

Preferring to call the niches "apartments," "condos" (for the bigger ones), and "penthouses" (for the niches within the dome), Watson makes death something that shouldn't be dreaded. Many of the niches follow in the same way, each personalized with pictures and mementos, some even revolve around themes. This is what makes this columbarium different from others, in that visitors can get to know some of the people interred there.

Aside from being a place where ashes are kept, the columbarium also rents out their space for memorials, parties, and weddings. Among the Shattucks, Haights, Bacon Boggs, Steiners, and Eddys (and even Carlos Santana's father), the living can visit and celebrate with the pioneers of San Francisco and some "famous" people. How do some of the guests feel about this? "Some of 'em react weird, some of 'em walk out the door," Watson said, "they don't realize that the dead are the best people to be around. What they gonna do to you?"

After 15 years, when Watson turns 62, he plans to retire. But until then, he plans to keep restoring the "one-of-a-kind" historical building and it's inhabitants, keeping their memory alive, and comforting people's qualms about death.


eerickson said...

this was really interesting to read. i want to go take a closer look at this place now (and possible talk to this "keeper of the dead" character?)

david silver said...

i agree with eva - after reading this post, i want to visit the place.

Christina Kho said...

if you want Emmitt to give you a tour, you should call and make an appointment so he can block out some time for you. also, try getting there before 11, as there aren't a lot of people and he might have more time. make sure to take full advantage of the starbuck's dispenser in the lobby, especially if it's cold and foggy. ;) have fun!