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San Francisco's Columbarium - Final Resting Place Offers Great People Watching

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San Francisco's Columbarium - Final Resting Place Offers Great People Watching

The San Francisco Columbarium, built in 1898 and operated by the Neptune Society, features beautiful stained glass windows.

B. Koh
San Francisco's Columbarium - Final Resting Place Offers Great People Watching

Lily Moy's passion is evident from her niche at the Columbarium in San Francisco.

B. Koh
San Francisco's Columbarium - Final Resting Place Offers Great People Watching

The Columbarium niche of a pair of Elvis fans.

B. Koh

San Francisco's Columbarium:

 

Your pied-à-terre says a lot about your character and personality. That's why the Columbarium in San Francisco, a dense community of homes, is such an intriguing and compelling destination to visit: It's the final residence of the cremated remains of tens of thousands of San Franciscans.

Tucked at the end of a small cul-de-sac in the Richmond District, the Columbarium is the only active, non-denominational final resting place within San Francisco city limits. It is a stately, circular building whose green-patina copper dome is barely visible and rarely noticed by the drivers whizzing by on Geary Boulevard. Inside are neo-classical columns, finely crafted stained glass and rooms bearing the Greek mythological names of the winds and the constellations. And there are more than 8,500 niches that collectively house the cremated remains of an estimated 40,000 people.

 

The Columbarium Residents:

 

Colma's many cemeteries have the likes of Joe DiMaggio, William Randolph Hearst, Charles de Young and Wyatt Earp. In the Columbarium are Edward Robeson Taylor, who was San Francisco's mayor in the early 1900s, music promoter Chet Helms, regarded as the father of San Francisco's Summer of Love, and many more folks whose names are much less familiar.

But their niches, not their names, are the reason to trek to the Columbarium. Each cubbyhole has a copper or glass cover. The copper ones are neatly engraved with the information and sentiments you'd typically read on gravestones--and they are no more telling than gravestones.

The glass covers, though, are windows into past lives, revealing cozy spaces personalized with photos, mementos, notes, tchotchkes and other items significant to or reflective of the deceased. There are model fire trucks and Hot Wheels cars, business and birthday cards, Barbie dolls and miniature slot machines. This being San Francisco, many niches hold Giants badges, caps and paraphernalia. One niche has a can of Almond Roca. Another has a Grim Reaper figurine and a skull with a cigarette in its mouth.

The container holding the cremated remains, whether a vase, teapot, silver urn or something else, is another clue about the dearly departed. There are cookie jars shaped like Victorian houses and cuddly animals, and there's a dreamy blue ceramic urn painted with rainbow trout. Baseball-obsessed Lily Moy is in a big baseball, and in a painted backdrop, family members and friends observe her from the bleachers.

 

History of the Columbarium:

 

British architect Bernard J.S. Cahill built the Columbarium in 1898 as part of a cemetery run by the Odd Fellows, a non-denominational fraternal and social organization. The cemetery at that time also included a crematorium.

As San Francisco's population grew, its land became more valuable (sound familiar?). In 1902, a San Francisco law prohibited any more burials and sales of cemetery lots in the city. Cremation was outlawed later, and then in 1921, the city's cemeteries were ordered removed. Bodies in the Odd Fellows' cemetery, as well as in cemeteries at what are now Civic Center, Dolores Park and Lone Mountain, were transplanted to Colma from the 1920s to 1940s. Many tombstones were used to make gutters in Buena Vista Park and sea walls around the Marina.

Eventually the Columbarium was sold to other organizations and neglected. The Neptune Society of Northern California bought it in 1980 and restored it. It's now an official San Francisco Landmark. Emmitt Watson, the Columbarium's unofficial mayor, historian, tour guide and one-man crew for more than two decades, comforts visiting relatives and recounts stories about many of the residents.

 

A Real Estate Deal:

 

Since nearly all of its 8,500 niches (which Watson calls "apartments" or "condos") are sold out, the Columbarium started an expansion project in the summer of 2011 and offered "pre-construction discounts" on many of the upcoming spots. The Hall of Olympians, completed in 2012, added several hundred more spaces. 

The Neptune Society's marketing jingle urges you to "reserve your niche in history." Even without a discount, there is a valid selling point: It'll probably be one of the cheapest apartments or condos you'll ever occupy in San Francisco.

 

NEPTUNE SOCIETY COLUMBARIUM
One Loraine Court, San Francisco 94118
(415) 771-0717
Monday - Friday, 8 am-5 pm; Saturday & Sunday, 10 am-3 pm
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
Admission free

 

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