This is a re-post of a blog from the Insomnia Notebook predecessor, Paranoia Strikes Deep. It describes a memorable stop from a trip to San Francisco in 2006:
Monday, November 13, 2006
One of our stops in San Francisco last week was the Columbarium, where ashes of the dead sit in windowed vaults. Over a century ago San Francisco disallowed cemeteries, and over a period of time disinterred those already buried. The Columbarium was the centerpiece of a cemetery, left standing, soon to be neglected. In 1980 the Neptune Society bought the building and restored it. It is a gorgeous monument to the deceased, probably unique in the world.
Emmitt Watson is the caretaker of the facility, and gives spontaneous guided tours. His enthusiasm is infectious. He tells stories about the folks who are there, gleaned from years of talking to relatives. We got lucky enough to have Emmitt guide us through, giving life to the dead he watches over.
Emmitt came to San Francisco from Louisiana during the hippie era, living with them in the Haight section until, as he put it, "the skinheads took over." Emmitt, in his job as caretaker, reminds us that as long as stories can be told of us, we are still alive.
The structure itself doesn't lend itself to morbidity. We don't think of it as a cemetery, a place where corpses are a few feet below us.
Some of the displays are very ornate and beautiful. In the Fernando display you see antique tobacco jars, stored now with the ashes of husband and wife. Chet Helms, founder of The Family Dog, of hippie-era fame, has his ashes interred in the building. There are more stories than I can recount here in my limited space.
When we left Emmitt presented us each with necklaces of beads, like Mardi Gras.
We visited the Columbarium November 7, election day. The place was being used as a voting precinct. Trust San Francisco to bring out the unique in every situation, even elections. It reminded us that even though the dead are present, the living must still do the business of the living.
Pictures are by David Miller, used with his permission.