The relatively small size of San Francisco, which makes it such an amicable city to ramble around in, also makes it an expensive city to live in. With quaint Victorians providing a majority of the housing options, there simply doesn't seem to be enough room for the number of people that want to be here. This is the case for both the living and also the dead. For the living it means ridiculously inflated rents, the inability to buy a house unless you have a trust fund and the proliferation of land lords who envision themselves benevolent noblemen living in a Feudal system, where a majority of us act as their serfs. For the dead it means having no place to reside at all. In a macabre version of gentrification, San Francisco mandated the removal of entire cemeteries to Colma in the 1930s displacing the city's dead ancestors to make room for the living. Meaning large amounts of prime San Francisco real estate, like the areas around Dolores Park and sections of the Richmond are built on top of old burial grounds.
I decided to visit one of the last stands of the dead in San Francisco: the Columbarium. At the end of a quiet tree-lined street named Lorraine, behind two ostentatious wrought iron gates, sits an elegant Neo-classical Victorian structure built in 1897 by British architect Bernard J. Cahill. From its façade one could mistake it for a museum or an historically preserved piece of Victorian architecture, but I like to describe the Columbarium as an ornate, gilded apartment building with miniature chambers housing the ashes of the dead. Originally part of the Odd Fellows cemetery, the Columbarium was abandoned in 1937 and fell into deep disrepair for over forty-five years before being reopened and slowly revived to its former glory by the Neptune Society.
As I walked in I was struck by its gentle beauty and the serene feeling inside the space. Built around a central Rotunda, natural light pours in through a richly detailed stained glass skylight, hand laid mosaic tiles wrap around the floor and Victorian era detail and ornamentation create a complete aesthetic harmony. Inside the building it is impossible to imagine the never-ending traffic and architectural chaos of Geary Street, and the blight of the Mervyn's plaza that squats a few blocks away. Instead, I thought about the circular shape of the building and the way the design invoked the full circle of life and death, a fluid path that leads mortals from the land of the living to the land of the dead, and maybe back again (depending on what you believe). The ashes reside in rooms with names evoking the grand tradition of Greek myths: Zephrus, Olympus, Arktos, Aquilo, Solanus, Eurius, Auster, Notus. In this instance the ashes of the dead are in a kind of utopian environment few of the living could ever dream of affording.
A majority of the turn-of-the-century residents decorated their spaces with rich velvet interiors and classical copper urns engraved with family names. While the post-70s generation personalized their spaces with objects that tell intimate stories about their lives, these tiny details provide small windows into their worlds: discolored photographs, crystals and pearls, lockets and sea shells, teddy bears and rainbow flags, and ribbons and letters faded by the passing days and sunlight. My favorite niche contains images of a mustachioed gay male couple from the 70s, who shared a passion for Tolkien books, science and Cat Stevens music. The photos and objects provide a sense of their domestic life together and a narrative began to unfold. Pictures of the two men cooking and going on vacation together tell bits of the story and then suddenly there is a real sense of pathos as you begin to piece together some one else's existence.
As I stared into another niche, at a miniature bottle of Opium and a faded photo of a 50s glamour girl, I noticed that she was surrounded by people from all walks of life: bikers, hippies, fathers, mothers, gay men, turn of the century pioneers, poets, free masons, service men, all residing collectively in one space. Unlike in the world of the living, where the division between the squalor of the SRO (single residential occupancy) hotels on 6th street and the opulent Sea Cliff mansions is so extreme and unjust, at the Columbarium death seems to be the ultimate equalizer.
Being surrounded by death and loss gave me a solemn feeling, but also helped me realize that loss is as tragic as it is transcendent. The emotional intensity of death brings us closer to a greater truth and understanding about the world we inhabit. Standing in the Columbarium alone, I wanted to run out and hug my friends, stay up all night and talk about films, and learn to be fully conscious of all those tiny moments that ultimately make up our existence. Rather than thinking about grief and death, as I walked outside of the Columbarium, I thought a lot about life and trying to be aware of living it.
Visit the Columbarium (at neptune-society.com).