The exterior of the San Francisco Columbarium, a neoclassical building constructed in 1898 in the city's Inner Richmond district. Julie Zigoris/KQED
The exterior of the San Francisco Columbarium, a neoclassical building constructed in 1898 in the city's Inner Richmond district. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

The Only Place You Can Leave Your Heart Forever in San Francisco: The Inner Richmond's Palace of Ashes

The Only Place You Can Leave Your Heart Forever in San Francisco: The Inner Richmond's Palace of Ashes

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uneral director Brian Kestenblatt stepped up to the microphone last October with a glass of red wine in his hand and a top hat on his head. “Happy Halloween,” he said dryly to the audience, the four tiers of the San Francisco Columbarium rising up around him like a wizard’s tower. Beside him stood a table decorated with real pieces of tombstone – and copies of the book “Silent Cities: San Francisco,” ready to be signed by author Jessica Ferri. Urns full of candy stood like sentries by the entry at the Halloween-themed book event, one of many types of public gatherings that take place at the columbarium. The crowd, some dressed as skeletons and vampires, milled about with plates of cheese and fruit, their conversations drifting up the neoclassical rotunda where thousands of cremains rest.

The elegant columbarium — officially the San Francisco Columbarium and Funeral Home, owned and operated by Dignity Memorial — occupies its corner of San Francisco’s Richmond District with a stoic beauty, its verdigris dome poking out from graceful hedges, trickling fountains and rose-draped trellises. The building was constructed in 1898 as a centerpiece for the Odd Fellows Cemetery, one of the “Big Four” burial grounds that stretched across San Francisco.

It used to have a grand entrance with steps leading up to it from Geary Boulevard just east of Arguello Boulevard; now it's only accessible from Loraine Court. Tucked away in the pocket of a dead-end street, the columbarium is one of the most famous San Francisco places you’ve probably never heard of.

"I hear it every day," Kestenblatt told KQED. "Someone comes in and says they've lived in the city their whole life and never knew about this place."

The columbarium has rooms named after mythological winds and constellations, and an addition called “The Hall of Olympians” to continue with the classical theme. A 1899 Odd Fellows publication describes it as “without exception the most beautiful and elaborate building in the world, used exclusively as a repository for the ashes of the dead.”

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In January 1914, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to remove all human remains from the city. This led to a long and complicated process to relocate bodies to the necropolis of Colma, where the dead outnumber the living 999 to 1. The cemeteries were gone, but the columbarium and its ashes — now a designated historic landmark — remained.

The columbarium, the only place where anyone can leave their heart forever in San Francisco, is a nesting doll of stories. There are the stories of the people whose ashes line the walls of the rotunda, people like Dante the Magician (1883-1955) who performed for kings, and Dorothea Klumpke Roberts (1861-1942), a groundbreaking astronomer who has two asteroids named after her. There are also the stories of the stewards of this place — celebrants and caretakers, funeral directors and managers — characters who bring creativity and humor to conducting the business of death in a most unusual place.

The tales of the columbarium’s forever tenants don’t stay behind the glass-fronted doors of the niches that contain their cremains. They float through the four tiers of the golden rotunda, haunting the stewards charged with their care.

The stewards of the columbarium not only take care of the building and memorials; they protect its residents’ stories.

“I don’t do tours, I tell stories,” Crystal Hoffman said, her dark eyes flashing.

Hoffman moved from China to San Francisco in 2003 and has been working as a family service counselor at the columbarium for eight years, a job she can’t seem to quit. Hoffman organizes events where those who have purchased a niche can meet their future forever neighbors — people who have purchased adjoining or nearby niches. The event, usually held in the summer, was suspended for the past two years because of the pandemic.

Crystal Hoffman, family service counselor at the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

Hoffman acknowledged the difficulty of her line of work but also the great rewards. Tears sprang to her eyes when she told the story of a man who died one week before he was supposed to get married. “His wedding became a funeral,” she said, gesturing to his niche, which contained a bundle of letters tied with pink fluorescent yarn, photographs, miniature black-and-white Nikes, and a Casio watch. It was still ticking.

Celebrant Paul Harpring, who described his job at the columbarium as half emcee, half minister or rabbi, loves telling the stories of people who have died.

“It’s the little details that bring someone back, not the biographical facts of their life,” he said. When preparing for a service, he talks to as many people as possible to get the full spectrum of someone’s history. “Everyone has their own unique relationship to the person who passed. The same person can be a different person to kids, friends, colleagues,” he said. He likens his work at the columbarium to a weighted blanket — heavy, but also grounding.

The most haunting story for Hoffman is about a young woman from China, an immigrant who reminds her of herself, who worked night and day to take care of her family. The woman looked young in her photograph, but when Hoffman saw her body at an open-casket ceremony, she seemed old and shriveled. While the columbarium holds only ashes, many families choose to have an open casket funeral on-site and then do a smaller placement ceremony once the ashes return from an off-site crematorium.

Hoffman couldn’t get the image out of her mind. The night after the young woman’s funeral, Hoffman saw her ghost.

“She was sitting next to me with long hair, touching my head very gently, telling me not to work so hard,” she said.

The interior rotunda of the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

The intense demands of the funerary profession — “people don’t die nine to five” and “there’s no holidays in this business” are sayings within the industry — lead many to see it as a service position akin to a firefighter, teacher or police officer. It’s a calling, not a career, and it’s one that often feels preordained.

A high school aptitude test suggested funeral director as a job for both Harpring and Kestenblatt. After shadowing a funeral director in his native Rochester, New York, Kestenblatt became so enamored with the work that he ran home and told his dad what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “Couldn’t you pick something a little more lively?” his dad asked.

Those working in the funerary profession have been on the front lines of the pandemic, though they are often not recognized in the way that grocery clerks, mail carriers and doctors have been.

“We are essential workers,” Harpring said, “and we never stopped working during the pandemic.”

Jessica Ferri, author of “Silent Cities: San Francisco,” agreed.

“Funeral directors are the best people. They remind me of teachers — they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t love it,” she said.

Alongside the intense challenges come deep rewards. Kestenblatt, who has mentored numerous people for careers in the funerary profession, is always trying to find more people to work in the field.

“It’s so rewarding when you get a letter from a family saying, we couldn’t have gotten through this without you,” he said. “That’s more rewarding than any paycheck.”

Despite the rigorous demands of the job, funeral directors have learned how to imbue levity into their profession, in what is perhaps a necessary survival technique. “They take their work seriously but also have a great sense of humor,” Ferri said. Kestenblatt served coffee in a mug that said “Embalming Fluid (concentrated)” and Hoffman joked that her “neighbors” who have niches next to hers can’t die until they pay off their “forever apartment.” Hoffman, who bought her own niche years ago, proudly shows it off to other potential customers.

Harpring loves to make people laugh during services and tries to get stories from family members that will elicit giggles. “You get the full emotional spectrum at a service,” he said.

“I love the creativity and the freedom I have here,” said Kim Rifredi, caretaker of the columbarium. She organized the Halloween book signing and has photoshopped the landmark’s dome pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The families who choose the columbarium tend to be creative as well, according to Rifredi. “I often find myself thinking, gee, I wish I knew that person,” she said.

Kim Rifredi, caretaker of the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

Creativity, perhaps, is baked into the funerary profession. During the training for his funeral director license, Harpring did an activity in which he and a partner pulled three characteristics of a death — who died, where and how — from a bowl full of options. They then had to use their imagination to devise a service appropriate to the person.

The columbarium is a crucible of creativity, “every niche a poem, every room a novel,” as Bob Yount from Green Street Mortuary said. Yet perhaps the biggest tale the historical landmark is trying to tell is one of San Francisco itself.

“The columbarium is a love letter to San Francisco,” said Serena Brockelman, a former family service counselor at the columbarium.

“It’s a beautiful piece of San Francisco history,” Harpring agreed.

A Coit Tower-shaped fountain adorns the grounds of the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

With a Coit Tower-shaped fountain on the grounds, urns in the form of the painted ladies of Alamo Square and a longstanding embrace of the queer community, the columbarium and its tenants embody the spirit of the city.

An array of characters inhabit its walls — people like Harry August Jansen, a Danish-born professional magician known as Dante the Magician, who traveled the world in the early 1900s and invented the famous catchphrase “Sim, Sala, Bim.” Dante the Magician and a grocery store owner are forever neighbors.

“It’s somewhat random, but it just feels right,” Harpring said.

A niche at the columbarium pays tribute to slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk's ashes no longer reside in the building, but his family kept the niche in his honor. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

There are also San Francisco celebrities: Harvey Milk, influential political powerbroker Rose Pak, and the father of Carlos Santana. Milk’s family has since decided to move his ashes elsewhere, but they kept the memorial niche in his honor.

Anchor Steam brewery founders Otto Schinkel and Ernst Baruth are side by side in the Notus room, Schinkel having died the most San Francisco of deaths  — he was thrown from a streetcar that had slammed on its brakes — after making what would become the most San Francisco of beverages.

What do you have left when you die? The stories others tell about you. We spend our lives trying to accomplish and obtain, trying to live within the parameters of what looks good. But in the end it’s often the flaws and foibles, the anecdotes, that live on forever.

“You feel San Francisco in these walls,” said Heather Cann, a former office manager at the columbarium. “The rich history of its beginnings, the eccentricity of its residents and the passion for this city that binds it all together.”

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