She pauses and considers the chapel. “Actually,” she says, “you can sit and visit with anybody you want!”
Because they're everywhere. Chapel of the Chimes was founded in 1909; the main building was redesigned in 1928 by famed California architect Julia Morgan. Inside, it's a labyrinth: narrow staircases, tiny chapels, bubbling fountains and gardens thick with green. You're surrounded by thousands of urns shaped like books – they sit on floor-to-ceiling shelves in the columbarium's dozens of rooms. It's quiet and contemplative.
A Place For the Living, as Well as the Dead
“It's pretty open to just about anybody,” says Harley Forrey, general manager of Chapel of the Chimes and my guide when I come back for an actual tour. He's worked here more than 10 years, and he says it's an unusual place. For example, he says, “I don't think there's a lot of different funeral homes that do weddings in their chapels.”
Actually, this place does a lot of things most funeral homes don't. It hosts jazz concerts every other month. At Christmas, people put up lights and decorate a giant indoor fig tree — which, by the way, still produces fruit. And now that he's thinking about it, Forrey says that's not even the most creative use of the space.
“The Oakland Police Department had their training dogs come in here and actually go through the building, because the building has so many different corridors. They use this to see if they can find somebody inside buildings.” (They can.)
While we talk, Forrey points out urns: a governor, two senators. Upstairs is Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Lee Hooker; next to him is former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
"It just goes on and on and on, with room after room,” says Forrey. "If a person really wanted to go through this building and take every room inside here, it would take you more than a half a day.”
The Big Event
A few days later, the place is packed. Around 2,000 people come through to see an experimental music concert called the Garden of Memory, organized by New Music Bay Area, that Chapel of the Chimes hosts every year on the summer solstice. Dozens of musicians set up in the columbarium's many tiny nooks and play for a wandering audience.
There are xylophones, chimes, violins, trumpets, singing and speaking. Everywhere you turn there's another kind of sound and a horde of people crowded around it. And people move around. They look at maps like they're in a foreign city, whispering how they'll try to see it all.
There's no rush, of course. When you're here, you can take all the time you need.