The San Francisco Columbarium

There are not a lot of ways to leave your remains intact in San Francisco, legally. If you are a veteran, or a pet, maybe, but if that isn’t the case you can’t stay here: burials have been prohibited within the city of San Francisco for the last 107 years. Cremations, too, actually– there is no way to have your body cremated within the city’s boundaries, a San Francisco ordinance since 1910. A city-wide death ban seems to have that particular kind of foggy San Francisco romanticism, but it is, of course, a real estate matter: dead people don’t pay taxes, cemeteries take space. If you die here, you’ll likely be buried in the nearby town of Colma, a place with 1500 above ground residents and 1.5 million underground— an actual necropolis. Their city motto is the best of the whole country: “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

The San Francisco Columbarium, built in 1897, is the only non-denominational burial place in the city of San Francisco with space left. After passing through various ownerships, the building was taken over by the Neptune Society in 1980 and Emmitt Watson was hired to clean up the place. When you go he’s still there. He sat me down across from him in the chairs, told me that the place was disgusting when he got there– a green slime over everything, rats and birds living inside– but that it was the process of cleaning up that let him learn about the people who kept their ashes there. He gave me a tour of the place, showed me the man who had his ashes stored in a Johnny Walker Red bottle, the one in the Chinese take-out box, the inside of a baseball. He knows the place, and the people, and will tell you genuinely that the job became his life.

When you leave the Columbarium he’ll give you a parting gift– mardi gras beads that hang from the walls of his office, maybe a remnant of his Louisiana heritage. He left at thirteen, he says, because he wasn’t going to drink from a different water fountain.


“If you collect the sweat I’ve dropped in this building, you could flood San Francisco.”

The last thing the place is is morbid. Morbid is a disease word, unwholesome, neither of which death necessarily is. Emmitt is intent on making the Columbarium a place where people will want to come and stay. Columbaria, before they were homes to urns, were buildings of compartments for doves and pigeons, which isn’t that hard to imagine when you’re there.



Since the only funeral I can remember attending I’ve known I could never be buried anywhere because it is too weird to have a place where someone could come to stand over my bones. Cremation is the likely choice: my mother says she wants her ashes buried with a tree we’ve planted, so instead of visiting a tombstone and a plot of land we get to watch a growing thing. That’s a nice idea. I think for myself, if I could, I’d try to arrange some kind of viking funeral though I worry a little about the implied narcissism. But I like boats. It’s impossible for me to feel sorry for myself when I’m on a boat. The best way to be dead would be to be dead and not feeling sorry for yourself.

On the outside of the Columbarium is a stone with the words “In loving memory” and a name, where underneath the word “and…” is carved– the entirety of the who-else-and-what-else-and-what’s-next-and-who-cares of death, succinctly.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 1, 2009 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Well, it’s time for me to pay a visit. I have friends interred there. The Columbarium is a beautiful historic landmark. Thank you for acknowledging and sharing about it.
    I’m looking for someone to create the modern day viking boat. There are people who ask me for it.

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