Cemetery of the Week #30: the San Francisco Columbarium

The Neptune Society’s San Francisco Columbarium

San Francisco Columbarium
1 Loraine Court
San Francisco, CA 94118-4216
Telephone: (415) 771-0717
Founded: 1898
Years of Use: 1898 – present
Number of interments: 8500 or so
Open: Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Unfamiliar even to longtime residents, the San Francisco Columbarium is tucked away behind a retirement complex and a Pier One. Most people who see the dome as the 38 bus rolls down Geary Street assume that it marks some house of worship, like the nearby landmark of Temple Emanuel. Instead, the dome crowns San Francisco’s last officially open burial place.

Decades ago, more than 100 acres of graves surrounded the Columbarium. Now the neoclassical building is the sole remnant of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, one of four graveyards stretching from Arguello to Masonic along the old toll road, which became Geary Boulevard. British architect Bernard J. S. Cahill, also responsible for the presidential heads on Mt. Rushmore, intended the columbarium to complement the crematorium he’d designed in 1895. His new building opened its doors in 1898 to house the remains of people who’d been cremated nearby.

Even before its niches started to fill, real estate interests in San Francisco coveted the cemetery grounds for housing. Bowing to their pressure, the city banned the sale of cemetery lots in 1902. Cremation within the city limits became illegal in 1910. By 1929, the Odd Fellows voluntarily began to exhume graves on their land. They transferred 24-25,0000 bodies to their newer Greenlawn Cemetery in the village of Colma, south of San Francisco. Survivors were given the opportunity to pay to have their family monuments shifted to the new graveyard. Mausoleums and grave markers that went unclaimed were smashed up and sold to the city as scrap to build the seawall at Aquatic Park. Epitaphs and inscriptions are still visible at low tide.

Cahill’s beautiful columbarium barely escaped demolition itself. It was declared a memorial in 1934 under the auspices of the Homestead Act, which protected it and the surrounding land from civic legislation. However, because of the ban on new burials, the building had no way in which to generate income. It changed hands several times, growing ever more dilapidated, until the Neptune Society purchased it in 1980.

These days, the Columbarium stands in a nice, quiet neighborhood, at the end of a cul-de-sac called Loraine Court. The building — painted mauve with purple and green accents — seems surprisingly large from the outside. The entry is done up in red marble, with ornate, artful metal doors. At the summit of the dome seventy-five feet above, a stained glass medallion glowed orange and red, the colors of fire. The interior of the dome is painted peach and blue.

Interior of the columbarium

Dark wood paneling gleams on the three levels of arched balconies. Inside each archway are the little cubbyholes from which the columbarium takes its name. Columba is Latin for dove; the Romans kept tame doves in bird condominiums with dozens of separate niches. Oddly enough, while the Romans cremated their dead, they chose to store the ashes in tall cylindrical urns like olive oil jars. These were kept in tombs like little houses, not in columbaria at all.

The rotunda floor is a marvel of inlaid stone, polished to a high gloss and set into the shape of a compass rose with petals pointing out the wind’s twelve quarters. The ground floor rooms are each named for a Greek wind. This pagan sentiment does not carry over to the exquisite stained glass windows brightening six of the rooms. Those panels lean toward effeminate angels.

In the ground floor rooms, each window is more beautiful than the last: an angel in a crimson gown; an angel supporting a soul on its way to heaven, three militant angels, one with a tongue of flame on its brow, and the mysterious “Holy Spinner.” A company in San Francisco signed one of the windows at the turn of the century. The window that depicted “Three Angels in Flight” is possibly a Tiffany design, created at the LaFarge studios in France.

The seventh ground floor room has a plain, pebbled glass window. Once it also exhibited a stained glass panel, but the window displaying two torches was looted away as the Neptune Society was purchasing the building. Rather than recreate what has been stolen, the owners commemorate its loss.

The ground floor houses mostly historic interments from the early 1900s. The niches display rotund brass urns, large enough for the ashes of family members to be commingled. The antiques look solemn, reverent, and built to survive decades of neglect.

All of the urns are sealed behind heavy panes of glass, etched or gilded with the family’s name. Some of the historic nooks still wear their original upholstery, ivory satin swagged and pleated around the walls of the niche. Some of the niches cleverly bypassed the eventual decay of their drapery by replicating the fabric’s folds in wood.

On the stairway upward, an alcove encloses a chunky teddy bear urn sporting a rainbow headscarf. During the worst of the AIDS plague, dozens of gay men turned to the Neptune Society for cremation and chose the Columbarium for a permanent sanctuary in their chosen home. Throughout the building, their niches are decorated boldly, fierce and proud in the face of death. In fact, a niche was purchased in memory of Harvey Milk, whose ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay, so that a shrine to him would stand with all the others.

The Columbarium was sold to Dignity Memorial Inc. before 2016, when they built additional niches and a funeral home.

Useful links:

Neptune Society’s website

Columbarium slide tour

San Francisco Landmark 209

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

More photos of the Columbarium

Interview with caretaker Emmitt Watson

Stained glass window at the Neptune Society Columbarium

14 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #30: the San Francisco Columbarium

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