Tag Archives: cremation

Cemetery of the Week #112: Golders Green Crematorium

Exterior of the crematorium. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Exterior of the crematorium. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Golders Green Crematorium
aka Golders Green Memorial Gardens
Hoop Lane, off the Finchley Road
London, England NW11 7NL
Telephone: +44 20 8455 2374
Founded: 1902
Size: 12 acres
Number of cremations performed: 323,500+
Open: Winter hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

One of the oldest crematories in England and the oldest in London, Golders Green may also be the best-known crematorium in the world. Over the years, many famous people have chosen to be cremated there. Some remain there in urns in the columbarium or beneath rosebushes in the garden.

Golders Green is the name of the once largely Jewish neighborhood. The Crematorium stands across from a Jewish cemetery, but accepts all denominations. An estimated 2000 people are cremated there each year.


Inside the cloisters. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Cremation was legalized in Britain in 1884. For the first 17 years, Londoners had to travel by rail to be cremated in Surrey. After Queen Victoria died in 1901, her surgeon Sir Henry Thompson – also president of the Cremation Society – opened Golders Green the following year.

The redbrick crematorium was built in an Italianate style with a large tower that hides its chimney. It was built in stages as money became available. The current crematorium was completed in 1939. Its three columbaria contain the ashes of thousands of Londoners.

The 12-acre garden contains several large tombs, two ponds with a bridge, and a large crocus lawn. Apparently, that’s quite spectacular in early springtime.

In addition to the columbaria, there are two cremation chapels and a chapel of remembrance. On almost every wall, says London Cemeteries, there are commemorative tablets. The earliest ones hang on the cloister walls.


My hero. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

A different book called London’s Cemeteries says Golders Green is “the place to go for after-life star-spotting.” Among the people cremated here whose ashes were either scattered here or placed in the columbaria: Kingsley Amis, children’s author Enid Blyton, Marc Bolan, Sigmund Freud with his wife and daughter, Rocky Horror’s narrator Charles Gray, Who drummer Keith Moon, playwright Joe Orton (whose ashes were combined with those of his murderous lover Kenneth Halliwell), ballerina Anna Pavlova, actor Peter Sellers, Bram Stoker.


Sigmund Freud’s urn and pillar. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Many more have been cremated here, but their ashes were either scattered or enshrined elsewhere. Among these are England’s Prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Westminster Abbey), poets Rudyard Kipling (also Westminster) and TS Eliot (Church of St. Michael, Somerset), and the writers Henry James (Cambridge Cemetery) and HG Wells (scattered off the coast of Dorset).

Maps are available from the office and reports are that the staff is very helpful in finding a specific location. The columbaria are now locked, although they can still be visited with a guide. It seems there is also a tearoom, but I haven’t been able to turn up any information about its hours. There’s a photo of it on foursquare.


Anna Pavlova’s marble urn. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

For Darren Beach, author of London’s Cemeteries, “the Golders Green Memorial Gardens are among the most spiritually satisfying places in London…It could be the tranquility inspired by the sheer geometry of the place – the chapels surrounded by arched brickwork form a kind of eerie coastline to the oceans of gardens beyond.”

Extra special thanks to Carole, for lending me her beautiful photographs!

Useful links:
London Cemeteries page on Golders Green

The English Heritage listing for Golders Green

European Union Crematoria page on Golders Green

A list of the people remembered there

Information on the War Memorial at Golders Green

Video of one of the Marc Bolan remembrances

Website of the nearby Jewish cemetery

More about cremation on Cemetery Travel:

Roman Cremation in Pompeii

A Brief History of Cremation in the US

A tour of a crematorium

Committed to Flame: A Brief History of Cremation in the United States

Antique urns, Neptune Society Columbarium

Cremation is an ancient way of honoring the dead. Aborigines in Australia cremated their loved ones 20,000 years ago. Bronze Age Scandinavians, Iron Age Palestinians, as well as the Babylonians and Greeks practiced cremation.

The Romans burned their dead on pyres outside of their cities. The ashes were then gathered into urns and enshrined in family tombs that lined the roads in and out of all Roman cities. The most famous of these tombs lined the Appian Way. Perfectly preserved Roman tombs were discovered — with urns of ashes still in place — in Pompeii and under the Basilica of St. Sebastian, among other archaeological sites. The rediscovery of Pompeii in the 1700s led to a widespread fashion in Western cemeteries of decorating headstones – and later, sculptural monuments – with stone urns swathed in stone shrouds. Clearly, these monuments harken back to historical cremations. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.

With the spread of Roman-era Christianity and its belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day, cremation fell out of fashion in Europe. Bodies might be buried in mass graves and the bones later exhumed to be gathered in ossuaries that surrounded the graveyards (the last remaining medieval ossuary still stands in Rouen, sans bones), but only witches like Joan of Arc were burned: in effect, denying their ability to respond when the Trump of Doom sounds. Joan’s ashes were collected up and tossed into the Seine, so that no relic might remain to inspire those who believed in her.

For centuries, then, bodies piled up in Europe. By the end of the 18th century, the accumulation of dead people became a real problem in cities from London and Paris to Boston, Manhattan, and Philadelphia. City fathers solved the overcrowding by approving garden or rural cemeteries far from their cities’ hearts. Older graveyards, often filled with pioneers, were exhumed and their residents reburied farther from town.

In addition, the newly powerful medical establishment convinced people that the dead were dangerous, capable of spreading diseases like cholera, which killed tens of millions of people in the overcrowded cities of the Industrial Age. Doctors proposed a medical solution for these dangers: safe and sanitary disposal of the dead by cremation.

The first crematory in the US

In Washington, Pennsylvania, an 80-year-old doctor erected the first cremation furnace in America. F. Julius LeMoyne proclaimed that buried corpses were contaminating drinking water and poisoning the living. His nondescript red brick building, which dates to 1876, is still open for tours the second Saturday of the summer months. LeMoyne was the third person cremated there. His ashes were buried in front of the crematory.

One major impediment to the spread of cremation: the Catholic Church officially banned it in 1886. Cremation was seen as intentional denial of the resurrection of the body. Catholics faced excommunication if they practiced it. The ban remained in effect until 1963, when Vatican II lifted it. Xavier Cronin, in Grave Exodus: Tending to Our Dead in the 21st Century, theorizes that the ban was lifted because the Church wanted to stop dissuading Asians from becoming converts. (For instance, nearly 100% of the Japanese currently opt for cremation.)

Postcard of the Earl Crematory

Despite the Catholic ban on cremation, cemeteries without religious ties opened crematories across the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The practice really took off in America after the family of Gardner Earl presented Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York with enough money to build a crematory in 1889. The reception room of the Earl Crematory was decorated in black Siena marble with accents of pink marble from Africa. The building was so lovely that it quickly became a tourist attraction. Colorized “souvenir post cards” of its Richardsonian Romanesque exterior were available to send across the country, effectively advertising it beyond its local community. In The Last Great Necessity, David Charles Sloane wrote, “The crematory was an ornate structure with an elaborate stone interior to remind visitors of the difference between the beauty of cremation and the drabness of earth burial.”

Cemeteries that offered cremation discovered that families often still wanted a permanent shrine, a place where they could go to “visit” their loved ones. This led to the creation of buildings for permanent enshrinement of cremation urns. These buildings were called columbaria, from columba, the Latin word for dove. As the Romans kept tame doves in bird condominiums with dozens of separate cubbyholes, so cemeteries would house cremation urns in shallow niches carved from floor to ceiling into walls in specifically designed buildings.

This was the Victorian Era, with its cult of mourning, so columbaria became the showpieces of their cemeteries. One example is the lovely old Odd Fellows Columbarium in San Francisco, California. British architect Bernard J. S. Cahill, also responsible for old San Francisco City Hall, 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.

The Neptune Society’s San Francisco Columbarium

The neoclassical columbarium stands as the sole remnant of the surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery, which was demolished by the city in 1929. Cahill’s beautiful columbarium barely escaped demolition itself. Luckily, under the auspices of the Homestead Act, it was declared a memorial in 1934, which protected it from civic legislation. Even so, because San Francisco had banned new burials within city limits, the building had no way with which to generate income. It changed hands several times, growing ever more dilapidated, until the Neptune Society purchased it in 1980. It’s now fully restored to its former glory.

Its ground floor houses mostly historic inurnments from the early 1900s. The niches display rotund brass urns, large enough for the ashes of family members to be commingled. All of the urns are sealed behind heavy glass panes, 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 niches. Some niches cleverly bypassed the eventual decay of their drapery by replicating fabric’s folds in wood paneling.

The top floor and additional wings hold more modern niches. These are simpler in design, but throughout the columbarium survivors are encouraged to add mementoes to personalize the spaces. These range from photos to small toys to vacation souvenirs to more intimate remembrances like eyeglasses, false teeth, or even a glass eye.

Survivors have also gotten creative with the containers that serve as urns. There are plenty of traditional vases or brass books, but one also finds cookie jars, tobacco humidors, cocktail shakers, even piggy banks.

More staid, if no less beautiful, is the Chapel of the Chimes, which stands across the bay in Oakland. The California Crematorium Association purchased an old trolley station on Piedmont Avenue in 1902 and turned it into a chapel for funeral services. Using the talents of architects Cunningham and Politeo, the Association built the first crematory on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay in 1909, then converted the trolley station into a columbarium. The train schedule is still visible on the wall.

In the 1920s, prominent Bay Area architect Julia Morgan (the first woman to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris) was hired to design a magnificent Moorish Gothic addition to the Chapel of the Chimes. It includes gardens, alcoves, cloisters, fountains, and chapels. Morgan used stained glass, mosaics, European statuary, tile floors, and California faience to decorate the walls. One of her additions is an antique balustrade now in the cloister. She had intended the piece for Hearst Castle, but William Randolph Hearst rejected it, so it ended up here.

In the intervening years, the Chapel of the Chimes has expanded several times, adding not only more niches for urns but also larger mausoleum spaces for full body interment.

Cypress Lawn’s Lakeside Columbarium, with the domed crematory behind

Bernard J. S. Cahill, the Neptune Society Columbarium’s designer, moved south down the San Francisco Peninsula to design the Lakeside Columbarium in Colma’s Cypress Lawn Memorial Park. Diocletian’s Palace in what’s now Croatia served as the inspiration for the Romanesque columbarium, completed in 1927. The Lakeside Columbarium was meant to be the largest columbarium in the world, offering 10,000 niches. The Great Depression prevented the cemetery from completing Cahill’s design, but as Douglas Keister points on in Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity, the cremation rate in California hovers around 50%. All those people will want to end up somewhere. Cypress Lawn continues to add options for people wanting a place to honor their ancestors’ ashes.

As Americans have become more mobile, leaving their hometowns for school, work, or better weather, it makes sense that they are increasingly unwilling to commit to a piece of ground for eternity. As Sloane points out, “Cremation is legally considered the final disposition of the body in most states, meaning that cremated remains do not necessarily have to be buried or entombed.” People are allowed to scatter ashes somewhere that the deceased loved or to keep them on the mantelpiece at home.

Across America, cremation is becoming more common and therefore more familiar. The national average of cremation now is a hair over 30%. While cremation is rare in Mississippi (only 1 in 10), in Nevada almost 7 of 10 people opt to be cremated. Cemeteries across the country are developing scattering gardens and building columbaria. Sometimes these are simply walls, open to the elements, with niches for urns. Other times they build lovely new columbaria to house cremains. Even the Catholic Church has gotten into the business. The new Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in downtown Los Angeles has niches for urns in its crypt. By keeping up with changes in people’s final wishes, cemeteries can survive into the 21st century and beyond.

Burning Desire: Cremation Tour by the Neptune Society

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 9.08.38 PMThe Neptune Society was founded in 1973 to provide low cost, no-frills cremations in Northern California. They’ve expanded their mission to include the sale of coffins, embalming if requested, open or closed casket funerals in small private chapels, and scattering of ashes at sea. The flat rate they quoted at the time of my tour seemed very reasonable to me. It included the initial arrangement fee, administrative fees, removal of the body from the place of death, a minimum of three days’ refrigeration, cremation, and release of the ashes to the survivors in a plain cardboard container.

One of the Neptune Society’s crematoriums used to be located amidst a tangle of buildings in the warehouse district of Emeryville, California. No sign identified the building, other than a nondescript door which said “Family Entrance” beside the truck bay. My husband Mason pointed out two brown smokestacks on the roof. They were resting when we entered the building.

Inside the warehouse stood a small funereal room with cream-colored walls and muted lights in round plastic fixtures. Two wing chairs with green upholstery awaited family members. The waiting room appeared to have been an afterthought, built of prefabricated walls inside the warehouse, to provide token comfort to the survivors who came either to view the body one last time or to claim to the ashes.

At the narrow end of the room, behind a creamy drape, waited a plate glass window. I personally hoped one might actually watch the flames consume “Aunt Maude,” but there was no corresponding window into the cremator. I guess watching the body slide into the oven would be enough for most people. The waiting room was warm and stuffy. I thought it needed a water cooler and I was only there for a tour, not for a cremation.

Our guide was Steve Gilbert, Director of Compliance and Training for three “linked” cremation societies. He said the most important issue in the crematory’s job was the proper identification of the body. The Society would be called in either by the family, the family doctor, or by a nurse at the hospital or nursing home where a death occurred. The Society was available around the clock to remove the deceased from the place of death. Good to know 24-hour service is available if you’re squeamish about sleeping under the same roof — or in the same bed — with a corpse.

When they arrived to “take custody of the remains,” the Society immediately established the deceased’s identity. They would change the deceased’s clothing, if requested. Sometimes the society was asked to add a teddy bear or another memento to the shroud before transportation.

The Neptune Society preferred that jewelry and other valuables be removed from the body before they wrapped it in its shroud. If the family wished jewelry to be cremated with the body, they needed to sign a release. Good jewelry doesn’t melt, because it requires a much higher temperature than a human being to dissolve it. Still, at 1800 degrees, gold may discolor or crack. You can’t fish wearable jewelry out of grandma’s cremains.

Dressed or not, the body was wrapped in a plastic “liner,” then covered in a muslin shroud. Steve explained, “The dignity of the deceased is protected” by the covering. The plastic also prevented the leakage of fluid, per OSHA regulations.

A heavy stainless steel tag with an alphanumeric identification was strapped around both ankles with a heavy plastic cord. This tag accompanied the body into the cremator and was placed into the ashes before the Society returned them to the family.

Neptune Society transported the body in one of their vehicles, generally a van. A hearse was available for a slight fee. When we didn’t see one waiting in the garage, I wondered if it it was out on a run.

Once the deceased arrived at the warehouse, company policy required 72 hours refrigeration. One of the reasons for this was to give the family time to change its mind about cremation. As Steve pointed out, “You can’t just add water and get Uncle Frank back after the cremation is over.”

If the family desired it, the Neptune Society provided one final glimpse of the deceased, free of charge. Up to two family members were allowed to witness the insertion into the cremator. Hence, the little window in the waiting room.

California did not require a cardboard coffin for cremation, although some crematories in the state used them. At the Neptune Society, bodies were cremated in their shrouds and liners, without any coffin, box, or cremation container. However, those other options were available from the Neptune Society, at an additional cost. The shroud and liner ($10 at that time) were included in the basic cremation fee.

Steve made sure we knew that the shroud and plastic liner were both chlorine-free, so that they didn’t release toxic fumes when burned.

A roll of muslin the size of a Toyota stood on a spool in the warehouse garage. Several coffins in quilted wrappers waited like loaves of bread on a rack. Flattened brown cardboard coffins were stacked against the wall.

A door marked “BIOHAZARD” sealed the freezer. This walk-in model could hold up to 110 bodies at once. Steve promised that there was no danger of cremating a live person by accident: death was pretty much guaranteed after the requisite three days of refrigeration.

At the back of the warehouse — in by far the largest area of the place — stood the cremator itself. The Neptune Society used British equipment, acclaimed as top of the line. A computer controlled the temperature and length of burning time. The cremator had four doors, two above and two below, so that two bodies could be cremated simultaneously and their ashes commingled. Before anyone could ask, Steve assured us that California state law prohibited cremation of more than one body at once, so that ashes couldn’t get mixed by accident.

The “ovens” themselves were built of fire-resistant brick. Before a body was inserted, the cremator was preheated to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, using natural gas. As we toured the building, the ambient temperature rapidly became torrid as the ovens warmed up. At 1800 degrees, the inside of the oven apparently glows red-hot.

A human body provides its own fuel and will burn on its own at a high enough temperature, so the cremator was preheated, the body placed slid inside on a rack, and the gas switched off to prevent overheating. The body would burst into flame. At the end of the cremation, the gas was turned on again until the bones became calcined and brittle.

Someone asked Steve how they knew when a body was done. He recommended sticking it with a fork. Sobering up, he said that, on average, it took between one and two hours for a cremation at the Neptune Society, with an additional half hour for the oven to cool down enough to remove the cremains. All bodies burned differently, due to their levels of fat or moisture. Both cancer and AIDS deplete the body’s fat reserves, so victims of those diseases had less fuel to burn. Those bodies required more gas and a higher heat, so they might take longer to reduce to ash.

The different compositions of people also produced a variety of different colors as the body vaporized. Sometimes the flames burned green or blue, but generally they were orange or red.

Pacemakers had to be removed before cremation. The heat could cause their batteries to explode, endangering the operators and damaging the cremation apparatus.

While the family may donate usable external prostheses — artificial limbs — to hospitals, internal prostheses were usually removed from the body after cremation. Rather than returning the rather horrifyingly charred ball-and-socket joints to the family, the Neptune Society gathered them in a five-gallon bucket for eventual burial in a mass grave in the Society’s cemetery in Santa Rosa, California. Dental gold was also buried, unless the survivors specifically requested its return.

At cremation’s end, human remains are white and very brittle. Any other discoloration implied that the cremation was unfinished. The bones might have shrunk or twisted, but they were still quite recognizable. The “cremains” were scooped out of the retort with a tool like a hoe, then placed in a machine with a drum like a clothes dryer, which pulverized the remaining bones with heavy iron balls. When the remains could fit through a sieve, the process was complete.

I asked if I could see real human ashes. With a shrug, Steve found a beige cardboard box that was maybe five inches on a side. Inside a plastic wrapper, the cremains looked like Quaker Oats and weighed as much as an old-fashioned solid-body telephone. Everyone else in the tour took a step back when I offered the box for them to hold.

The Neptune Society performed 4000 cremations a year, which Steve believed was the highest volume of any funeral service in the United States. Summer was the slow season, but during the winter, he said, the machines stayed hot around the clock, cremating 20 to 30 people each day.

If numbers like that bring a gleam to your eye, franchises are available.

After touring the facility, I was completely sold on cremation. What a relief to avoid the whole obsequious, expensive, religious nightmare that surrounds the funeral home scene. I appreciated Steve’s lighthearted, matter-of-fact attitude. The Neptune Society provides an inescapable service (sooner or later, someone will have to dispose of my body) without all that weepy sentiment and Old Rugged Cross muzak. If I can’t stand those trappings in my life, thank goodness there’s an alternative for my death.

Cemetery of the Week #56: Chapel of the Chimes

Interior view of the Chapel of the Chimes

Chapel of the Chimes
Also known as California Memorial Crematorium and Columbarium
4499 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, California 94611
Telephone: 510-654-0123
Founded: 1909
Size: One and a half city blocks
Number of burials/inurnments: more than 200,000
Open: Daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

THIS WEEKEND: Chapel of the Chimes offers a Historical Tour on Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 10 a.m. Please RSVP to lcharles@lifemarkgroup.com.

The earliest section of the Chapel of the Chimes

The land where Oakland’s lovely Chapel of the Chimes now stands was originally the site of a trolley car station delivering people to the gates of Mountain View Cemetery (Cemetery of the Week #35). The California Crematorium Association purchased the old station in 1902 and turned it into a chapel for funeral services. Using the talents of architects Cunningham and Politeo, the Association built the first crematory on the east side of San Francisco Bay in 1909 and then added a columbarium.

The name Chapel of the Chimes is misleading. While there are several lovely chapels inside the building, its name refers to it as a place of peace and tranquility, a building of light and beauty rather than of darkness and death. The “chimes” are a carillon, installed in the building’s tower, which were repaired in 2008 after many years of disuse.

The original chapel of the columbarium still has trains schedules on the wall. The original niches are sealed by metal plaques that convey very little information, often only a last name. The second section of the columbarium began to use glass, which was brought about the Horn or shipped cross-country on trains, to protect the urns inside those niches. By the time the third section opened, the niches were left open to display the urns inside.

At Chapel of the Chimes, the niches are property sold in perpetuity to one member of a family, who can will space to only one subsequent family member. The niches are not family-owned. The standard-sized niche holds the remains of two people.

View of Morgan’s design work

In the 1920s, prominent Bay Area architect Julia Morgan (the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris) was hired to design the magnificent Moorish Gothic addition, which includes gardens, alcoves, cloisters, fountains, and chapels. Morgan included stained glass, mosaics, European statuary, tile floors, and California faience to decorate the walls. One of her additions is a balustrade now in the cloister. She had intended the piece for Hearst Castle, but William Randolph Hearst rejected it, so it ended up here.

As you enter the Chapel of the Chimes through its ornate Gothic walkway, you pass a deMedici marble table, purchased by Morgan. Beyond that stands the Bible Cloister, which antique bibles are displayed beneath calligraphed verses. The highlight of the collection is a page from an original Gutenberg Bible.

Beyond the cloister, a breathtaking series of short stairways lead upward to fountain terraces. The eight-pointed star that recurs throughout the design is the mourning star. These hillside gardens are patterened after the Alhambra in Spain. In Moorish décor, blue tile represents water and signifies life.

Ruth Cravath’s Angel Gabriel in Repose

In the past, the gardens had their own flock of caged birds and fish swam in the ponds. Now light pours in through skylights that crank open to admit fresh air. Birds of paradise and ferns grow in the gardens. The building is unheated in the winter, so purely tropical plants wouldn’t survive. Even so, the prehistoric cycad trees are second generation. The originals broke through the glass roof and had to be replaced. In another room, the banana palms are seven years old and grow actual bananas.

In 1959, Aaron Green (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) added the mausoleum behind the columbarium, allowing for full body interment. Chapel of the Chimes was the first space in the world to be both columbarium and mausoleum.

John Lee Hooker’s grave

The most famous resident of the Chapel of the Chimes is bluesman John Lee Hooker, King of the Boogie. To find him, you take the stairs upward from the Bible Cloister, winding through the Garden of Memory, the Garden of Promise, the Garden of Prayer, the Garden of Supplication, up to the Garden of Revelation, turn left, and take the elevator up to the third floor. Up there, turn left again and pass through the Sanctuary of Dawn and the Court of Commitment into the Court of Affirmation. Once you step beyond the confines of the map, you can’t miss John Lee Hooker’s grave on the outer wall of the newest addition to the Chapel of the Chimes.

The Chapel was granted landmark status by the City of Oakland on March 30, 1999.

Every summer solstice, the Chapel hosts a huge performance of eclectic, avant garde music. Performances rang from hand-cranked hurdy-gurdies, a cappella choirs, didgeridoo, noise music, sound experiments, and everything in between. The music ranges from challenging to meditative. Musicians perform in shifts, tucked into every nook and garden of the columbarium. It’s a wonder to behold. This year’s Garden of Memories concert is scheduled for June 21, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are required, but aren’t on sale yet.

Useful links:

The Chapel of the Chimes website

The Chapel’s events newsletter and calendar, as a .pdf download

Last year’s Soltice Concert program

Pictures of Julia Morgan’s contributions to the Chapel of the Chimes

Related burial grounds on Cemetery Travel:

Week #30: the The Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco

Week #35: Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

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