Neptune Memorial Reef
International waters off of Key Biscayne, Florida
N 25° 42.036′ W 80° 05.409′ Founded: 2007 Size: 16 acres Number of interments: There are 1200 places available “in the reef’s initial development.” More than 200 placements have been made.
Three and a quarter miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida stands a one-of-a-kind cemetery. The Neptune Memorial Reef, inspired by sunken cities like Alexandria and Herakleion, is the world’s most beautiful underwater graveyard.
Sponsored by the Neptune Society — one of the largest providers of cremation in the US — the manmade reef is designed as a repository for human cremains. Families select a design created by Key Largo artist Kim Brandell, add their loved one’s cremated remains and small mementos like fishing lures or crucifixes to the concrete, and the unique monument is placed by divers forty feet below the waves.
The monuments are all huge and quite heavy: five-ton columns on fifty-ton bases. Even the smaller sculptures of shells weight ten pounds. Because of their weights and the depths at which they are placed, the Neptune Reef has safely ridden out the hurricanes that damaged the historic cemeteries of St. Augustine.
Shipwreck diver Bert Kilbride — who was immortalized in the Guiness World Records as the oldest scuba diver when he was still diving at the age of 90 — has a place of honor atop one of the columns at the Reef gate. Other monuments in the cemetery include benches, columns, starfish, and more. Future monuments may include dolphins and Neptune himself. Brandell considers his architecture futuristic rather than classical, but the broken columns, colonades, and massive bronze lions echo the mythical Atlantis.
The largest manmade reef yet conceived is in the process of transforming more than sixteen acres of barren ocean floor. The reef meets the guidelines of the EPA, NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Memorial Reef also belongs to the Green Burial Council.
The reef was designed to welcome fish and promote the growth of corals. Since 2007, the reef has attracted 56 species of fish. The most common is Bluehead Wrasse, followed by Sergeant Majors, Bar Jacks, and Tomtates. French angelfish and yellowtail snappers have been seen. Long-spined sea urchins and many species of crab have moved into the reef’s crevices. Sponges colonize the vertical surfaces of the reef, alongside trunkfishes, filefishes, and pufferfish. Fourteen species of coral have moved in, followed by spiny lobsters, spotted and green moray eels, and rainbow parrotfish. In fact, the ecosystem has developed faster than expected.
The Neptune Memorial Reef attracts recreational scuba divers, marine biologists, and researchers from all over the world.
The oculus in the dome of the San Francisco Columbarium
I went to a funeral last week in one of the most beautiful places in San Francisco. I’ve written about the columbarium before — I’ve visited it many times — but this was the first time I’ve been there for the purpose for which it was intended.
The dead man was the husband of a friend of mine, father to a daughter the same age as my own. I didn’t know him well, but I love his wife, so I went to the celebration of his life. It was perfect: a slide show, a board with stories from his life, cards made by his daughter’s classmates, a table with portrait photos of him and the urn with his ashes.
Their daughter came over to say hi. I told her my daughter sent her love. Then I asked, “Are you on spring break this week?”
“No,” she said. “I’m skipping school today.”
I could tell she was troubled by the forbidden aspect of it, so I said gently, “I think you have a good reason.”
Her face froze and she nodded, then dodged off before I could apologize. Oh, well done, I thought. You made a child cry at her father’s funeral. I tried to imagine anything I might have said that wouldn’t have reminded her of her loss, but I came up blank.
Remembering my brother’s funeral, almost 12 years ago now, and how I could barely speak for grief, I forgave myself, because really there are no magic words that make the loss stop hurting. There is no making it better. The person you love is gone forever and your love has nowhere to go, so it turns on you and hurts you. All you can do is keep going on, treasuring your memories and slowly, slowly, let your loved one go.
For all that I write about graveyards and their denizens, I haven’t found any wisdom with which to comfort others. We die, but life goes on. This young girl will grow up, fall in love, travel, find work, live a rich and full life, but she has lost something she will never get back: her innocence, her sense of security, her daddy’s love. Around her, the Columbarium was filled with beauty and fascinating stories. Outside, the day was perfect: a flawless blue sky, 65 degrees, green grass, bright sun, birdsong. I’m sure she didn’t even see that.
I walked back to my car, inarticulate with emotion. I hadn’t lost anything today, but I could see the future so clearly: the deaths of my parents, my friends, maybe my husband although he’s sworn never to die. I have been lucky to have only lost my brother and my grandparents so far. I think growing up is not buying a house, or having a child, or pursuing a career. For me, it means learning to face all the loss to come.
I have so much to learn.
After I went to the service, I found this link on twitter. It’s advice on how to support someone who is grieving. I think I will turn to it often as my friend survives her loss.
Neptune Society Columbarium, San Francisco, California
The Neptune Society’s lovely columbarium in San Francisco features a stained glass window in every room off its main floor rotunda. Every room, that is, except one. The Tiffany window from the 13th room was stolen before the Neptune Society took possession of the building and has never been recovered. That room has plain white frosted glass in memory of what was lost.
The columbarium is one of my favorite places in San Francisco. I take everyone there. I even sent John Levitt there when he was looking for San Francisco locations for Unleashed, the third Dog Days book.
I’ve toured the columbarium three times now, most recently with the Obscura Society. Every tour has been different, even though caretaker Emmit Watson led each one. After his decades of caring for the building, he has so many stories that he can tailor what he tells each time.
New window at the Neptune Society Columbarium
I’ve written about the columbarium before as a cemetery of the week, but that didn’t really explain the depth of my affection for the place.
This last time I visited, we got to explore the new wings. I’d never been in there before. Most of the niches are empty still, but the space was alive with the sound of a fountain. The cool blue light coming through the stained glass window was peaceful. I started to think that I might have found my permanent resting place in San Francisco.
I’m not in any immediate need of it, but it feels good to have that settled.
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.
The 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.
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