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Friday, December 12, 2014

Tourism for Locals: Neptune Society Columbarium, a Final Resting Spot for San Francisco Locals

Posted By on Fri, Dec 12, 2014 at 10:00 AM

They left their remains in San Francisco. - JUAN DE ANDA
  • Juan De Anda
  • They left their remains in San Francisco.

The Christmas season is in full swing, but many San Franciscans are already over with the excessively saccharine spirit of it all. And if want a local escape from the Hallmark-like festivities,  and want to experience something more along the line of The Nightmare Before Christmas, then pay a visit to the equally bright-and-morbid Neptune Society Columbarium: the only non-denominational burial place within San Francisco's city limits that is open to the public and has space available.

Located in the Inner Richmond, in a cul-de-sac between Stanyan and Anza, the neo-classical architectural style building is the final resting spot for a small group of San Franciscans lucky enough to remain within the limits of this beloved city. The Columbarium contains over five thousand niches and was designed by British architect Bernard J. Cahill. It opened in 1898 in what was then the 167-acre Odd Fellows Cemetery.

In 1910, San Francisco passed a law prohibiting cremations, and the crematory was demolished. Later, all bodies in the cemetery were relocated to spots outside the city (It's great to be alive in Colma!). The Columbarium survived, but from 1934 to 1979 it was abandoned  — left to the raccoons, birds, mushrooms and elements. The Neptune Society of Northern California acquired the building in 1979 and over the years, a gorgeous restoration process took place, overseen by one man: 58-year-old Emmitt Watson,  the Columbarium's caretaker and historian.

Watson began working at the Columbarium in 1988 as a construction worker, who was originally hired to  paint the outside of the building. But after the owner saw him working diligently, he was asked to be the official caretaker of the building. Watson then took on the tasks of polishing the floors, repairing the leaking copper ceiling, painting the interior walls, and restoring the the niches to polished pristine conditions. While fixing up the edifice, he also began to learn about the the souls of those interred here from visiting relatives. Watson single-handily resurrected the edifice to its turn of the century grandeur and he continues to keep up the maintenance work involved with keep this a special place for the dead.

Famous residents resting here include Harvey Milk,  Chet Helms (music promoter and father of San Francisco's 1967 "Summer of Love") and Carlos Santana's parents.

So, the next time you're walking around the area, take a second to marvel at its brilliance — and then go inside to honor the memory of our fellow locals.
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About The Author

Juan De Anda

Juan De Anda

Juan De Anda is a cultural correspondent with a concentration in tourism, literature, and lifestyle and has been writing for SF Weekly since 2013. As an avid traveler, he enjoys discovering destinations abroad as well as the never-ending hidden gems of San Francisco. #DondeAndaJuanDeAnda?

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