Despite the supposed onset of winter, it’s another sunny day as I pedal up to the San Francisco Columbarium, a stately domed edifice perched at the end of a discreet cul de sac off Geary and Arguello. Currently operated by the secular Neptune Society, the Columbarium is one of the last remaining repositories for the dead within San Francisco city limits, the majority of San Francisco’s deceased having been relocated to Colma from the turn of the 20th century on. A group of about 30 curiosity seekers have gathered at the gates. We’ve all come for an Obscura Society “field trip,” in this instance a tour of the iconic structure, led by the man who has been credited with almost single-handedly presiding over the Columbarium’s resurrection from decades of neglect, Emmitt Watson.
The Obscura Society is an offshoot of four year-old online encyclopedia of wonder, Atlas Obscura, and other local excursions have included ones to Suisun Bay, the Albany Bulb, the San Francisco Motorcycle Club clubhouse, an abandoned train station in Oakland, the Zymoglyphic Museum of San Mateo, and an after-dark tour of the Woodlawn cemetery in Colma. Like a darker, more relentless version of Nerd Nite with stronger drinks and more historians, its Tuesday night salons at the DNA Lounge are equally expansive, covering a whole gamut of hidden histories on topics such as vigilantes, rum-runners, the Donner Party, rail transportation, and absinthe.
Atlas Obscura senior editor Annetta Black eagerly explains the society’s zeal for local exploration. “Originally we [Atlas Obscura] were focused on the idea of far away exotic places, but then we realized that we were falling prey to the idea that the world is only interesting if it’s far away. Once I discovered that I could travel in my hometown with the same sense of curiosity I would apply to Angkor or Paris, it opened up a world of infinite possibilities.”
But back to the Columbarium. Once part of the Odd Fellows cemetery that was relocated in 1929, the Columbarium spent the next few decades rotting from neglect — preserved on paper as a historic landmark, but lacking a caretaker. The loquacious Watson lists its former defects including “cobwebs, fungus, slime, pigeons, and raccoons,” in such quantities that it took him awhile to realize the building wasn’t an empty shell, but a mausoleum for hundreds of cremains, each interred in the walls in a honeycomb series of niches, which he playfully refers to as “apartments.”
Now the Columbarium gleams in the late morning sun, the glass-paneled niches catching the mellow light streaming in the intricate stained glass windows. The baroque trim has been painstakingly hand-painted rose and sky-blue by Watson, who calls them colors of life. Small mementos decorate the later niches, like a series of found-object still lifes: martini shakers, whiskey bottles, baseballs, teddy bears, glass slippers, lottery tickets, love letters, mardi gras beads, hundreds of photographs.
It’s impossible at times to not get separated from the main group, so if Watson mentions one of what I consider to be the most striking characteristic of the Columbarium’s more recent dead I don’t hear him. But as a secular sanctuary, the Columbarium is perhaps the only place I’ve visited where gay couples are buried together in the manner of heterosexual husbands and wives in conventional cemeteries. That there are so many casualties of the AIDS crisis or, as with a memorial built for Harvey Milk (whose ashes were scattered elsewhere), by acts of violence, is an unhappy reality, but at least they have been laid to rest in a place where their equality is never questioned, and the full sum of their lives and loves cause for celebration. Better yet, with a new wing, the Columbarium is open to newcomers and, in death at least, all are welcome.