“In the midst of life we are in death.”
Nowhere is this quote more poignant than in the San Francisco Columbarium, where it is inscribed beneath the stained glass window of an elegant woman.
The Columbarium, built in 1898, is the last fragment of a cemetery that once stretched for 167 acres into what is now the Inner Richmond neighborhood—a reminder that there were once numerous cemeteries within San Francisco, before pressure from city expansion forced officials to move all the bodies to Colma. The Columbarium now stands majestically at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, Loraine Court. Its Neo-classical columns and patinaed copper dome tower over the nearby homes.
My reasons for visiting the San Francisco Columbarium were twofold. A building devoted to housing cinerary urns—with over 8,000 niches lining four floors— was too interesting to pass up. And the building is said to be haunted.
It has been reported that the caretaker, Emmitt Watson, speaks of the ghost of a little girl who haunts the building near the niche where her ashes remain sealed in her urn. Another account tells of a woman who felt a hand on her back while visiting the Columbarium. When she turned, no one was there, but a white hand print appeared on her shirt.
On my visit, I didn’t see a little girl’s ghost and I didn’t feel a hand on my back, though their accounts weighed on my mind. However, I did experience a closeness to the departed that I’ve never felt in any cemetery. Most of the niches in the round building are fronted with clear glass, granting full view of the urns, many dating back to the early 1900’s. Most urns are brass; others are ornate porcelain. One niche holds two ceramic Elvis Presley busts. Several contain memorabilia exhibiting the interests and passions of those whose ashes are at rest: little figurines of cats and dogs, tiny bottles of vodka or whiskey, or favorite books. The niches vary in size, some are large enough for an entire family, others are shoe-box size cubbyholes. Empty niches, many of which are marked reserved, await Death’s next victims.
I went to the Columbarium in search of ghosts. Though I didn’t encounter any, the closeness I felt to the deceased will haunt me forever.