King of the Underworld: See San Francisco's Columbarium Through the Eyes of Its Caretaker

Tucked in a cul-de-sac in the Inner Richmond, The Columbarium's neo-classical architecture and copper dome seem out of place. The inside of the building resembles a dollhouse and a church with its ornately decorated walls and large, stained glass windows. The four floors in the building open up to a balcony where one can peer up to the stained glass window in the dome. On each floor, thousands of niches cover the walls. Wall-mounted vases surrounding the niches are full of flowers. Each space holds an urn and mementos from a deceased person's life.

The Columbarium is the last remaining nondenominational place of internment within city limits. The man who presides over it is 58-year-old Emmitt Watson, The Columbarium's caretaker and historian.

When Watson first started working here in 1988, the place was abandoned. Mushrooms grew on the walls, green slime covered the floors, and pigeons slept inside the dome. He originally came as a construction worker to paint the outside of the building. The owner saw him working diligently and asked him if he would consider becoming the caretaker. As he opened up the heavy doors leading inside, two raccoons rushed past him.

“When I realized what this was, my heart just started pounding,” he says. Little did he know that he would spend the next several decades single-handedly restoring the building to its original glory.

Originally built in 1898, The Columbarium was part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery that stretched over 167 acres of land. A crematorium was across the street (where the Rossi Pool is today). The cemetery was built on top of sand dunes, land considered valueless, and bordered by Divisadero Street, which marked the city limits at the time.

But in early 1901, San Francisco officials annexed the land. The following year, cremation was outlawed in the city, and the crematorium and columbarium fell out of use.

The Columbarium was set to be demolished along with all of the other internment spaces in San Francisco, but in 1934 it received protection from the Homestead Act. For nearly 50 years, it was passed around from organization to organization until the Neptune Society of Northern California finally purchased it in 1980.

When Watson started working there eight years later, the building was still in disrepair. “I mean this place was a mess, but look at it now,” Watson says. “People think I got a crew. I'm the crew.”

Watson began by sweeping and mopping up the grime until a tiled mosaic floor was revealed underneath. He shooed the pigeons off the ledges and patched up the hole in the dome that was letting rain into the building. While rummaging through the rubbish on the grounds, he found a picture of the building during its heyday. The photograph featured a grandiose room decorated in Victorian style with a large dining room table. Watson started to see the significance of restoring the building to its former appearance. With his help, The Columbarium came back into popular use after being abandoned for nearly five decades.

During this time, his perception about the niches also began to change. As he repainted the walls, he glanced at the names on the niches. “I'm goin' see your name everyday, I wanna know something about you,” Watson says. He asked visiting relatives questions about their deceased loved ones. “The relatives introduce me to them,” he explains.

Watson also gets to know his clients better through the deceased person's possessions — such as their jewelry and photos of their favorite actors — that fill their niches. The mementos inside the internments resemble the customs of an ancient Egyptian burial: ensuring the deceased's immortality. The urns in the 8,500 niches range from traditional repositories to tobacco canisters, old Johnnie Walker Red bottles, or even a cookie jar shaped like a rabbit.

Because he lives next door to The Columbarium and spends so much time restoring the building, he regards the residents as his neighbors. “Everybody in here is family,” says Watson. And he has some famous neighbors: The Shattucks from Berkeley, the Folgers (who created the coffee company), and musician Carlos Santana's parents are interred at The Columbarium.

As Watson walks around the four floors, he talks about the deceased like they're his old friends. On the second floor, he kneels down at a niche occupied by Ms. Lily. She loved going to baseball games, so her remains are in a baseball-shaped cookie jar. A crystal slot machine next to her ashes also commemorates her affinity for gambling. “One thing about Ms. Lily is that she didn't like the dark,” says Watson. So he installed a light in her niche that he switches on from time to time. Lily's husband still hasn't passed away, but part of his remains will go inside of a ceramic golf bag that is next to her baseball. One day, her husband noticed that there was a crack in the miniature golf bag in the niche. He joked with Watson that when he died he would sneak out at night through that crack.

“I told him to go ahead, but when he comes back Lily is going to have the light on and she's gonna have the baseball bat in her hand,” Watson says.

As the sole caretaker of The Columbarium, Watson considers the space an extension of his home. “This building is a part of me now. I can walk you through all 18 rooms sitting here in this chair because it's all in my mind,” he says.

He has been given four niches by his clients throughout the years as a thank-you, and has sold all but one. His own mini-condo on the upper floor near the dome is his favorite niche, he says. “I'm going to be dead someday and I'm going to need to have a place to go. I might as well go to a place that I somewhat created.”

Watch a short film and view the slideshow on The Columbarium.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories