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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 73: Columbarium

San Francisco's Columbarium, built in 1898 in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, still stands and is still in business in the Richmond District. Tens of thousands of cremated remains in a grand domed building with room for more.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - May 31, 2014

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 73: Columbarium Outside Lands Podcast Episode 73: Columbarium

(above) Columbarium, circa 1905

Columbarium at the Odd Fellows Cemetery, Columbarium Collection. Operated today by the Neptune Society.


Podcast Transcription

WNP73 - Columbarium

Woody: [00:00:00] It’s Outside Lands San Francisco. The podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David?

David: Yes, Woody?

Woody: Welcome back to our weekly podcast.

David: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Woody: Always nice to have you here. You like how…

David: Woody!?

Woody: Yes. You like how I always treat you like a guest?

David: Yeah. Woody?

Woody: Yes?

David: Have you ever wondered what will happen to your, to your remains after you shuffle off your mortal coil?

Woody: After my corporeal state has ended?

David: Yes. Have you wondered that?

Woody: Or do I have that backwards? I have not because I have a plan, David. And I suggest that people of our age should always have a plan.

David: Is this a sponsor? Have we gotten a sponsor? Because that’s what it sounds like.

Woody: We should get a sponsorship [00:01:00] from this business. But I do have a plan, and that is: I grew up in the Richmond District, I live in the Richmond District, went to school in the Richmond District. I would like my remains, such as they are, to be in the Richmond District after I die.

David: Oh.

Woody: But and there is a way to do that.

David: Well, you can't get buried here, Woody. Burials were ended in 1900.

Woody: Yeah, there was a city ordinance or something.

David: And that's why there are no new cemeteries.

Woody: But we talked about that before, how a lot of the cemeteries were taken out of the Richmond District and other parts and moved to Colma. But there's still a building that I think a lot of people are probably curious about. If you're on Geary Boulevard, and you go by between Stanyan and Parker Street, you might see above the Pier One Imports this strange dome sticking up.

David: That's right.

Woody: And that is a place where I plan, although I have not purchased a niche yet, to have my ashes interred.

David: Do you think they [00:02:00] have an unlimited supply in there?

Woody: No, I better hurry up. “Act now!” It's called the “Columbarium.”

David: Oh!

Woody: And what is a Columbarium, David?

David: Well, it's a place for people to keep their ashes.

Woody: Cremated remains.

David: Cremated cremains.

Woody: Is that, are they called “cremains?”

David: Yeah, they call it “cremains.”

Woody: Wow. That, now that sounds like some kind of a marketing term.

David: It’s a portmanteau.

Woody: Okay. It sounds like a marketing term. So yeah, when people get cremated, I mean, you always think that they get put in some kind of urn or elaborate vase, right?

David: I can tell you that you get a little cardboard box if you're not.

Woody: Really?

David: If you haven't spent the money to…

Woody: Is that like a…

David: Get an urn or vase.

Woody: Really? Is that like the pine casket for the cremated?

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, the Columbarium is a place where you could actually get this little alcove, this little niche, where you could have your remains, usually behind glass.

David: Right.

Woody: But sometimes in an urn. And they're all, like, set inside [00:03:00] there. It's really neat, it's sort of like having a place where people can visit you after you're dead, but not have to have a whole grave with the giant casket and all that stuff and big tombstones.

David: What's also interesting is, since it's inside and it's all glassed in, little shelves, little niches, that people often personalize them with things from their life. It's like a little curio cabinet including their ashes.

Woody: Yeah, I remember I saw one in there, it had like, people use cookie jars, like elaborate cookie jars, you know?

David: Wow.

Woody: That kind of, reflected their hobbies. Maybe baseball or elephants or something like that. Some of them would get downright whimsical.

David: I’ve seen, you know, like Giants hats and memorabilia, bobbleheads, different things like that in there, you know. There might be a musical instrument or something.

Woody: Right. So, let's talk about the Columbarium and how it got to the Richmond District. You know, it's there and it's, occupies this space, like I said, right behind Geary [00:04:00] Boulevard, but it was once part of a much larger complex.

David: That's right, the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Woody: Now, the Odd Fellows were a fraternal, well I guess they still are, a fraternal organization.

David: Still in existence. You could become an Odd Fellow if you want.

Woody: I think I was born an odd fellow in some ways, but…

David: Not if you haven't paid your dues, Woody.

Woody: Okay, not officially then.

David: Yeah. Again, another plan that you haven't followed through on.

Woody: I got to get it together.

David: Come on!

Woody: Odd Fellows: I'm coming over tomorrow. But the Odd Fellows, like a lot of fraternal organizations, used to have a program, and a lot of these were formed for this reason, in which you paid your dues to the Odd Fellows and they took care of you when you died.

David: Right.

Woody: In the sense that they would have a cemetery or…

David: Did they have, did they have, care for infirmed and aged Odd Fellows too? I mean, did they have Odd Fellow hospitals?

Woody: I don't know.

David: I'm just curious, I don't know.

Woody: Yeah.

David: If you know that, let us know.

Woody: Yeah. Fraternal organizations they were like societies in which, mutual aids societies, right, where people they not only got together for meetings and to do good works, but also [00:05:00] to support each other. So…

David: A lot of times they were business related organizations.

Woody: Right.

David: You know, or community service sort of things like the Elks, or the Kiwanis.

Woody: Right. And the Odd Fellows, like a lot of them, had this big cemetery that was started in 1865 here in San Francisco.

David: Wow.

Woody: And it went from, let's see, Arguello, right? Over to Stanyan?

David: Yeah.

Woody: And from Geary Boulevard to about, I think it probably ended about Balboa or so, right? A little bit more towards…

David: Yeah. No, well, oh, you said it went on Stanyan on the west, on the east side? t went farther than that. It went up to Parker, right?

Woody: You're right, you're right. I stand corrected. Arguello on the west, Parker on the east, Geary on the north. And somewhere between, well, kind of where Rossi playground is today was part of the cemetery, you know? So.

David: Yeah. I mean, the interesting thing is that Stanyan Street, as it exists now, wasn't even there. It's funny because it's such an arterial important street, but it kind of dead ended at the, at the top of the hill there at [00:06:00] Fulton, I believe.

Woody: Right. And like a lot of these cemeteries, the Odd Fellows Cemetery had to be removed by city ordinance and the graves were taken out, but the Columbarium remained.

David: Yeah.

Woody: In the 1920s, I think, a lot of this stuff got moved.

David: ‘20s and ‘30s.

Woody: Yeah, yeah.

David: I believe by then they were getting moved. Yeah.

Woody: And the Columbarium, you know, you have these remains in there, so there's Odd Fellows, but now you can be, you don't have to be an Odd Fellow.

David: No.

Woody: In fact, it's not run by the Odd Fellows at all anymore.

David: It's run by the Neptune Society.

Woody: Yeah, that's right.

David: Yeah.

Woody: I think the Neptune Society, they bought it in 1980.

David: Ah.

Woody: So, they're pretty recent.

David: And normally what they do is they bury people at sea, right? I mean, that's the whole thing. Take you out on a boat and…

Woody: Yeah, you get cremated and then your ashes get spread.

David: Right. Your ashes get spread in the ocean.

Woody: Right. So, let's talk a little bit about the building, and if you haven't been there, you should go see it.

David: It's open all the time and you just walk in.

Woody: And I should tell you when I was a Cub Scout, in the Richmond District, one of our den mothers, you know where we kind of go [00:07:00] after school and do our little Cub Scout activities, lived on the street you need to take to get to the Columbarium, which is called “Lorraine Court.”

David: Right.

Woody: And it's right there behind Geary. But we used to play soccer and baseball on the lawn around the Columbarium. It was like a little public park to us. So it's open all the time. It was built in 1898. The cemetery starts in 1865.

David: Right.

Woody: But they don't build the Columbarium until 1898. And it was designed by B.J.S. Cahill. And very much inspired by, remember we talked in the past about the Colum, I mean the Columbian Exposition in Chicago?

David: Yeah.

Woody: And how it kind of revitalized this whole idea of this classical architecture coming back?

David: Sure, yeah.

Woody: Well, Cahill was definitely inspired by the Columbian Exposition and wanted to kind of put that in when he designed the Columbarium.

David: Oh, alright. So that’s why it looks kind of Roman or whatever, yeah.

Woody: Yeah, and it's incredibly elaborate.

David: Yeah.

Woody: At the time there was, you could get cremated on site. There was actually a place to get cremated right next door.

David: A crematorium.

Woody: There you [00:08:00] go. You got all the terms.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, 1898 it gets built. What's it look like inside, David? If I was to go into the Columbarium now, virtually, does it look like a bank inside? What does it look like?

David: Well, I mean, it's got that central dome, it's got a, it's got a central space where there are chairs and things that they set up for services, for funeral services, I guess. And then…

Woody: I've even given history talks in there. They have events in there.

David: Yeah, they do all kinds of different things. There's two floors, and you can walk around on the first floor. I think you need to get permission to go up onto, into the gallery upstairs at this point. I was in there a few weeks ago and there were little ropes across.

Woody: Oh, okay.

David: And I'm not somebody who goes and asks for permission to do stuff. I just don't, I just don't do it.

Woody: You're a rebel, David. You're a rebel!

David: No, I didn't go up there. I'm not…

Woody: Okay, all right.

David: I'm too timid, is what I'm saying, to ask for permission. So, I just walked around the bottom. But so, you go in [00:09:00] and the first thing you see is this beautiful dome with a light coming down from the center of it, at the top. And then, all around you are all these little niches. And as we said, they were, they're all individually…

Woody: Personalized.

David: Personalized. Yeah, modified. And some of them are quite old too. I mean, the newer ones are the ones that have the personalizations, but there are a lot of older ones that may have a, have an opaque or metal door or a wooden door on the front of it.

Woody: Right, right.

David: That are sealed, that have the person's name.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Sometimes they have glass in there that, they really has a kind of maudlin feel to it, sometimes.

Woody: Victorian feel too.

David: Yeah, you go in and it's like a real memento mori sort of feeling in some of those old ones. The new ones with the Giants hat and bobbleheads, I just don't, I just can't summon the Victorian, Victorian [00:10:00] emotion.

Woody: Well, if the Giants and the bobbleheads were around in Victorian times, they would be there, because Victorians love that kind of hodgepodge, mishmash of things.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But it's very non-denominational inside, but there are like decorative reliefs of flowers and vines and that sort of. I don't really notice any Odd Fellows sort of, I don't know.

David: I don't know the Odd Fellows dogma, so.

Woody: Yeah, I don't know if it's like the Masons and they have special signs and things, but it just kind of looks…

David: I mean it is, well it's definitely Christian in general.

Woody: Yeah, yeah. Well, of the time I think too. There's about 5,000 niches in there. And they have like an addition, they have another building that's kind of next door.

David: Right.

Woody: So, they have more room.

David: And it's not just the dome, the dome has little wings off it too. So, they're like little, little extra rooms that come right off the dome. And as you say, there's another whole building that's on that lot too.

Woody: Right. And if you go there, I don't know, does Emmett [00:11:00] Watson still work there? Do you remember that guy?

David: I think he still does, yeah, he's been there a long time.

Woody: He's been like the caretaker there for like thirty years.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Thirty-five years. And he's a great sort of tour guide if you see him. He’ll probably find you before you find him and start showing you around. He's a great guide to the whole place. He's worked there for the Neptune Society for, like I said, like thirty years or something.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, the cream, I mean, the Columbarium survived the Odd Fellows move, but it was not, I don't think very well taken care of for many years. And I don't know that they were adding new people in there for a long time. And I remember, like I said, when I was a Cub Scout in the ‘70s, it was kind of beat up.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But it went through a big restor...

David: Was it open? I mean, could you still walk in?

Woody: We didn’t, I don’t know.

David: Or you had to, because there's a big gate. There are big metal gates that are out in front of it.

Woody: Like I said…

David: So, you can easily close them up and…

Woody: Yeah, the gates were open. Like I said, we used to play on the lawns around it, but I don't remember ever going in the building. But when the Neptune Society bought it, they fixed it up. They restored a lot of it [00:12:00] and it's in great shape now. And it looks like a great place to spend your, post last year's, what would you call that?

David: I'll come visit you, Woody.

Woody: Okay, thank you, David.

David: I mean, you won't care.

Woody: No. Well, maybe I will. I mean, I like to think there's going to be a place where somebody can come and remember me.

David: Yeah, okay. Well, there will be but you won’t…

Woody: Outside the internet, outside the internet.

David: We'll come to, we'll come to our podcast to remember you, Woody.

Woody: Oh, how nice.

David: Maybe you should have, maybe in your niche, there should be a button that you can play one of our podcasts.

Woody: “It's Outside Lands, San Francisco, I'm Woody LaBounty, I was Woody LaBounty.”  Yeah. Well, you're right, David. You're going to inspire me, this podcast is going to inspire me, to go in and put my deposit down and get my niche.

David: Okay.

Woody: Okay? All right. So, that's the story of the Columbarium. Go see it at One Lorraine Court. Like I said, it's just behind Geary, behind the Pier One Imports over there.

David: Yeah, you get in there [00:13:00] right across from Rossi Playground there.

Woody: And we've had some people who have written in and suggested some new podcasts and said they like what we do. And one of them not only wrote in and said, “What great things, I'm working my way through the podcast,” but joined as a member right away.

David: Yay! Thank you!

Woody: And that's what we want. If you're not a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project, I recommend that you become one.

David: Right.

Woody: How do they do it, David?

David: Well, they go to the website, and they click on the “Become a Member” link which is right at the top of the page. And what page is that, Woody?

Woody: outsidelands.org.

David: That's right.

Woody: Well, thank you for joining me this week, David. I hope to see you again on the Outside Lands podcast.

David: Well, I really appreciate that you have me as a guest every week, Woody.

Woody: Alright. Maybe we'll have you back, maybe we'll have you back. You've been so much fun. See you later.

David: Bye.

Woody: Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco [00:14:00] history at outsidelands.org.

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