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The San Francisco Columbarium

As I stared at my homepage this evening with a lazy eye, my first thought was that it was too late and I would just let it go to tomorrow. Of course, I didn’t have any images worked up, so that was also fueling the lackadaisical frame of mind. So I decided to look through some of my past adventures that I haven’t shared with you yet, and that’s when I ran into a visit to the San Francisco Columbarium that I made back on June 16th when I had rented a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 NON-IS L series zoom lens. That got the juices flowing and before you knew it, I had already picked out the images I wanted to share and was working them up in a frenzy.

If you are not from San Francisco, you probably don’t know about the Columbarium. Hell, you may even be from San Francisco and live within a few blocks of it and STILL not know about the Columbarium. What is it? Well, the dictionary term for columbarium is a repository for human ashes. In other words, this is a mausoleum for people who have chosen to be cremated and want a place to be remembered, instead of those that choose to get spread out somewhere or tossed to sea.

Ok, now hold on a minute. There’s nothing creepy about the Columbarium, so it has a totally different feel than visiting a cemetery. But, I’m sure the better question you are asking yourself is why would I go there to photograph it? Great looking question!! Unbeknownst to many of San Francisco’s current residents, the City doesn’t have any cemeteries. It’s not something you ponder on a daily basis, but there are cemetaries in all the towns. So why not San Francisco?

Well, our history lesson for the day takes us back to the turn of the 20th century when San Francisco was booming into one of the greatest cities in the US. The City was seeing the population grow, yet the big dilemma was WHERE DO WE GET MORE LAND?? Well, San Francisco is surrounded by water on the North, East and West. South of the city, and butting up real close, was Daly City and Brisbane of San Mateo County, and they were going to move their town to satisfy San Franciscans desire for more land. So, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors got together in 1901-02 and passed the an ordinance to prohibit the sale of any new cemetery lots or permit any new burials within the city limits.

At that time, Colma, which is a small town south of San Francisco whose population of dead outnumber the living, was just getting started and was targeted as the refuge for all of the cemeteries that were getting forced out. You want land, folks, we got it!! All the cemeteries, but two, were moved. The only remaining cemeteries within the city limits of San Francisco to this day are the National cemetary in the Presidio and Mission San Francisco. It is even said that many of the head stones and mausoleum remnants were used to build the retaining wall at Aquatic Park just in front of Ghirardelli Square.

As the Columbarium passed through the hands of owners, it landed in a state of disrepair. In 1980, the Neptune Society purchased the property and began a full restoration of the grounds. They have since completed the restoration, and the building is a marvel to look at. It currently sits on the register of San Francisco Landmarks. In fact, the Columbarium is the ONLY San Francisco internment site that is currently still taking admissions. The most notable intern in recent history is San Francisco’s beloved Harvey Milk.

The building itself was erected in 1898 and was done in neo-classical architecture. No detail was spared, either inside or out, and is a marvelous structure to look at. Although I was excited to see what I could do with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, I must admit that it was WAY too much lens for the interior. I was robbed of any wide-angle shots to capture the grandeur of the structure and its wonderful copula with stained glass roof. I even have to say that the lighting conditions were so poor, that I had a hard time capturing a few images that I really wanted due to the lack of Image Stabilization on this lens. Hey, it was a late afternoon Friday rental, and it was 40% off!! So, I’m not bitching, I’m just saying…

The Columbarium is just off Geary Street and Stanyan just blocks from the University of San Francisco campus. If you weren’t looking out for it, you probably wouldn’t notice the copula that sits just high enough to peek over the apartment buildings and businesses that line Geary on that block. But if you look closely, it’s there!! The actual crossroad is Stanyan and Anza. The caretaker does offer a tour, if you are interested, with many tidbits about the history of the structure and some of its notable interns.

A little amount of light that comes in through the various stained glass windows in the structure lend themselves for wonderful photographic opportunities with light and shadow. The walls are rich with texture and color, which I hope I was able to capture in some of these images.

Walking into the Columbarium is no different from walking into a church. The folks there are quiet and going about their business, so I must say that the only noises being heard while I was there was the clicking of my shutter. I would best describe the experience as the same as walking through a museum. You tend to be quiet at the museum, but occasionally you’ll share a few thoughts when you see something interesting. There are MANY very interesting niches as you walk through the halls. Each niche is decorated to the personal style of the intern by their families. Some niches have extremely ornate urns that must have cost as much as my camera gear or more, while other niches have interns in piggy banks and cookie jars simply cause that represented the life of the loved one put to rest. Some niches have personal effects and photographs. Hell, I even saw a niche that had a sticker that read “I’d rather be at a GIANTS game!!” Yes, this is a place to pay respect to loved ones, but done in such a way that removes the creepiness that cemeteries tend to have.

Well, I hope you learned something new today. I enjoyed my trip to the Columbarium and also enjoyed the Canon 70-200mm, although I wasn’t giving it a proper setting for it to really shine. That came the next day when I took it down to the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero for an afternoon walk. But, that’s a topic for another day. How about tomorrow?

Same time, same channel, folks!! Good night!!


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