Infusing Life & Personality into a Cemetery
By: Andrew Noerr, Feature Writing Student
Emmett Watson couldn’t believe what he was holding in his hands. 27 years ago, the man who is now considered the heart and soul of the Columbarium in San Francisco was having a difficult time fathoming what lay inside the box given to him to store in the cemetery. In reality, it was the remains of a deceased person, but the reality just couldn’t sink in for him.
“That’s a whole person?” Watson thinks to himself. “This (person) was 180 pounds, and now it’s five or six pounds?”
He later realized the shocking truth, and it has been something that he has embraced ever since that life-changing day. Today, Watson is the caretaker of the grand Neptune Society Columbarium of San Francisco. Although it has thrived in the recent past due to the hard work from Watson, the Columbarium is a burial site that has a deep yet gloomy history.
Back in 1910, San Francisco started barring cremations from occurring in San Francisco, and burials had already been prohibited from occurring in the city as well. Then in 1923, all the bodies from the cemeteries had to start being removed outside of San Francisco, and this put the future of the Columbarium in limbo. All of the headstones and crematoriums in the city were eliminated, and the Columbarium suddenly became a neglected building that had no purpose for existence, and it is the only cemetery remaining in San Francisco. The only reason it remained intact over the years was because it was considered a memorial site.
From 1934-1979, the Columbarium stood without any activity occurring inside of it. However, in 1980, as the place started to become extremely dirty and worn down, it suddenly was purchased by the Neptune Society which is a company that specializes in cremation services. Right after the transaction, restoration immediately started taking place. Fast forward to 1987, and that’s when Emmitt Watson was hired. His job back then was to simply fix up the place by painting and cleaning it.
Over the years though, Watson has fulfilled many duties that have helped revamp the Columbarium into the vibrant repository that it is now. He is officially the caretaker of the area, but he performs many tasks such as gardening, leading tours, and doing interments which are the placements of the ashes into the Columbarium in the presence of loved ones related to the deceased. What was once a corroding establishment that reeked of wild animals, flooding water, and growing fungus, the Columbarium has been revived by Watson’s hard labor during the past 27 years that has transformed the building into a place that now shines of life and personality.
Currently, the cemetery welcomes all people who wish to pay their respects, and Watson has noticed that the visitors of the Columbarium go through a sort of metamorphosis when they arrive at the site’s magnificent neoclassical architecture and are surrounded by the urns that contain the remains of the deceased.
“When people come here, they’re not into themselves. They’re thinking about a loved one, and that softens their hearts. It makes it easier to get to know them,” says Watson.
Every day, people flock into the Columbarium to witness an interment of ashes, take a tour of the place, or simply come to visit the remains of the dead. With that, the ashes themselves are not cremated at the Columbarium, as that has been a banned practice in San Francisco for over 100 years. Rather, the ashes are actually brought in books and placed in a closet that stays locked at the Columbarium most of the time. According to the brochure given out to visitors, there are cremated ashes of approximately 30,000 people. The ashes are placed in small alcoves in the walls of the Columbarium called “niches,” and it is believed that there are around 5,000 niches currently. However, Watson doesn’t like the term “niche.” He calls them something different.
“It’s just not what I’m trying to create. I’m trying to create life,” Watson explains. “The small (niches) are called apartments. The bigger ones are called condos. Anything bigger than that is called (a) village.”
Watson has therefore personalized the resting places for the ashes so that visitors and relatives can enjoy their experience visiting the Columbarium rather than seeing it as a time to be sad about the loss of a loved one.
“Most people when they come, they say “I’m coming to my mom’s apartment” or “I’m going to my father’s condo.” Most of them say that because they like (those terms) better,” Watson exclaims.
Going even further, a storage room on one of the upper floors of the Columbarium was renovated so that more ashes could be stored. It was initially called “The Dome Room,” but Watson now calls it a “The Penthouse.”
The day that Watson came up with this idea was when he was doing an interment of ashes with a lady related to the deceased person. Watson decided to tell her about the new name that he gave to the room. The woman smiled and told him, “My mom always wanted to live in a penthouse.” As a result, according to Watson, the lady felt much more at ease at the Columbarium and had a positive experience witnessing her mother’s ashes being stored for eternal resting.
It is these experiences and many others that not only portray Watson’s revitalization of the Columbarium, but they have also altered his perspective on death in general. Today, he embraces the future and death, but his upbringing was quite different.
“I used to be scared of it, but I didn’t know what I was scared of. Burying someone in the backyard (was something) that frightened me,” admits Watson.
Now, as the caretaker for a landmark that is seemingly defined by death, he thinks nothing of it. In fact, the Columbarium has completely modified his train of thought regarding life and death.
“When most people think of death, they think of a tombstone. On a tombstone, in reality, (it) says two things: You were born, and you died. This place says a lot more. It’s personality… it’s life and death combined. The life part is the jewelry, the watches, the rings, the pictures (inside the niches), and the death is the container with the people in them.”
It is then evident that Watson has converted a once neglected memorial site into a vibrant area that is full of energy. Regardless of the fact that it is a cemetery at heart, the Columbarium now lives in the safe hands of the lively caretaker Emmett Watson. The Columbarium is currently under construction with the purpose of creating more buildings so that there can be more spots to store ashes in the future. Until then, Watson is going to continue doing what he does best, and that is injecting life into San Francisco’s only cemetery. His time at the Columbarium has transformed him in numerous ways, and most of all he no longer fears death at all.
“Now, I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of life,” Watson acknowledges boldly. “Death can’t do anything to you, but life can.”