SF Oddities: The Roman Columbarium: House of the Living Dead
The Roman-style Columbarium, located smack dab in the middle of San Francisco, is perhaps the oddity of all SF oddities.
Built in 1897, the Columbarium-meaning “dove cove”, as the structures were originally used by the Romans to house domesticated doves-opened its’ doors to the public to provide an alternate option when passing into the afterlife. Cremation was popular at the time-after all, who wants to be stuck underground in a wooden box forever?
The Columbarium gives each member of the departed their won physical, tangible space (essentially a small box) in which they can display personal items, photographs or just about anything they or their loved ones would like to represent their lives.
Some choose to display only their names and the dates of birth and death.
In 1910 the city of San Francisco outlawed cremations, meaning the Columbarium, and its on-site crematory were now without use. In 1923, the city passed another ordinance requiring all bodies to be moved from cemetaries within the city, such as the cemetary that previously stood on the grounds of Lone Mountain at USF.
While the Columbarium was saved from demolition, it succumbed to racoons, pigeons, water, and even growing mushrooms and other fungi from 1934 to 1979. Fortunately, just a few years later they hired a man named Emmitt to clean and paint the deteriorating Columbarium.
Emmitt turned what could have been an unfulfilling task into his life’s work. He took an immediate curiosity to the odd structure and over the course of the past 21 years has physically invested all his strength and effort into restoring the now beautiful Columbarium, painting, cleaning, restoring, giving tours and just about anything you could imagine on the grounds. Here is what it looks like on the meticulously kept inside.
In the pictures above, each small box is a person’s resting place.
Emmitt explained to me that having such a place makes dealing with the death of a loved one much easier to cope with. Rather than deal with funerals and cemeteries, things that conjure dark and negative images, the Columbarium brings life and air to something that is normally stagnant and dead. When I told Emmitt that I thought the Columbarium looked liked someone’s big house, he replied,
“It is a house, a house of the dead”.
This is a truly unique place, as the San Francisco Columbarium is the only remaining Roman-style Columbarium in the world. It’s a place in which people can think outside the box, while at the same time being dead, and inside a box.