In a Columbarium, 5 miles and a world away from San Francisco

Last November I spent some time (okay, fine, 4 completely absorbed hours, and I need to go back again) in the San Francisco Columbarium, in the interest of research for my NaNoWriMo book, but also because I’m a ghoul and I love that shit. Today I decided to wander the Oakland Columbarium, in part because I always walk by it and wonder about what’s inside, and in part because when I do start planning for my eternity, I may be firmly East Bay, and not want to spring for niche in The City.

I guess I should have expected that there wouldn’t be many similarities, but I was stunned. Where SF’s house of the dead is full of remembrances, personalities, and memorials, Oakland’s is full of somber good taste. And good taste is really not “in” anymore, making this a cold, empty place. Structurally, it’s similar, and beautiful, with stained glass and a gorgeous dome. It’s just everything human that’s missing.

By the numbers
Built in: 1911
Dearly-departed souls: 40,000
Living souls spotted in the hour I was there: 1 (I caught a glimpse of myself in a pane of glass)
Dead flowers: A dozen or so
Artificial flowers: Half a dozen
Live flowers: Maybe 5
Pictures of loved ones: 2
Personalized inscriptions (beyond just a name and date): 2
Urns with any tiny spot of color: 1

 This place has themed rooms. In one, all the urns are the classic book shape. In another, they all have wood paneled fronts. Uniformity and matching is prioritized here. There were even guidelines, stating what could and could not be put on the interment spaces, and these guidelines included the phrase, “uniform beauty.”

It’s not at all surprising that this place was so empty. They’ve made it into a beautiful storage space, and nothing more. On a Sunday just after noon, not a single one of the chairs that looked like they were stolen from someone’s grandmother’s patio were occupied, and no one came in the entire time I was there. It’s even starting to affect the caretaker’s moral, I think. There were buckets in a couple rooms to catch drips from skylights, half the lights were off, and on the cracked marble steps that wobbled beneath me, there was a smattering of dead flies.

The worst thing was that it wasn’t even spooky! You’d think a silent, dark, empty columbarium would scare the crap out of you, right? Nope! I was on edge and looking for ghostly reflections in the first couple empty rooms, but after that, I just felt a little dead inside.


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