The only place you can leave your heart forever in San Francisco: Inner Richmond’s Palace of Ashes


The columbarium, the only place anyone can leave their heart forever in San Francisco, is a nesting doll of stories. There are the stories of the people whose ashes line the walls of the rotunda, people like Dante the magician (1883-1955) who played for kings, and Dorothea Klumpke Roberts (1861-1942), a revolutionary astronomer who bears her name on two asteroids. There are also the stories of the stewards of this place – celebrants and guardians, funeral directors and managers – characters who bring creativity and humor to the conduct of the business of death in a most unusual place.

The stories of the columbarium’s lifelong tenants do not remain behind the glass doors of the niches that contain their cremains. They float through the four levels of the Golden Rotunda, haunting the stewards in charge of their care.

The stewards of the columbarium not only take care of the building and the memorials; they protect the stories of its residents.

“I don’t tour, I tell stories,” Crystal Hoffman said, her black eyes flashing.

Hoffman moved from China to San Francisco in 2003 and has worked as a family services counselor at the columbarium for eight years, a job she can’t seem to quit. Hoffman hosts events where those who have purchased a niche can meet their future forever neighbors – people who have purchased adjacent or nearby niches. The event, which was usually held in the summer, has been suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

Crystal Hoffman, family services counselor at the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

Hoffman acknowledged the difficulty of his work but also the great rewards. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told the story of a man who died a week before he was supposed to be married. “His wedding has become a funeral,” she said, pointing to her niche which contains a bundle of letters bound with fluorescent pink thread, photographs, miniature black-and-white Nikes and a Casio watch. It was still ticking.

Celebrant Paul Harpring, who describes his work at the columbarium as part master of ceremonies, part minister or rabbi, likes to tell the stories of people who have passed away.

“It’s the little details that bring someone back, not the biographical facts of their life,” he said. When preparing for a service, he talks to as many people as possible to get the full spectrum of someone’s story. “Everyone has their own unique relationship with the person who died. The same person can be a different person from children, friends, colleagues,” he said. He compares his work at the columbarium to a weighted blanket – heavy, but also grounded.

The most haunting story for Hoffman is that of a young Chinese woman, an immigrant who reminds her of herself, who worked day and night to care for her family. The woman looked young in her photo, but when Hoffman saw her body in an open casket ceremony, she looked old and shrunken. While the columbarium contains only ashes, many families choose to hold an open casket funeral onsite and then hold a smaller placement ceremony once the ashes return from an offsite crematorium.

Hoffman couldn’t get the image out of his mind. The night after the young woman’s funeral, Hoffman saw her ghost.

“She was sitting next to me with long hair, touching my head very gently, telling me not to work so hard,” she said.

The interior rotunda of the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

The intense demands of the funeral profession – “people don’t die from nine to five” and “there are no holidays in this business” are sayings within the industry – lead many to see it as a duty position similar to a firefighter, teacher or police officer. It’s a calling, not a career, and it’s one that often seems preordained.

A high school aptitude test suggested that funeral director was a job for Harpring and Kestenblatt. After following a funeral director to his hometown of Rochester, New York, Kestenblatt became so enamored with the job that he ran home and told his father what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. life. “Couldn’t you choose something a little livelier?” his father asked.

People working in the funeral profession have been on the front lines of the pandemic, though they are often not recognized as grocers, letter carriers and doctors have been.

“We are essential workers,” Harpring said, “and we never stopped working during the pandemic.”

Jessica Ferri, author of “Silent Cities: San Francisco,” agrees.

“Funeral directors are the best people. They remind me of teachers, they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t like it,” she said.

Along with intense challenges come profound rewards. Kestenblatt, who has mentored many people for careers in the funeral profession, is always trying to find more people to work in the field.

“It’s so gratifying to receive a letter from a family saying we couldn’t have made it through without you,” he said. “It’s more rewarding than any salary.”

Despite the rigorous demands of the job, funeral directors have learned to infuse lightness into their profession, in what is perhaps a necessary survival technique. “They take their jobs seriously but also have a great sense of humor,” Ferri said. Kestenblatt served coffee in a cup that read “Embalming Fluid (concentrated)” and Hoffman joked that his “neighbors” who have niches next to his can’t die until they pay their “forever apartment”. Hoffman, who bought her own doghouse years ago, proudly shows it off to other potential customers.

Harpring enjoys making people laugh during services and tries to get stories from family members that will elicit laughter. “You get the full emotional spectrum on a serve,” he said.

“I love the creativity and freedom I have here,” said Kim Rifredi, columbarium caretaker. She organized the Halloween book signing and photographed the monument’s pink dome for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Families who choose the columbarium also tend to be creative, according to Rifredi. “I often catch myself thinking, damn it, I wish I knew this person,” she said.

Kim Rifredi, guardian of the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

Creativity is perhaps built into the funeral profession. During training for his funeral director’s license, Harpring did an activity in which he and a partner pulled three characteristics of a death — who died and where and how — from a bowl full of options. They then had to use their imagination to design a service adapted to the person.

The columbarium is a melting pot of creativity, “every niche a poem, every room a novel”, as Bob Yount of Green Street Mortuary put it. Yet perhaps the biggest story the historic landmark tries to tell is that of San Francisco itself.

“The columbarium is a love letter to San Francisco,” said Serena Brockelman, a former family services counselor at the columbarium.

“It’s a beautiful piece of San Francisco history,” Harpring agreed.

A fountain in the shape of Coit Tower adorns the grounds of the San Francisco Columbarium. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

With a fountain in the shape of Coit Tower in the grounds, urns in the shape of the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square, and a long-standing embrace of the queer community, the columbarium and its tenants embody the spirit of the city.

An array of characters inhabit its walls – people like Harry August Jansen, a Danish-born professional magician known as Dante the Magician who traveled the world in the early 1900s and coined the famous slogan “Sim – Sala – Bim”. Dante the magician and the owner of a grocery store are always neighbors.

“It’s a little hit or miss, but it just feels right to me,” Harpring said.

A niche at the columbarium honors slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk’s ashes no longer reside in the building, but her family has kept the doghouse in her honor. (Julie Zigoris/KQED)

There are also celebrities from San Francisco: Harvey Milk, the influential political influencer Rose Pak and the father of Carlos Santana. Milk’s family has since decided to move his ashes elsewhere – but they have kept the memorial niche in his honor.

Anchor Steam brewery founders Otto Schinkel and Ernst Baruth stand side by side in the Notus room, with Schinkel the deadliest in San Francisco after getting the most out of drinks in San Francisco – he was ejected from a tram that had slammed on its brakes.

What do you have left when you die? The stories others tell about you. We spend our lives trying to achieve and achieve, trying to live within the parameters of what feels right. But in the end, it is often the faults and weaknesses, the anecdotes, that persist.

“You smell San Francisco in these walls,” said Heather Cann, former office manager at the columbarium. “The rich history of its beginnings, the eccentricity of its people and the passion for this city that unites them all.”

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