I learn some crazy cool stuff when I’m researching a book. For example, when I decided that one of my characters needed to visit his mother’s grave in my latest WIP, I hopped on Google to see where all the cemeteries in San Francisco are located. I wasn’t planning to include an address or even a cemetery name in my book, but I’m the kind of writer who wants to know, because digging up online images or – even better for me – visiting the site helps me create a deeper sense of place. That’s a good thing, in this case.
Because if I hadn’t, I’d have ended up with egg on my face.
There aren’t any cemeteries in San Francisco, at least not one where his mother might be found, and military interments at the Presidio aside, it’s been illegal to bury anyone in the City since 1902. Oops. Someone would definitely have called me on that.
Of course, I could have sent my character south to Colma, a.k.a. Cemetery City, where most of San Francisco’s dead are buried. But digging around, following the threads of this fascinating reveal, I found a far more interesting option: the Neptune Society’s Columbarium. It’s close to his favorite stomping ground – Golden Gate Park – and not too far from where he’s living, which makes it all the more poignant when he finally discovers where she was laid to rest. And the nature of the place itself allows for a far more dramatic and illumninating visit than a simple stop by a headstone could ever be. I wrote the scene and then, a few weeks later when we were in San Francisco, my husband and I paid the Columbarium a visit.
It was a dreary, cold Monday morning, and we had the whole place to ourselves. We were there almost two hours exploring the Columbarium and its grounds, and other than the friendly workman painting the trim on the side door, we never saw another living person. But we were surrounded all the same, by the kind of presence created through the respectful, loving (and sometimes humorous) homage to those gone beyond.
As I wandered, I thought about what my character, an artist, would think about finding his mother in this sanctum. I considered how the light pouring through the stained glass in the domed roof and the many multi-colored windows ringing the building would hit him, how the deep but serene silence might feel in the context of his journey. I thought about which floor his mother might be on, and what he might discover in her vault.
There are four stories to the Columbarium, and each hallway circles the central, open area. Those cubbies you see in the picture are the vaults, and they line the hallways floor-to-ceiling. On the first three floors, there are adjacent rooms also filled with vaults; these are often larger and more elaborate. Some of the vaults are fronted by copper doors marked with names and dates, but many are glass-fronted, allowing visitors to see the photos, trinkets and mementos, love letters and other souvenirs of a life well lived that crowd the urns, reminding me of miniature Egyptian tombs. I couldn’t help but think about how therapeutic it would be for those left behind to create these beautiful altars to their dearly departed – because that’s exactly what they felt like to me.
And, wow. Talk about a wealth of possibilities for building story around a character whose mother died young, and who is missing some critical pieces of his past!
I’m so glad I stumbled across the Columbarium, and that I had the opportunity to visit it in person. I came away awed and inspired, with a sense that I hadn’t nearly done the place justice. Much editing ensued.
In my quest to find this fictional characters final resting place, I also unearthed some other fascinating – and super creepy – info about San Francisco’s dead, but I’m saving that for October. It’ll make the perfect Halloween post. 🙂
Since I’m a certified fogwalker, I never quite know what I need to know before I start writing. I research as I go, so each day is an opportunity to discover something new and interesting, something that makes me sit back in my chair and think, Who knew? And that’s exactly the way I like it.