Who Knew??

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.



12 responses to “Who Knew??

  1. Lisa – I love this. As you know, in a way I’m the opposite of you. I do my research – if you can call it that – long before a book ever begins. It’s what is already in my head, in my heart, in my hands, that creates a place for me. It’s a feeling rather than a reality I’m looking for – I have a place in my head (have had for 20 years) that I know one day I’ll write about. I’m just not ready yet. My research during a book is generally very precise – what’s the name of a place, when did something happen, what did a specific thing look like.

    But I love the Columbarian and I can see how you feel about it. Now me? I might go there next time I’m in San Francisco and 10 years from now, I might use it, use what it felt like to me.


  2. Wow! I lived in or around San Francisco for thirty-eight years—even had clients who worked for the Neptune Society—and never once heard mention of the Columbarium. What a remarkable building! What grand architecture! This, indeed, is why research pays. It can’t help but lend a new and unique dimension to your book.

  3. Great post, Lisa!

  4. Wow! What a great location for a super ghost story! Maybe the Mardi Gras of the nether world. Imagine being the janitor or night watchman at that place. Bet they’ve got some stories, Huh?

    Like Raymond, I’ve spent a lot of time in San Francisco, it’s one of Belva’s and my favorite cities, and we never knew about it or the fact that SF has no cemeteries!

    Great Post Lisa!

  5. Incredible looking building is right! And I’m absolutely shocked there are no cemeteries in San Francisco.

    • San Francisco is bounded on three sides by water, and on the south by other cities. At seven miles by seven miles, with no room to grow, it is too small to allow something like a cemetery to take up needed space. Colma, a city just to its south, is almost nothing but cemeteries and that is where they bury their dead.

      • Exactly. There are 3 in city limits though – the military cemetery and the pet cemetery by the stables at the Presidio, and the historic cemetary at Mission Dolores. There were more at one time, but they’ve been moved. Or so they say… 😉


    • I’ve heard the same is true about Manhatten. Makes sense that the living would crowd out the dead over the centuries.

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