I have a complicated relationship with churches. I haven’t been in many in San Francisco, but Grace Cathedral keeps drawing me back. I’ve been to look at the murals a couple of times and gone to hear Handel’s Messiah there one Christmas and walked the labyrinth. The church feels cold and aloof, but it doesn’t feel like it rejects me.
During one of his cemetery lectures in Cypress Lawn, Dr. Svanevik mentioned that Grace Cathedral has a columbarium. Ever since I heard that, I’ve wanted to explore it, but it’s only open on Sundays around the morning service. I didn’t want to intrude on anyone — and things are always better with a tour. I booked one for last Thursday.
Our guide was the cathedral’s verger, who gave us a wonderful tour. Even though he’s worked at the cathedral for the better part of 25 years, he introduced us to the artworks that jam this lovely building as if he was as enthusiastic about them as the first time he showed them off. He led us in to locked chapels, back behind the organist, into the vestry, into the vault and the robing room, and answered every question we could come up with.
Once we reached the columbarium, it was a little disappointing. The room is tucked into one of the bell towers. Rather than having personalized glass-fronted niches like the San Francisco Columbarium or Chapel of the Chimes, the Cathedral’s columbarium has doors with little name plaques. The cremains are tucked inside in nondescript boxes.
I can see the appeal of remaining for eternity in a place filled with music and artwork and the beautiful colors of glass-stained sunlight. But I want a sense of belonging to history — and the cathedral, while lovely, was only completed in 1964.
It’s not for me and it won’t fit into my Historic Cemeteries of the Bay Area project, since the columbarium didn’t open until 1985. Doesn’t matter, though. I had a great tour, absorbed some beauty, gloried in the organist rehearsing, and felt grateful for the adventure away from my computer.
Now I’m considering a tour of St. Mary’s Cathedral, to see if they have a crypt or columbarium tucked away somewhere. Svanevik had a theory that a number of San Francisco’s churches had semi-secret burial niches. I’m on a mission to find out the truth of that.