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Job Interview

[whitespace] Emmitt Watson
Ken Richardson

Death Becomes Him

With its stained-glass windows, copper dome and classical Muzak, the Neptune Society's Columbarium (at the end of tiny Loraine Court between Stanyan and Arguello streets) seems like a wedding chapel of sorts. But it's really a sepulchral, nondenominational vault, built in 1898, which houses cremated human remains. Nearly every inch of wall space inside is covered with recessed, glass-enclosed urns which display mementos and pictures of the deceased. The ashes of many of San Francisco's pioneering families also can be found in this historic architectural site, like Eddy, Folgers, Hayes and Steiner. Managing editor Christa Palmer met up with the Columbarium's groundskeeper, Emmitt Watson, and found out that the Columbarium is not only a unique place to stash your ashes, but also an unusually pleasant spot to visit the dead.

Christa: What's your job?

Emmitt: I'm the caretaker, gardener, painter, tour guide. There was nothing here when I came but grass and concrete. From 1934 to '79 it was abandoned. The inside was full of cobwebs, birds, raccoons and mushrooms growing out of the walls. It took me six months to get the floors to shine. I planted everything outside. I redid all the stained glass. I take time to do a good job because I'm not planning on coming back in this lifetime. It takes too damn long. When I leave, that's it.

Christa: Whose picture is on your desk?

Emmitt: That's a young girl who died after the 1906 earthquake. I always felt like I was being watched. See those stairs across the way? I was there and I actually saw that little girl. First thing I said in my mind was "Damn, that girl needs to get some sun." Then one day a man and woman walked into the building and I saw the dates 1900-1907 on the niche they were at. They told me that she died in her bedroom in the Haight Ashbury from drinking polluted water. Eventually I got to meet Miss Virginia, the oldest of the last relatives of that little girl, and I told her the whole story and she believed me. That's when she went home and searched through all her old records and found the picture of her. And for six years it's been sitting here on my desk.

Christa: How long have you been working here?

Emmitt: Twelve years. If you could collect the sweat I dropped, you'd fill San Francisco.

Christa: Does it get lonely or spooky working here by yourself?

Emmitt: I couldn't really deal with death when I first came here. But next to my office there is an embalming room, so I used to open the door and peek in there, and I would see dead people lying in there. I got to the point that I wanted to know what was going to happen to me. So I would go in there and watch autopsies and I've gotten to do dressings now. ... Death is disguised here with beauty.

Christa: What is a typical day like?

Emmitt: I give hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tours a year. I say the same thing so much that I could sit right here and walk you through this building without leaving this spot. But the first thing I do in the morning is open up the door and holler, "Good morning y'all!" When people come to this building cremated, I adopt them. The living relatives adopt me, too. I try to feel their pain, and it sounds hard to do, but it's really easy because all you've got to do is care.

Christa: If you weren't doing this, what might you be doing?

Emmitt: Writing a book. Actually, I am writing a book: Emmitt's Chronicles: Stories of a Columbarium. But I've got a ghost writer.

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From the June 1-14, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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