The Neptune Society Columbarium was built in San Francisco in the late 19th century. A columbarium is a was originally part of a larger cemetery, but a law was passed in the early 1900s that banned burials and cremations in the city and ordered the removal of all cemeteries and human remains, including the urns of human ashes that were kept in structures called columbaria. (Most of them moved to Colma, a small town a few miles south of San Francisco.) This columbarium was abandoned and left to decay for some 50 years, until it was bought by the Neptune Society in the 1980s and returned to its original purpose, as a final resting place for tens of thousands of San Franciscans.
It’s also a beautiful neoclassical structure and a wonderfully calming place to spend an afternoon. The urns are stored in alcoves, or niches, each one of gives you a glimpse into the life of the person or people whose remains are stored inside. Some are simple, some are ornate, and you’ll even find yourself smiling at the flashy knick-knacks some people have chosen to display. I like wandering around the columbarium on foggy days (of which there are many in San Francisco), because as you’re walking through its circular halls and alcoves, you can feel the presence of all these people. That might seem morbid to some, but I find it reassuring, like I could meet a friend around the next turn. —Leanna
Photography by James de Leon; photo manipulations and illustrations by Leanna.
James de Leon is a self-taught photographer who lives in San Francisco.