San Francisco can be a cold bitch . Endless apartment searches, dead-end jobs, and living hand-to-mouth are so often the score to a Francisqueño’s personal soundtrack. Some people can’t take it. They leave the mildewed apartments, the drafty hills, and hipper-than-thou denizens for warmer climes and chillier people.
But for those whom the City by the Bay has no other equal, death is the only reason they will leave it. In a city with such limited space and all its cemeteries supposedly outside its borders, how do lifers bid the city adieu? Lots of us buy local, but what does it mean to die local?
I thought I’d do a little digging to find out.
Pork buns, tchotchkes, and looped pipings of Chinese string music are the atmospheric staples of Chinatown. Occasionally breaking through the clatter of Grant Avenue’s emporiums, though, come the oompah-pah of brass and drum, the unintentional and probably most sincere of tourist attractions – the Green Street Mortuary Band. The band has operated out of Green Street Mortuary for years, providing parades for the mortuary’s largely Chinese customer base and occasionally others in the city who’ve checked out.
I meet Lisa – a gregarious middle-aged woman whose blond hair has the occasional wisp of gray poking out from under her white cap – at O'Reilly's Irish Pub and Restaurant over a Sunday morning seltzer water. She’s been leading this troupe for years, and although she’s already got two processions under her belt this Sunday morning, her stamina seems unaffected. We’re directly across the street from Green Street Mortuary, where she can chat a little and still keep a watchful eye on the proceedings of the services.
Two of her bandmates saunter in to take a load off, their faces pink from the bright morning sun and wind whipping off the Bay. O'Reilly's is their clubhouse of sorts, as well as Capp's Corner, an Italian restaurant up the block, where they like to blow off some steam when they’re done with their orchestrations through the neighborhood, whether it be a good day or one that is, as they say in a chestnut of funereal humor, “deadly.” Lisa senses that the casket is about to appear from within the funeral home, so we step out into the already quardened off section of Green Street.
As we’re talking about the members of the band, “her guys,” Lisa swells with a pride and fondness befitting a four-star general. The musicians she’s pooled together are veterans of the local music scene. John Coppola, a jovial sort, played with everyone from Stan Getz to that other Coppola that lives up north. Although I generally regard North Beach as having about as much legit neighborhood charm as Disneyland, Lisa peppers the conversation with references to friends and comrades up and down the block and I suddenly feel as though I’ve walked into a Bing Crosby film.
The procession begins with incense and bowing as an old resident of Chinatown makes his final farewell to the neighborhood he called home. As per custom, the first stop is at the home of the deceased; in this case, up the incline of Nob Hill. Lisa makes sure that some of the older band members have rides to the top. The trombonist is pregnant, which causes Lisa some visible concern. She’s healthy, though, and says the walking will do her some good. Lisa’s assuaged for the time being, but she confides that she’ll probably keep a careful eye on what kind of gigs she’ll book her for until the baby comes. The bubbly tooter ambles effortlessly by me as I try to keep up with the band already cresting the hill.
The group weaves its way through Chinatown pausing with occasional bursts of fluttering paper bills cast into the air to the strains of music the family arranged for. Lisa beams as she leads her troupe with gusto, pointing out the ubiquitous potholes that keep her charges from careening down the street.
As the cortege moves on, I’m dodging chattering tourists who take photos on their flip phones. Other than in San Francisco, the procession is all the more foreign compared with the modern rituals of keeping death innocuous and subdued.
Quiet and subdued seem to be the preferred route with many these days. Lisa sighs over noise complaints from cranks, and even members of the police, but as we head back toward the mortuary she can’t help but feel upbeat. It’s a beautiful day with another successful send-off.
Standing outside the Evergreen Mortuary of McAvoy O'Hara on Geary Boulevard in the Inner Richmond, I’m trying to lose the smirk on my face. A long time ago a friend informed me, while passing this place, that mortuaries cause her to erupt into an uncontrollable case of the giggles. Now, aside from looking creepy, I doubt my expression will do little to impart the somber professionalism I wish to convey.
When I meet Olga O’Hara, though, my apprehension dissipates. In her late twenties, Olga is the latest generation of O’Haras to run the city’s oldest mortuary since her great grandfather partnered up with the McAvoys at the beginning of the last century.
Olga’s job involves many tasks: she counsels, applies makeup, and receives the departed in the wee hours of the morning.
I ask her what it’s like to grow up in a mortuary – about the obvious comparisons to things like Six Feet Under , and she says she can’t imagine anything else. She really loved the show, though, but had to stop watching after the stolen van episode. Dealing with the dead is one thing, but that was terrifying.
There’s a current movement toward home funerals and greener burials, and in the community McAvoy O'Hara serves, these sorts of things are normal. Corporate-owned chains won’t usually offer info on these practices because it’s cheaper not to.
During the tour of Evergreen, we pause in a sunlit chapel. Before us is an elderly Asian gent dressed nattily in his suit, contentedly waiting in his casket for his relatives to show up.
Olga says she feels lucky that she gets to deal with dead people. Sometimes the living can be in bad places – stressed out, dealing with stuff. In this business, things kind of fall into perspective.
As for the afterlife? Well, she believes in it. For her, the best part will be seeing her grandparents again. She wants them to feel like she did a good job with the family business.
The fragrance of orange blossoms and cut grass in the sunshine almost makes me forget that not only am I in San Francisco, but that at the end of the cul-de-sac lies the last of the city’s functioning burial grounds.
At some point or another, most residents of the Richmond eventually come to realize that they are living in their own giant version of Poltergeist . The district was once a sea of graves stretching from Van Ness all the way to the Land’s End. But all that’s left now is the Columbarium, a small piece of the former Odd Fellows Cemetery. It’s hidden behind the currently-under-construction Institute on Aging, which should be a real corker of a view for future residents of the senior housing complex.
I’m looking for groundskeeper Emmitt Watson, a bit of a local legend who tells tales of when the Neptune Society bought the dilapidated grounds and how he helped to transform it into the quiet grandeur it has today. His wife Perline even babysat Olga O’Hara. I figure the guy knows the biz.
Both times I come by, I miss him, but director Mary Regan is helpful. She explains the rules and pricing: Everyone is cremated before being interred, and crypts range from $5,800 (outside) to $72,000 (inside.) I guess if you’ve lived here long enough, small and expensive shouldn’t be a shock.
When it comes to boneyards, the Columbarium is a lot more personal than I’m used to. Most graveyards in this country seem to try to pass themselves off as odd golf courses or dog parks. The inside of the Columbarium is different: It’s adorned with photos, flowers, knick-knacks, and artful filigree reminiscent of burial spots in other parts of the world. Some of the crypts are crumbly and old, while others blink with lights and teddy bears. Some are engraved with foreign characters and quite a few are festooned in rainbow flags. It’s like walking through a compact version of the city set to chamber music.
Wandering around I begin to wonder how many people specifically chose this spot for the address. On the third floor I get my answer: Above a reserved crypt is a plastic placard exclaiming, “Here you go Julie! Now you never have to leave!”
I imagine a quizzical look on the birthday girl’s face when, in the tender glow of the candles on her cake, she gets a card inscribed “1 Loraine Court. Surprise!” Finally – a gift for the city girl who’s got everything.
From wakes to wetting the whistles of the boys and girls in the band, O'Reilly's pub owner Myles O’Reilly is quick with the draught.
Enjoy dinner the way North Beach used to be (checkered tablecloths and Chianti bottles) at Capp's Corner.
From Herb Caen to local merchants, the Green Street Mortuary Band really helps you go out with a bang. Oh, they play parties too.
Avoid a Walmart funeral and keep it in the family at McAvoy O'Hara Evergreen Mortuary.
Diehard? Get it? Get it? Finding your niche may be a little pricey, but if you want just a little history and a quiet garden spot, stop by and see Emmitt and Mary at the Columbarium.