Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A true ghost story about a crypt in San Francisco's Columbarium

Columbarium, 30"x40" oilpaint, watercolor, graphite, coffee stains and ephemera half inch panel in in handmade framed by Kenney Mencher
Based on a true ghost story based in California.

This assemblage of a Emmitt Watson  and Viola Von Staden was made from actual photos of real people.  It is inspired by a visit to the only and oldest mausoleum in San Francisco . The care taker, Emmitt Watson, gave us a tour and told us a ghost story about a little girl named Viola Von Staden. The story is a little long for me to tell it to you here, but here's the bones Viola von Staden died at the age of 7 in 1907 after she drank contaminated water following the Great Earthquake and Fire. Watson showed me a photo of Viola he had been given by one of the Von Staden's family (I used it for her portrait).  Watson says he believes the child's spirit is one of those he's seen around the historic building.  Here's a painting that shows both Viola's and his side of the story.

This painting was part of a one man show I had in San Francisco called "Renovated Reputations" that I had on my blog. There are several stories about this character read them all here:

I was thinking about the story and decided to write a version of Emmitt' story from his point of view and also from Viola's (the ghost's) point of view.



I was up on a ladder painting the moldings and I hear this little girl’s voice and I look over and I see this little girl walking by.  She didn’t look like how people describe ghosts and I thought she was just a little girl.  I thought, she’s so white, like she needs to go out in the sun.  That’s what I remember thinking the most is that she didn’t have any color.  I didn’t really think about it but then she goes behind the column and I’m thinking she must be hiding there cause she didn’t come out on the other side.  I kept watching and looking for her thinking she might be hiding or something.  So I come down and walk over and she’s not there.

I thought it was someone playing a trick on me but I remember it was right there in front of that box.


Mr. Emmitt was up on a ladder painting the moldings and I was skipping around the circle singing to myself and then he looked down at me.  I never talked to him before because I’m just a little girl.  Also my parents told me not to talk to the workmen especially the colored ones.  He’s so brown and I never really saw someone like him up close. So I hid behind the column and I’m thinking he can’t hear me or see me cause I’m hiding there.  I kept watching and looking for him and then I heard him come down the ladder and walk around the corner and I giggled cause he looked so surprised.

I thought it was he was playing a trick on me but I remember it was right there in front of that box.

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Emmitt Watson, seen on Wednesday, March 16, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif., is the caretaker and historian at the Columbarium in the Richmond district. Photo: Russell Yip, The Chronicle
Emmitt Watson, seen on Wednesday, March 16, 2011 in San Francisco, Calif., is the caretaker and historian at the Columbarium in the Richmond district. Photo: Russell Yip, The Chronicle


In his 24 years as caretaker and historian at the Neptune Society Columbarium, Emmitt Watson has seen them come and never go from the big round vault that backs up to Geary Boulevard in San Francisco.
Inspecting the grounds in his gardening clothes, Watson, 55, speaks in cadences, as if he's about to change into a dark suit and deliver a sermon.
Q:Describe the Columbarium?
A: The Columbarium is a place of inurnment, but I call it a place that you can bring life and add to the death.
Q:In what form do the remains arrive?
A: They've already been cremated and they come in a plastic bag inside a box. The remains go into whatever urn the family purchases. It could be a martini shaker. You can make it into anything you want as long as it is not disrespectful to the building. For me it would be a paint bucket. I'm a painter.
Q:Where do they go from there?
A: Into niches in the wall, but I don't like that word, niche. I call the small ones apartments and the big ones condos. Anything bigger than that is a village. A niche is basically an open hole with glass or copper on the front. People like to have glass so they can show off their personality when people are walking around taking tours.
Q:How did you come to work here?
A: I came to paint the outside with four other people, not even knowing what this was until one day the owner walked up and asked would I consider working for him.
Q:What are your duties as historian?
A: Telling stories. I set up the services, do parking duty, maintenance and gardening. People think there is a whole crew working here. I'm the crew. I'm also the tour guide.
Q:What kind of tour guide?
A: What I do is try to keep the people's memory alive for the relatives. When I do an interment, I ask them, "Can I keep your mother's memory alive for you?" You ought to see the expressions on their faces, because that is a question no one has ever asked.
Q:How do they answer it?
A: They just get to talking and not stopping.
Q:What is the history of the Columbarium?
A: Eighteen ninety-eight is when it opened to the public. There used to be cemeteries as far as you can see. Divisadero was the borderline. This was not in city limits. It was all sand dunes.
Q:Who are some of your favorite friends here?
A: They all are my friends, but if you want me to be picky about them, my favorite is Miss Lily Moy, because she was a baseball fan and she's in a big baseball.
Q:Latest project?
A: There are only about 50 niches left, so we're adding a room. About the middle of summer it will be finished. It will have at least 500 niches.
Q:Is it fun working here?
A: Yes and no. The "yes" part is because I get to make a sad heart smile. The "no" part is the pain I have to see every day.
Q:Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Hammond, La. I left when I was 13 years old. Palo Alto was the first stop. We moved up to San Francisco and I went to George Washington (High School).
Q:What did you want to be?
A: I never thought about it, but I sure didn't want to be working around the dead.
Q:Where do you live?
A: On the corner, one block away from here. I live in an in-law apartment. The neighbors call me the Mayor of Loraine Court.
Q:Neighborhood hangout?
A: This is my neighborhood hangout right here, the Columbarium.
Q:Favorite vacation spot?
A: Anywhere there is a casino, brother.
Q:Who plays you in the movie?
A: Me. I'm the only one who can play me. I act every day. I'm acting right now talking with you.