on life and death in san francisco
monuments, masons, and memory
A couple weeks ago, while we were visiting San Francisco, a friend took us to the city’s Columbarium. It’s a strange place, maybe even a surreal one. Once, it was part of the cemetery of the Odd Fellows, a Freemason-adjacent international fraternity (San Francisco is, as it happens, full of Freemasonry, but that’s a subject for another post). Today, it is the last active funerary site within the city.
What is distinct about the columbarium is not just its slightly occult-tinged design: a neoclassical domed archway where stained glass renditions of Jesus reflect onto mythological depictions of the Spinner of Fate. Rather, what struck me most was uniqueness of the funerary niches: each one decorated by the deceased’s survivors. These niches double as snapshots into San Francisco life: the Chinese-American woman whose family or friends chose her American passport and her naturalization certificate to flank her urn; the artist (“one of the city’s great bohemians,” a card left there reads) with a niche full of paintbrushes; music promoter Chet Helms, whose organization heralded the “Summer of Love” of 1968; the numerous gay couples – many of whom, the dates suggest, were victims of the city’s AIDS crisis – who chose symbols salacious (a pair of handcuffs) or poignant (youthful photographs) or gleefully ridiculous (several figures of Muppets).
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Some of them are serious; some of them are silly; all of them are – in their own way – beautiful. We come to learn not just the names of the dead but those facts about them that they, or those that loved them, wanted to hold on to: wanted strangers like us to learn. These are not just names but lives: stories told within space. They transform life into art.
It made me wonder why we don’t do it at church.
The ashes interred at my own parish church (not pictured above) – of which there are a few – are marked only by names and dates. Of the lives they led we know little; this is by design. An easy theological explanation here – one that, I think, is in keeping with so much of the historic conception of Christian art – is that to demand a memorial is a kind of pride. Monuments are for Ozymandias, for kings and heroes and financiers who want legacy as a substitute for immortality. Their deeds live after them, because nothing else will. After all – this narrative goes – what is constitutive of us, really is not what we have done with our careers, or what hobbies we have invested in, or what we have done, but rather our state as created beings: as children of God, saved by grace alone. The idea of the “constructed life” – in this story – belongs to the realm of liberal modernity, or moral therapeutic deism, or, heck, Masonry: weak theologies for a world capable of divinizing only the creative self-choosing self.
I find this narrative unsatisfactory. Possibly – and I concede that this is often the case, with me – because I have a weakness for the aesthetic, the idea of life as a story. But also, I think, because it is precisely in our haecceity, the specificity of our us-ness, that, in the Christian tradition, at least, we understand ourselves as children of God. What we are promised, in the next life, is not to be subsumed into a totality, to become one with the universe, so to speak, but a resurrection that suggests social existence: a kingdom of heaven, a polity rather than — at least exclusively — a unity. Whatever our eschatological end, Christian theology demands that we will exist as our selves, at least to the extent that our selves can be defined by relationships to one another: as beings whose political lives in community will be preserved beyond the grave. We will still be our mother’s daughters; our children’s fathers; friends of our friends.
Bodily resurrection, the idea that our afterlife will see us as us is part of the Christian theology I find most moving: a faith that God loves us in our particularity, our quirks and strangeness and individual hungers and fears and creaky knees and double-jointed fingers, rather than simply as convenient instantiations of His divine majesty, inconveniently enfleshed. Within such a paradigm, the alcoves at the San Francisco Columbarium – reflecting a mix of Christians, Masons, Jews, and those who professed no faith at all – are powerful, theologically rich, precisely because they invite us to meditate not only on death, as an abstraction, but these specific dead: people who were once as full of love and wonder and worry as we are. In contemplating death, and those who have died, we are invited to marvel at the fullness of each life, about how much is presence, and how much it goes unsaid. This is, I think, a good thing – and, in my theoretical Christian cemetery – a strong argument for doing things the way the Columbarium does them.
But if there is an argument against the artistic niche, it is not that true Christians should be anonymous, or that they should not understand their lives, in some sense, as story. Rather, it is that – we believe – the story is not over. Faith in that very resurrection destabilizes the narrative of our lives as things to be bordered, or understood within constraint. The story of our mortal lives, however grand or grandiose or elegantly demarcated by act breaks of love or childbirth, betrayal or redemption, is only part of our wider story: a story that can only be understood forwards, in eschatological time. It is what distinguishes the Christian worldview from what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has called the heroic society – the world of Achilles and Odysseus – as well as from the classical Aristotelian model of the good life. Our good life is not over; even in its absence – no less destabilizing – we can be rendered good by grace.
To attempt to sum ourselves up in a niche, or a eulogy, or a manifesto, risk forgetting that we can be summed up at all: that any story we could possibly tell about ourselves is incomplete not because we are mortal, but because one day that mortality will be healed. It is the hope found at the ending of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle: “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
That doesn’t mean that my hypothetical columbarium has no room for artistic design. But I hope that the niches remain, there, unfinished; at least for now.
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