He Cares for Our Dead. Who Cares for Him?

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Why you should care

All of us want our dead to rest in peace.

Emmitt Watson has too many titles for a business card. He cleans, paints, parks cars, tells stories and handles inurnments. Most just call him a caretaker. That’s fitting, because he cares for the people he works with — whether they’re living or dead. Families come to the San Francisco Columbarium, a neoclassical freestanding building that resembles a church, just north of Golden Gate Park, to visit their loved ones’ remains — but they also come to visit Watson. He goes above and beyond his job requirements and takes the time to actually learn about the lives of the departed. To keep people alive, for their families, he says. 

Watson leads tours of the quiet grounds and the maze of rooms lined floor-to-ceiling with urns, telling relatives — and a handful of tourists  the stories behind the intimately decorated niches that house the urns of the dead. He can tell you why one woman’s remains reside in an Elvis cookie jar, and why another’s are in a Chinese takeout box.

There are almost 9,000 niches at this columbarium, one of the few in the country that still has space available, as cremation is more popular than ever these days. As for Watson, after 27 years caring for the living and the dead, he is finally starting to think about how to best care for himself in old age. At least he already has his final resting place picked out. 


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The intimate, the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.