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Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes: For the Dead, and the Living

| July 5, 2014
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Chapel of the Chimes columbarium in Oakland. (Casey Miner/KQED)

Chapel of the Chimes columbarium in Oakland. (Casey Miner/KQED)

By Casey Miner

Things get very quiet at the end of Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue. There’s a business that sells headstones. A hillside cemetery. And the Chapel of the Chimes columbarium, where cremated remains are held. Carved into the front wall by the door are the words: “Visitors welcome.”

“If we go peek in the window I’ll show you,” Ginny Palmer says one evening, walking me to the front of the building. She lives in Oakland and comes here, she says, just to walk. “If you just like to walk around and look in places, this place is the most amazing.”

Inside, it’s growing dim. But we can still make out the stained glass, vaulted ceilings and ornate stone arches. During the day, says Palmer, the building feels like “sound and light.” And it makes her think about time passing.

“As we get older we think about that,” she says. “You think about all the people that came before you. They all have their loved ones here so you can come and visit.”

She pauses and considers the chapel. “Actually,” she says, “you can sit and visit with anybody you want!”

Because they’re everywhere. Chapel of the Chimes was founded in 1909; the main building was redesigned in 1928 by famed California architect Julia Morgan. Inside, it’s a labyrinth: narrow staircases, tiny chapels, bubbling fountains and gardens thick with green. You’re surrounded by thousands of urns shaped like books – they sit on floor-to-ceiling shelves in the columbarium’s dozens of rooms. It’s quiet and contemplative.

A Place For the Living, as Well as the Dead

“It’s pretty open to just about anybody,” says Harley Forrey, general manager of Chapel of the Chimes and my guide when I come back for an actual tour. He’s worked here more than 10 years, and he says it’s an unusual place. For example, he says, “I don’t think there’s a lot of different funeral homes that do weddings in their chapels.”

Actually, this place does a lot of things most funeral homes don’t. It hosts jazz concerts every other month. At Christmas, people put up lights and decorate a giant indoor fig tree — which, by the way, still produces fruit. And now that he’s thinking about it, Forrey says that’s not even the most creative use of the space.

“The Oakland Police Department had their training dogs come in here and actually go through the building, because the building has so many different corridors. They use this to see if they can find somebody inside buildings.” (They can.)

While we talk, Forrey points out urns: a governor, two senators. Upstairs is Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Lee Hooker; next to him is former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

“It just goes on and on and on, with room after room,” says Forrey. “If a person really wanted to go through this building and take every room inside here, it would take you more than a half a day.”

The Big Event

A few days later, the place is packed. Around 2,000 people come through to see an experimental music concert called the Garden of Memory, organized by New Music Bay Area, that Chapel of the Chimes hosts every year on the summer solstice. Dozens of musicians set up in the columbarium’s many tiny nooks and play for a wandering audience.

There are xylophones, chimes, violins, trumpets, singing and speaking. Everywhere you turn there’s another kind of sound and a horde of people crowded around it. And people move around. They look at maps like they’re in a foreign city, whispering how they’ll try to see it all.

There’s no rush, of course. When you’re here, you can take all the time you need.

IF YOU GO: Chapel of the Chimes is at the end of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, right by Mountain View Cemetery. It’s open to the public 9 a.m-5 p.m. every day, plus special events. Find it online at oakland.chapelofthechimes.com.

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