by Frank Dunnigan
Eleven years ago this month, Woody LaBounty wrote a great Streetwise column, Dearly Departed, about the history of cemeteries in the Richmond District. Today, as some of the old grave markers from the past turn up along Ocean Beach, we take a look back at some of the various funeral customs that we’ve all experienced while living in San Francisco.
It is safe to say that no human rite of passage is more filled with symbolism and tradition than that of death and its accompanying rituals. Looking back over years of personal attendance at wakes and funerals, it is clear to me that mourning customs differ significantly based on an individual’s culture and religious affiliation or absence thereof. From the early 1950s when Judeo-Christian traditions were dominant in the Outside Lands, to today’s veritable melting pot of cultures—including a wide range of religious beliefs and non-beliefs—I’ve experienced a variety of ceremonies designed to bid a fond farewell to departed friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers.
Obituary notices are an early read over coffee for many people in the Outside Lands. Jokingly referred to as “the Irish Sporting Green,” the obits start the day for many of us, and my grandfather’s older sister, Mary Dunnigan Vivian, was a typical reader. She lived her entire life in San Francisco, from the early 1860s to the late 1950s—literally the Civil War to the Space Age. Until her passing at age 93, she looked forward to the thud of the then-morning San Francisco Examiner on her front step by six a.m., so that she could plan her social activities. Within the first waking hour of each day, she read each and every obit thoroughly, and was on the phone with her dutiful son-in-law and driver, telling him exactly who and where they were going to “visit” that evening. Many a politician, including the late Assemblyman Charlie Meyers, who made several impromptu condolence calls per week, were hard pressed to keep up the pace of my great-aunt, who was out there almost nightly, kissing, hugging, and murmuring sympathetic comments to others.
Careful observers will note that most families have a usual provider for such infrequently-needed business services. Today, the City is down to just about a dozen or so firms, compared with more than 50 not too many years ago. The Sunset District no longer has any such establishments—Hogan, Sullivan, and Bianco on 9th Avenue closed a while ago, and it was the sole remaining firm after the popular Currivan’s on Irving Street closed down circa 1990. Given the large population of the area, many families tend to look back to their older neighborhoods or across the county line when the need arises.
Many Protestant families favor Halsted & Company on Sutter Street which merged some 30 years ago with two other firms: N. Gray, originally a San Francisco cabinetmaker that provided wooden coffins as far back as the Gold Rush in 1850, and also Carew & English, once located on the extreme eastern edge of the Outside Lands at Masonic and Golden Gate, and a favored provider to the Catholic community since prior to 1906. Italian families generally patronize Valenti, Marini, Perata on outer Mission Street, while most Jewish families remain loyal to Sinai Memorial Chapel at Geary and Divisadero. Many Hispanic families in the Mission like the convenience of Duggan’s on 17th Street or Driscoll’s, now on Valencia Street, while Chinese families, based on custom, may favor Green Street Mortuary in North Beach or Ashley & McMullen (successor to Cathay Mortuary) in the Richmond. Those of French ancestry have long sought out the services of the Domergue family (now merged with Halsted), while African-American families have favored the Bryant Mortuary on Fulton Street in Hayes Valley or the Bayview Mortuary. Among the City’s shrinking Irish-Catholic population, it seems to be a tossup between McAvoy-O’Hara at 10th Avenue and Geary Boulevard (also with Gold Rush roots), plus Arthur J. Sullivan on Market Street and Duggan’s Serra in Daly City (the last two, plus Driscoll’s, now under the single ownership of the Bud Duggan family, who were once Ingleside Terraces residents).
Flowers play an important role in the funeral services for many people, except for those who adhere to traditional Jewish customs, in which flowers, as a symbol of joy, are discouraged. Once a practical consideration to avoid the scent of death, flowers are now purely symbolic. While some florists try to customize offerings to fit the career or hobbies of the deceased, it’s just a bit bizarre to walk into a funeral home and see something like an oversized floral calculator for a retired accountant, or some such. I’ve seen displays that spell out one’s union affiliation, a floral mortar and pestle for a pharmacist, and depictions of a football in 49ers colors. The so-called “broken heart”—a heart-shaped display of white carnations, with a jagged line of red roses—often makes an appearance, along with a circle of red carnations surrounded by wings of white carnations for departed members of the Olympic Club. Only Catholics seem to use their standard religious symbol of the cross, depicted in white carnations.
Several in San Francisco’s Irish community have related their own stories on the message boards about impromptu bars being set up in the men’s room of a mortuary on the night of the wake, so that mourners could “have a little nip” and bid the dear departed a proper farewell. (One St.Ignatius classmate’s grandfather had such a rowdy send-off that his family was barred in perpetuity from the old Carew & English.) It is no surprise, then, that in pre-1960 San Francisco, most mortuaries were situated in locations that were in close proximity to a neighborhood watering hole—often just across the street. Likewise, it is absolutely no coincidence that “Historical Old Molloy’s”—a long-time roadhouse with bar—is located opposite Holy Cross Cemetery near the southern end of “Cemetery Row” on Mission Road in Colma.
When it comes to funeral wardrobe for mourners, the old standard of “dress in black” is seldom followed today. Now, most etiquette books simply suggest that mourners dress in a way that does not call attention to themselves, though that is an arguably broad standard today. I once attended a service where the deceased wanted family and friends to be upbeat and to have a good time, so she specifically stated “Hawaiian shirts” for all attendees—and a colorful event it was, indeed.
Customs for wearing headgear usually depend on the faith of the deceased and the gender of the wearer. Sinai Memorial Chapel places a supply of yarmulkes (skullcaps) for visiting males to wear while in their chapels, but most Christian churches specify that men will remove all hats. The Catholic church used to insist that females have some sort of head covering in place (invariably leading to a sea of bouffant hairdos covered by handkerchiefs or Kleenex in the case of forgetful church-goers), but that rule has been gone for several decades now. Hats have traditionally been a prominent accessory for ladies in African-American churches, and there has even been a book of photos published on that very subject.
Musical selections can vary considerably from one church to the next. While some try to limit the hymns to strictly religious melodies, most—though certainly not all—will demonstrate enough flexibility to allow for a couple of verses of "Amazing Grace" or "Morning Has Broken." Years ago, St. Anne of the Sunset had a reputation for not using any music more modern than the mid-1800s. Some churches have drawn the line at purely secular tunes, such as Sinatra’s "I Did It My Way," and no one, but NO ONE is going to let you play "Ding-Dong the Witch Is Dead" from the Wizard of Oz for your departed mother-in-law. St. Cecilia’s has always been very accommodating, and had no problem with Mom’s request for "When the Saints Go Marching In" at her 2002 funeral. How could it have been otherwise when long-time pastor Monsignor Harold Collins left instructions to play his favorite song, "The Beer Barrel Polka" (see http://www.outsidelands.org/streetwise-collins.php), at the at the end of his 1980 services. Two of Dad’s cousins, both World War II vets, insisted on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the conclusion of their services. And while "Danny Boy" is a guaranteed tear-jerker—loved by many and despised by some—I’m more partial to another old Irish folk melody called "Carrickfergus," which was played at JFK, Jr.’s funeral in 1999.
Many Chinese families, especially if the deceased was active in politics or the business community, will opt for a marching band as part of the funeral procession. Such music is believed to drive evil spirits away and lead the deceased into the hereafter. Ritualistic burning of joss paper and other items is practiced by some Taoist adherents, but frowned on by many in the Buddhist faith. For sheer spirit, there’s nothing quite like a Sunday morning funeral in the heart of Chinatown.
Those who take their leave of us after insisting on NO SERVICES create a problem for those left behind who prefer to participate in some ritual of closure. Several years ago, when a coworker who wanted “no fuss” died, several of us felt the need to gather informally and to reminiscence. Someone hit on the idea of reenacting one of everyone’s most pleasant life experiences as kids—sitting on a bench at Stow Lake and feeding crusts of bread to the ducks. Several of us gathered there on a crisp, cold, clear day in 1992, each armed with a loaf of sourdough for the birds and sharing a bit of wine among ourselves, to say goodbye to our good friend.
The Neptune Society has long been offering a chartered yacht for scattering ashes at sea. I was on one of those “cruises” back in 1989 and it was a cold, choppy day out there beyond the Golden Gate. There were some snacks on board, but no one had much of an appetite, so it wasn’t a very pleasant voyage at all, especially for the folks who suffered mal de mer, and the only one literally “at peace” was the dearly departed.
A post-funeral reception, just like the wake itself, used to be held in the home of the deceased. For many families, Herman’s Delicatessen on Geary would likely have been the caterer of choice, providing enough fatty and starchy dishes to absorb whatever alcohol might be flowing. Such offerings were always supplemented by kindly neighbors who organized a veritable brigade of casseroles (invariably featuring Campbell’s Cream of Something Soup), boxes of danish from Adeline on West Portal Avenue, or plates of homemade cookies and cakes. Following my father’s unexpected passing in 1980, his post-funeral reception was the biggest and most convivial crowd that my parents’ house had ever seen in the 32 years they had lived there, and Mom summed it up best when she said, “What a nice party this was, and isn’t it a shame that your father wasn’t here to talk to everybody!”
Now, it seems that many families go out for lunch, with a handful of local spots catering to post-funeral luncheons—Joe’s of Westlake, Gold Mirror on Taraval, and the Irish Cultural Center at 45th Avenue and Wawona Street. Mourners can partake of a sit-down meal while hoisting a mid-day cocktail or glass of wine without criticism. In these settings, favorite stories and kind words about the deceased can be shared by all.
Even at the 1977 funeral of a St. Ignatius classmate—a bright young man who died tragically—the words spoken from the pulpit managed to be warm and reassuring to all of us in spite of the circumstances: “In this life, we all make many mistakes, and when we do, we ask for forgiveness.” Regardless of race, religion, or culture, the rituals of death are not too different from those of life. Saying goodbye, while offering comfort to those experiencing a loss, is what the whole process is all about.
For those of us raised on Simon and Garfunkel, “the line is thinly drawn ’tween joy and sorrow…” and truly it is.
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