CHAPEL OF THE CHIMES
4499 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
Acres: 1.5 City Blocks
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
Although the official web site for Chapel of the Chime indicates it was founded in 1909, it seems more accurate to state it was founded in 1902, for in that year a collective of undertakers established the California Columbarium, a small facility located at the Chapel of the Chimes’ present site. Be that as it may, the columbarium flourished, and in 1926, world-recognized architect Julia Morgan was commissioned to handle designs for renovation as well as plans for additions to the building. In 1928, the name of the facility was changed from The California Crematorium (no word on when the original name was changed) to Chapel of the Chimes. The “Chimes” refer to the carillons in the original part of the structure’s tower. For her part, Julia Morgan continued to offer advice and design elements until her death. [Note: Morgan was hired by newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, to build Hearst Castle. The project took 28 years to complete with laborers working around the clock! ]
Although the Chapel of the Chimes was established and intended to be a columbarium, its fetching ambience tempted those who desired crypt entombment and, recently, several wings have been opened for traditional casket placement, although the vast majority of this wonderland is still dedicated to the memorialization of those who choose cremation.
The building stands, blazing brilliant white, almost at the end of Piedmont Avenue. Indeed, the structure is almost next door to the entrance of Mountain View Cemetery. Outside, a fountain burbles merrily and beckons one to enter the quiet haven which stretches over 1.5 city blocks. Once inside, a calming silence envelops visitors. In spite of the fact that 190,000+ urns (and, as mentioned earlier, even some caskets) are housed within, the Chapel is infrequently visited so that one may well walk inside for several hours and not run into another (living) soul as a host of interior gardens, cloister walks, alcoves, fountains and even a few chapels beg to be explored. Gorgeous stained glass windows abound and set the impressive urn rooms alight with brilliant colour.
In addition to the original building (officially, Chapel of the Chimes), the Frances Willard Columbarium (first addition), the Sanctuary (a chapel featuring detailed metal work), and the Julia Morgan Chapel (featuring gorgeous stained glass windows) all link together via a series of passages and stairwells that make the transition feel seamless.
The complete list of room and building names is as follows:
- Eternal Wisdom
- Frances Willard
- Garden of Memory
- Garden of Reflection
- Living Waters
- Garden of Prayer
- Pathway to Prayer
- Garden of Worship
The proprietors of Bella Morte spent two enchanted days exploring the treasures of the Chapel. For a few glorious hours on that first day, a rare California thunderstorm graced us and we sat, mesmerized, beneath a stained glass window as the rain tumbled down, playing its silver music.
Some of the rooms give one the impression of being in a greenhouse as lush foliage burgeons between the urn columns. Others have a distinctly religious feel, owing to statuary such as a large figure of St. Francis (Francis Willard Room) or Putti holding the urns of dead infants. In one room, we even came across a cage containing several canaries which chirped happily as they fluttered from perch to perch! Several of the older rooms afford the sense of being in a library as bank after bank of urns stand, almost like filed books, before ones’ dazzled eyes.
On either side of a certain passageway, bronze plaques eternalize a poem by one Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
It seemeth such a little way to me,
Across to that strange country, The Beyond;
And yet, not strange, for it has grown to be
The home of those of whom I am so fond.
They make it seem familiar and most dear,
As journeying friends bring distant regions near.
So close it lies that when my sight is clear
I think I almost see the gleaming strand,
I know I feel those who have gone from here
Come near enough sometimes to touch my hand.
I often think, but for our veiled eyes,
We should find heaven right about us lies.
I cannot make it seem a day to dread,
When from this dear earth I shall journey out
To that still dearer country of the dead,
And join the lost ones so long dreamed about.
I love this world, yet shall I love to go
And meet the friends who wait for me I know.
And so for me there is no sting in death,
And so the grave hath lost its victory.
It is but crossing with a bated breath
And white, set face ~ a little strip of sea,
To find the loved ones waiting on the shore,
More beautiful, more precious than before.
It’s not hyperbole to write that there is something new and wonder-filled around each corner…at the top of each set of stairs…and at the end of each tiled cloister walk. We’d read about Chapel of the Chimes before visiting, but nothing could have prepared us for the pure wonder and beauty of it all. Plan to spend the better part of a day (minimum) in this gem of a columbarium.
NOTE: Among its other claims to fame, Chapel of the Chimes boasts the installment and use of the world’s first electric crematorium. It is also said to be the one of the largest above-ground columbariums in the United States. In 1999 it was designated a Distinguished Landmark by the City of Oakland.