(Photo by George Raine/Catholic San Francisco)
Monica Williams, pictured at Holy Cross Cemetery Aug. 27, is a firm believer that cemeteries are full of stories that can bring families together.
For new cemeteries director, family stories are key
September 6th, 2011
By George Raine
Legend has it that on June 7, 1887, two coachmen driving carriages bearing the remains of Timothy Buckley and Elizabeth Martin neared Holy Cross Cemetery on its opening day in the nascent town of Colma when they decided to make a race of it: Both wanted their passenger to be the first to be buried in the Catholic cemetery, which was also Colma’s first cemetery.
For the record, the Buckley carriage edged out Martin’s, and captured the honor. People sometimes ask Monica Williams, the new director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, whether Buckley and Martin were Irish. “Of course,” she tells them. “Who else would race to be the first to be buried?”
Williams can say that because she’s Irish – and sixth generation San Franciscan – and also a firm believer that cemeteries are full of stories. Indeed, she intends, as her tenure as director begins, to remind parishioners of the archdiocese that this is their cemetery, that there are 370,000 stories that can be told about as many unique residents, and that it’s family.
“This is where their families are, this is where they should come back with us and be a part of our story,” said Williams.
On June 30, Williams succeeded Katherine Atkinson, the director of cemeteries since 1988, who retired with a reputation for not only a strong business sense but for “sensitivity and gentleness that is rooted in very Catholic principles,” said Msgr. James Tarantino, the vicar for administration for the archdiocese.
Williams, he said, “will bring that same set of skills that you have to have on both sides, the business aspect and also the compassion aspect. You can’t be all business.”
Williams is certainly all San Franciscan: She was born and raised in the Sunset District, and again calls it home. Her father, uncle, grandfather and great-uncle were all San Francisco police officers. She’s a product of St. Cecilia School and St. Rose Academy, both in San Francisco, and The Catholic University of America, Phi Beta Kappa in Latin and classical humanities.
In 22 years in the funeral service industry – which began as a summer and winter employee at Holy Cross during her college years – she has worked the full spectrum of jobs: She was a funeral director and operations manager at Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City for eight years, worked in sales for a casket company and was general manager of a funeral home complex in Portland, Ore., returning to San Francisco as an executive at the Neptune Society and San Francisco Columbarium. Now, she’s come full circle, returning to Holy Cross in 2005 as assistant family services manager.
Her Catholic faith was nourished early, enhancing her desire for a career in service – a ministry, really. For her, it is the ideal combination of being employed at something she loves and being of service. It also happens that Holy Cross itself has long been an important venue for the Williams family, a place rich in family camaraderie that, as she puts it, is akin to that of a Thanksgiving dinner gathering.
“When I grew up we came here on Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, and we would go to the graves and we would say a prayer and then my parents would say, `That was your grandpa Bob and your grandpa Bob loved this and that,’ and I learned the family story that way,” said Williams. “It was very much akin to sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table and somebody saying, ‘Your great granddad made the best mashed potatoes.’ This is a place where you can really do that. It is the coming back together of family.”
Indeed, one of the projects for Holy Cross’ 125th anniversary next year is to assemble a “cookbook of memories,” a collection of recipes of the departed, one that not only celebrates the cultural diversity of the archdiocese but recalls the tradition of bringing food to comfort family and friends when death occurs.
“It’s a great way of sharing your grandma’s story, you dad’s story, in a cookbook of memories,” said Williams.
A death in the family, of course, can be a chaotic, dizzying time for people, noted Williams, who long ago learned that emotional and thoughtful balance in her work is a requirement. “You have to have that balance of still having that humanity to be touched by what these people are going through, but be able to balance that, put it into perspective so that you can help the next family who has an equally heart-wrenching story,” she said.
Meantime, said Msgr. Tarantino, he is conferring with Williams about an educational program “that really pushes people to understand the importance of the theology around death and dying.” It will underscore the respect due the departed as well as the centerpiece of Catholic faith, that death is not an end “but a transition to eternal life with God.”
He added, “We are all in the process of dying, but a person of faith needs to take a look at that in very different and unique ways, and instead of being afraid of it and trying to run away from it, we need to embrace the full totality of our faith.”
The Catholic Cemeteries of the archdiocese will play a key role in that educational process, said Williams, reaching out to parishes with information about its service at a difficult time. “We are their cemetery,” she said, “and so it is really up to us to be their resource for all things funeral related.”
Holy Cross notables
There’s a story attached to every cemetery grave. Here are a few from Holy Cross:
Mae Ella Nolan, a Republican, was the fourth woman elected to Congress and the first from California, in 1923.
Joseph Musto founded the Musto Steam Marble Co. in San Francisco in 1868 and was responsible forw the marble work at City Hall and the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
George Flournoy served as city and county attorney in San Francisco. But prior to that, he coauthored the Texas Declaration of Secession and commanded the 16th Texas Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.
Maj. Charles Kendrick was a decorated World War I veteran and manager of Schlage Lock Co. His son, Marine Corps Lt. Charles Kendrick, a pilot, was shot down at Guadalcanal in 1942. He was buried there, but his father recovered the body a few years later and arranged for burial at Holy Cross. A cemetery supervisor instructed his staff to salute Lt. Kendrick when they passed his tomb.
Archdiocesan cemeteries at a glance
Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma is the major property in the Cemeteries Department of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, but others are Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park, Mt. Olivet Cemetery in San Rafael, Our Lady of the Pillar in Half Moon Bay, St. Anthony in Pescadero, Pilarcitos Cemetery in Half Moon Bay and Tomales Catholic Cemetery in Tomales.
With Mt. Calvary Cemetery at Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue nearing capacity, Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan in 1886 purchased 300 acres of the Buri Buri rancho for the new cemetery, in what would eventually be called Colma. Enough room remains to serve Catholics for several hundred years.
The most frequently visited grave is that of Baseball great Joe DiMaggio, where visitors sometimes leave bats, balls and gloves. The words “Grace, Dignity and Elegance Personified” are written on the private mausoleum.
Other notables at Holy Cross are California Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini.
From the Sept. 9, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.