We mortals become thin-skinned and thick-souled around this time of year. As a certain pagan celebration approaches, the boundaries between the seen and the unseen become more tenuous, sliding the two worlds into a spiritual overlap.
As the physical border between life and death, cemeteries re-emerge in our public consciousness. In October these repositories for our corporeal shells spark ghoulish curiosity or fear which can also be expressed as swaggering false bravado in male teens.
Wandering in these nature preserves for the dead can inspire the living spirit to poetic musings, historical insight and an appreciation for the natural world. After all, there’s nothing like a taste of mortality to get the soul squirming.
While the city of Colma alone houses more of the dead than the living, the East Bay has many opportunities for a spirituality check.
Building foundations: The Alhambra and St. Catherine cemeteries face one another on Talbart Avenue, off Carquinez Scenic Drive in Martinez. Alhambra became the last corporeal destination for county residents in 1854, including Lafayette founder Elam Brown, Concord founder Don Salvio Pacheco, and the captain who stumbled upon Yosemite Valley, Joseph Rutherford Walker. The children and grandchildren of Don Ygnacio Martinez (himself buried at Mission San Jose) lay in repose at St. Catherine’s. The graves, designated by numbers only, house the remains of 19th-century paupers and Chinese immigrants who labored at the railroads and Delta levees. If you want to walk among the weather-worn tombstones, the police department will lend you the key for the padlocked gates. On weekends you’ll need to call from the station dispatch phone. The station is at 525 Henrietta St., Martinez, 925-372-3443.
On a wing and a prayer: A peaceful quiet not only helps in getting eternal rest, but provides an idyllic nesting ground for birds. Last year’s 98th annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count tallied up at least 50 feathered birds at the Alamo-Lafayette Cemetery. 3285 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, 925-284-1353, open sunrise to sundown.
Leave-takings: The physical world assumes a brightly hued vibrancy in the autumn months at the Mountain View Cemetery, a lovely place to watch the changeover from summer to fall. Next door, the Chapel of the Chimes and its columbarium and mausoleum provide a serenely dramatic atmosphere for exploration. 5000 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-658-2588, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
On a clear day you can see forever: Even the living will find it hard to leave Sunset View Cemetery and Mortuary Hillside. Vantage points throughout the expanse give one astounding view after another of the bay. The water shimmers with a blue-white brilliance, contrasting the red-topped roofs and green patches of land. The panorama encompasses the Bay, Golden Gate and Richmond-San Rafael bridges in one fell swoop. 101 Colusa Ave., Kensington, 510-525-5111, open 8 a.m.-dusk.
Missionary man and woman: The 1868 earthquake toppled the original Mission San Jose, the most prosperous of all the missions, but a 1996 reconstruction brought back a facsimile of the 1809 adobe building. One mile off Interstate 680, on Mission Boulevard in Fremont, the mission complex retains the original, small cemetery where pioneer families lay in repose. These include the likes of Augustine Bernal, Salvio Alviso, Jose and Valentin Bernal, and Susanna Kottinger (whose Kottinger Barn in Pleasanton is a historic landmark). Other bodies may be buried under the old church floor, but the only marked grave is that of Robert Livermore, the first Anglo settler in Livermore Valley. 43300 Mission Blvd., Fremont, 510-657-1797, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., donation $1-$2.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times