On Scene with Bill Wilson — Fond Farewell to Jose Sarria

A lifetime of memories on display at the viewing of Jose Sarria

It didn’t come so much as a shock, when one is ninety years old death isn’t an unexpected visitor. It just seemed a disappointment that what I knew was going to happen at some time was now a reality – Jose Julio Sarria would no longer take his annual trip to Colma to visit the grave of Emperor Norton as the Widow Norton. He would take just one more trip to be laid to rest in front of the grave of Emperor Norton beneath the tombstone marked with his name, Jose Sarria. There was now a final date to be added to the tombstone that for the past seven years had only a date of birth.



Empress Marlena

 It was a journey marked with dignity, pomp and circumstance starting with a viewing at the Halsted N. Gray-Carew & English Funeral Home on Sutter Street Thursday afternoon and evening. The open casket was draped with a rainbow flag on which a black sash imprinted with Empress Jose formed a base for one of his crowns.  The American flag stood to the left behind the coffin, the California flag to the right and two huge beautiful colorful large bouquets flanked the coffin. The banner on the left bouquet read “To our beloved Jose Emperors of San Francisco” the one on the right read, “To Our Beloved Jose Empresses of San Francisco.”


 Empress Galilea and the pallbearers before the procession into Grace Cathedral.

Royalty from Courts across the nation made their way to the funeral home. The reception room was filled with memorabilia, photos, gowns, crowns and paintings. It all stimulated conversations and memories as is the custom when a family gathers to say farewell to their patriarch or matriarch. Make no mistake we might not have shared common ancestors but Jose had a large family designated by love. They loved him as a father figure, a grandfather, a mentor, and some even as a fellow performer.

The funeral was scheduled to begin at Grace Cathedral at 11 am but people had already begun to gather at 9:30. As I was walking toward the California Street side entrance a woman came up to me and asked, “What is the event?” I must admit that I was tempted to say, “You think people dressed in drag is an event? – this is just San Francisco!” However I replied, “It is the funeral of Jose Sarria the founder of the Imperial Court System.” 


 Right Reverend Marc Andrus blessing the casket of Jose Sarria


It was certainly an event. The variety of crowns and gowns is probably unprecedented in the annuals of funerals at Grace Cathedral. The spectacular cathedral is a place where emotions and thoughts can soar. It was a perfectly fitting place for the final send off of Jose. The procession of clergy that preceded the casket included retired Episcopal Bishop Otis Charles and the service was presided over by Right Reverend Marc Handley Andrus. The living Emperors and Empresses of San Francisco followed the casket as it proceeded up the center aisle of the Cathedral.


State Senator Mark Leno was one of the speakers.

The speakers each admirably keep to the script of poignant memories sprinkled with a laugh or two. Certainly Jose’s life had provided enough material to make it possible. State Senator Mark Leno echoed the thought I had the night before as I realized that all the victories we have been celebrating this year – the SCOTUS ruling on Prop 8 and DOMA. In fact none of the victories we have had that have moved the GLBT movement forward would have been possible without that first person having the courage to stand up and say, “I’m gay and I’m okay. If you have a problem with that it’s your problem not mine.” Jose had that kind of courage He was the first openly gay man to run for public office – anywhere.   


 Motorcade to Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma

 “Going home, going home, I’m just going home.” The haunting strains of the 3rd movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony echoed through the Cathedral as the procession returned down the center aisle. The casket, which was draped with an American flag, was again placed into the hearse.  A full police escort led a procession of sixteen cars and six buses to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma.


 Workers making the final adjustments.

 The brief ceremonies at Colma presided over by Jose Cisneros and Donna Sachet included a presentation of the American flag to Empress Galilea, a blessing by Reverends Beckman, Fox and Lewis of the San Francisco Night Ministry and a performance by the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Freedom Band. For people who had made the Trek to Colma while Jose was still alive, Robert Sunshine at the keyboard was a familiar sight. Donna Sachet sang the new verses written by Gail Wilson to the theme from “The Addams Family” appropriately named “The Norton Family”   


The final spot.



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