On January 12, 2019, a fire broke out at Chapel by the Sea, the mortuary that’s been our next-door neighbor for 27 years. It was a terrible, surreal thing to witness. Wisps of light gray smoke from the open upstairs doorway quickly grew into roaring flames that exploded windows and engulfed the structure. Our property was never in peril, but that didn’t keep the fire from reaching across the alley to shake the core of my well-being.
Over the following weeks, I became obsessed with fire prevention. Our house is older than the mortuary. If an electrical fire happened there, it could happen here. I bought fire extinguishers for nearly every room of the house. I called Fort Bragg Electric to schedule an evaluation of our electrical system. A few months later, after all the outlets and light switches were replaced, I was able to sleep through the night without waking and sniffing like a dog for suspected signs of smoke. (We have smoke detectors, but my three o’clock in the morning irrational mind wasn’t about to trust them.)
I woke each morning to the ruins of what was once a stately building. In addition to a mortuary, it housed an upstairs apartment. The Blair and then the Reynolds families resided there during our early years in Fort Bragg, and allowed us to create friendships that endure to this day. We share a common grief over the loss of this beloved place.
Spring ushered in an unusually warm summer. Open upstairs windows cooled our house, but also allowed the smell of charred wood to drift along the breeze and taunt me with the possibility that our house might be on fire. Once again, in the middle of many nights, I turned into a smoke-detecting watchdog.
I looked forward to the day—September 17—when the process of tearing down the building would begin. That morning, I headed over there with my camera phone. I vaguely felt like I had when the fire broke out—too terrible to watch, yet demanded to be witnessed. I was relieved it would soon be gone, yet mourned the finality. Over the course of four days, a piece of equipment that looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex crunched walls, chewed them into pieces, and loaded the debris into massive dumpsters to be carted off.
And just like that, over 100 years of history was erased.
I’m grateful the mortuary no longer stands as a reminder of all that was lost. I do not know what will take its place, but hope it will grace our street with the same majesty as the old building.