Cornerstones: Monte’s Chapel of the Hills

Making Marin's departures a little easier, since 1932...

by Stephanie Powell

Along the Miracle Mile in San Anselmo, there is a building glazed in bright white with redwoods etched into a stained-glass window that reaches nearly as high as its structured arches. Don’t let its lofty appearance deceive you. Although it may be one of the oldest businesses still operating in San Anselmo today, it is certainly not a business that draws in eager clients.

Monte’s Chapel of the Hills was established in 1932 on Bank Street. From there, Dominic Frank Monte and his family opened and operated the mortuary—which was in the bottom level of their home for its first five years—until it moved to its current location on Red Hill Avenue in 1937. A graduate of San Rafael High, Monte was one community minded mortician, serving as mayor and city councilman in San Anselmo while fronting his family’s business, where son Charlie and wife Alice pitched in.

The passing of Dominic in 1965 ushered in the next family-bred businessman—when the Montes’ son, 19-year old Charlie, took over. Today Monte’s Chapel of the Hills remains the only independent family-owned and operated mortuary in Marin. In Charlie’s time at the chapel, he arranged funerals for thousands of people—including a service for Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia, complete with such all-star attendees as Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey.

Charlie and his wife, Dee Dee, ran things until 2009 when they sold the business to longtime employee Edward J. Leon. (Charlie still owns the building and leases the property to Leon.)

The transition of ownership isn’t the only notable change Chapel of the Hills has seen in recent decades. The most prominent changes Leon has experienced during the past two decades are the differences in industry trends and his client’s wishes.

“Oh my God, I mean just cremations, we’re 90 percent in Marin,” says Leon. “We still do a lot of traditional work, but people’s wishes are different. People like party planning now, so we’re more like event coordinators. You have to go with the times and offer what people want.”

The new wave of ceremonies tends to focus on celebrations of life including videos, sea scatterings and party planning—complete with food, balloons and poster boards. Leon also attributes another major change in the business to the mobility of clients. “Marin is very transitional—we’re dealing with a lot of people who are new to Marin,” he says. “We’ve had our base clients who were born and raised here and never left. But now, we’re doing a lot of shipping, we’ll ship people to other states.”

Chapel of the Hills has picked up another new project: The sherriff runs the coroner’s office out of its location. The division is complete with a storage facility that can hold up to 32 people and a designated autopsy room. Leon reported about “80 percent of their case load” remains on site and eventually become clients for Chapel of the Hills.

In June, Richard Ramirez, “The Night Stalker,” was stored on site after the serial-killing San Quentin inmate died from complication from lymphoma at Marin General. The storing brought some unexpected attention to the Chapel.

“It was kind of hush-hush. We had people calling and some weird people showed up at the office here looking for him. Some of his prison pen pals,” said Leon.

With over two decades invested into this Marin homegrown business, Leon is eager to continue growth for Chapel of the Hills. His hopes for the future are to complete some renovations, eventually purchase the land from the Monte family and possibly open up a second location that would specialize as the first pet cremation service in the county.

Leon maintains the family-owned business atmosphere by remaining accessible to the community. But if you see Leon around town, don’t ask him the usual question: “Do the bodies stink?”

Leon will tell you what he tells everybody. “Live people stink too.”

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