His job requires him to be part psychologist, attorney, financial adviser, event producer, and grief counselor. And he’s occasionally called upon to embalm a body, as needed. Meet Ed Brail, the location manager of Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, which has offered funeral and cremation services for over 100 years on Piedmont Avenue. The chapel, crematory, and columbarium’s original 1909 design was redeveloped and expanded in 1929 by famed Bay Area architect Julia Morgan and Aaron Green, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Brail, who is passionate about making the Chapel of the Chimes a “true pillar of the community,” wants to greatly expand local engagement and access. His plans now include offering a free, two-hour docent-led tour of the 100+ little rooms, skylights, gardens, fountains, and niches that make up the iconic Spanish Gothic-style columbarium. The tours began on Jan. 20.
“Your jaw just drops from the beauty of it,” he said in a recent interview about the chapel.
American funeral homes have historically hosted things like Bible study groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Since his arrival in Oakland in 2020, Brail has been conducting outreach that’s resulted in the Chapel expanding its event offerings, including a Halloween party for the philanthropic Oakland Rotary 3 Club, a children’s music school recital, an Oakland NAACP-sponsored “First Ladies Tea” for local pastors’ wives, and a night of remembrance for those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Activities planned for February include the annual Oakland 100 Club event that serves as a major fundraiser for the Oakland Boys and Girls Club.
Brail also brought back and made a few changes to the Chapel’s hugely popular summer solstice Garden of Memory music event, which returned in 2022 after a three-year pandemic hiatus. The columbarium walk-through concert features simultaneous performances from well-known Bay Area composers, musicians, and sound artists. Last year it featured Kitka, Sarah Cahill, Paul Dresher & Joel Davel, and many others plus food trucks lined up on Piedmont Avenue.
Originally from the East Coast, Brail moved to Chicago as a teen where he lived most of his adult life. After college, he joined the Illinois State Police as a crime scene technician. “You’re using cutting-edge technology and are at the heart of the case,” he said about his work processing crime scenes for evidence. Dealing with the aftermath of violence and cadavers was common in his work. He recalls one murder in which he cracked the case by matching the striations on the victim’s spinal column with those on a knife used by the killer. “We nailed him,” he said.
The only things that made him squeamish, he said, were both related to methods used to determine someone’s time of death, often critical in an investigation. One was a process called maggot mass, where the kinds of insects and larvae present on a dead person are analyzed. The other was the extraction of vitreous humor liquid from the eye of the deceased.
With two little kids and a wife who urged him to find a different line of work, he considered his options. He was “obviously not afraid of dead people,” he said. Sometimes he had to contact funeral directors after investigations to have them come to collect a person’s body. He got to know people in the funeral industry and decided it looked like a pretty good profession.
In 1996 he entered the 100-year-old Worsham School of Mortuary Science, where he lived in a Chicago funeral home for the 12-month program. “It was very convenient since calls from hospitals, loved ones, and nursing homes can happen anytime,” he said. He took courses in microbiology, anatomy, funeral directing, and communications to learn the trade and was hired by the funeral home in which he was then living, and worked for them for 20 years.
Of course, he has stories. One time he met with a widower to plan his late wife’s arrangements. Out of the man’s briefcase, Brail was presented with what looked to be a frozen, wrapped roast. It was actually the dead woman’s leg, which had been amputated a decade before. For religious reasons, it was the man’s desire to reunite her leg and body. Did Brail accommodate his client? “We certainly did.”
A particularly horrible Chicago winter in 2013 brought Brail to California where he managed a funeral home in Glendale for nine years. Covid was particularly brutal in the Los Angeles area, causing numerous deaths. “It gives me shivers just remembering the surge,” he said.
Covid was still very real when Brail was hired at Chapel of the Chimes, where everything is indoors. The mausoleum has crypts that accommodate caskets; the columbarium has niches that lodge urns. With its maze of small rooms featuring ornate stonework, statues, mosaics, and gardens, Julia Morgan’s design of the building has been described by one architectural scholar as “audacious.”
And it is the final resting place for many well-known people, including former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis who is interred next to legendary blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Lee Hooker, who both died in 2011. Other notables include the celebrated female explorer Harriett Chalmers Adams (1875-1937) and Charles Goodall Lee (1881 – 1973), the first licensed Chinese-American dentist in California.
For all of the grandeur of the place, Brail never loses sight of the importance of the Chapel’s range of services that are provided to grieving people and the sensitivity with which families are served. His goal for the new year is to host regular programs for those who’ve experienced loss, providing counselors and support groups. Chapel of the Chimes currently averages 50 cremations and 20 burials each month.
The man who’s journeyed from the mean streets of Chicago to a revered place of beauty and serenity in Oakland says that his greatest satisfaction comes from having family members he’s worked with tell him, “Hey, Ed, you’ve made this a little easier for me.”
“That’s what gets me out of bed every morning,” he said.