Friday, September 19, 2008

Quite Possibly the Loneliest Place on Earth

Those of us who are serious about the pursuit of genealogy and family history can appreciate the treasure that is gleaned by a field trip to the cemetery: not just treasure in data, but of feelings, and especially a sense of being close to those we long to know more about.

Today, I went on such a field trip to Evergreen-Washelli, one of the main cemeteries in the greater Seattle metropolitan area. I was excited because I had, at last, located the grave of a man I am currently researching and writing about. Please pardon my generalities here, because I am not quite ready to reveal who that is.

With great anticipation, I stopped in at the cemetery office and asked for a map to help me locate the grave. The girl behind the counter printed two maps for me: one that showed the exact driving route through the meandering and shaded paths of the grounds, and a locator map with a diagram of the family plot and nearby graves. "Oh, this should be easy," I thought, as I clutched my "buried treasure" maps and got back into my car.

I drove across Aurora Avenue North and into Washelli, the older, eastern section of the memorial park, admired the Doughboy statue as I crawled past, and turned alongside the Veterans Memorial Cemetery with its regimented rows of small white headstones. Getting out of my car, I climbed the emerald slope punctuated by flat markers on the opposite side of the road and began looking around for the surname I sought.

Ah! There was the man's father, and nearby were the graves of a few relatives. After several more minutes, I also spotted his first wife and infant daughter.

But, where was he?

I twisted and turned the locator map several times, and traced my steps backwards and forwards, but I simply could not find him. I checked the diagram one last time: "Okay, the wife is in grave #14, and if I have the map turned the right way, he should be right HERE."

Nothing but grass!

And then, I realized... he had no marker.

This was a man who lived life to the fullest for over nine decades, who lived humbly and quietly, loved his wife and mother deeply, respected animals, explored the Pacific Northwest with a heart ever hungry for timeless beauty, worked tirelessly to preserve nature for the enjoyment of countless others, member of one of Seattle's founding families...

The place where I stood, at the foot of this grave, seemed like one of the loneliest places on earth just then. There was no doubt that he lay beneath my feet: a Seattle son who had been witness to much of the area's early history and was now just a memory manifested by neatly manicured grounds. His resting place was surrounded by many of those he knew and loved in life, but his place among them was not evident. This ever quiet, humble, artistic, observant, stoic, patient, witty, knowledgeable, sensitive, poetic, capable, adventurous, and dedicated man: no one could see that he was there, or had a clue about where he had walked in life.

I left the memorial grounds after a quiet vow to him that I would tell his story and not let him be forgotten... to help in any way I can.

As a historian, I have discovered his heart and mind and times through his own words, expressed in journals and letters by his own hand. As a genealogist, I have gathered the facts of his life and studied his timeline and circumstances. As a human being, I have learned that I simply cannot walk away from the discovery that this honorable person has no commemorative words above his worldly remains--no name to indicate his existence.

Perhaps it is part of my purpose to transform that anonymous patch of grass into a celebration of a unique and historically poignant life.

It's worth a try.


  1. It's hard to imagine that a name that shows up all around Seattle doesn't show up on his grave.

    Hello Seattle Times, let's rectify that.


  2. Cheryl, I think you articulated beautifully why some of us do what we do. This was a wonderful piece, and while sad, it was a pleasure to read. I hope you will keep us posted.

  3. Hi Terry,

    Thank you kindly for your comments. I think most genealogists have had, or will have, a discovery that leads to action rather than just passive collection of data. We go beyond the norm because we care so deeply.