"Cemetery readers" like Maggie Rail of Spokane, Wa., are helping fill in the blanks of family and community history by figuring out who's buried where.
SOME PEOPLE collect spoons. Maggie Rail counts dead people.
Before we go any further, understand that this has nothing to do with hunting ghosts.
Over more than a dozen years traipsing through hundreds of cemeteries and recording hundreds of thousands of tombstones, Washington’s unofficial “Cemetery Lady” has never seen or even sensed a single apparition.
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She has rarely, in fact, even been creeped out — well, except for those few times when loose dirt above an old, improperly buried pine box gave way, leaving Maggie Rail quite literally with one foot in the grave of a body whose soul she trusts has long since departed.
Truth is, what drives Maggie, a 79-year-old Spokane widow and retired Lutheran Sunday-school teacher, out into the state’s final resting places is a lot more pedestrian.
“Nobody argues with me out there,” says Maggie, who does not suffer fools lightly and is quick with an opinion about everything from national-health-care policy to the vigor with which one should strike keys on a church piano. “Nobody talks to me. It’s just me and God and the birds and the bees.”
“Part of it,” she admits, “is just getting out. You’re in a safe place. You don’t have to worry about anybody. And you feel like you’re doing something useful.”
That, she is. A determined cadre of hobbyist “cemetery readers” like Maggie has sprung up nationally in the past couple decades, riding a popularity wave of genealogy. Maggie isn’t into that to any degree, but understands how her work identifying where people are buried is invaluable to those who are.
Cemetery readers mix historical and shoe-leather research to re-create, as faithfully as possible, a slice-in-time roster of all inhabitants of a given cemetery, many of which have no current, official plot maps or burial records.
Readers, also known as “recordists,” step into that void, walking the grounds and recording each tombstone, complete with birth and death dates or other relevant information, and sometimes mapping the site as well. Maggie enters the names into a spreadsheet — she was an early adopter of the personal computer — then posts them online at a private website, www.interment.net.
The site is one of a mishmash of online resources, some charging fees, but others, like interment.net and Maggie’s own site, www.mrail.net, offering free assistance for people seeking the grave of a long-lost relative or historical figure.
Maggie, who began her quest after her husband, John, died 23 years ago, says even she thought the hobby was crazy at first. “But I went out and did one, and I got hooked.”
That was probably 500 cemeteries ago; she lost count at 400. Maggie is paid a small salary as editor of interment.net, where she fights constantly to keep her data from being lifted by other website owners who consider it “public record.” But all of her recording has been done for free.
Her collection includes most of the cemeteries in Eastern and Central Washington, parts of British Columbia, much of the Idaho panhandle, and a handful in other states and countries.
“I’m an idiot,” she says with a healthy laugh. “I can’t give it up!”
MAGGIE’S QUEST has put tens of thousands of miles on a succession of Honda Accords. She has taken friends and family members along, but for some reason, they never come back.
“You can’t get anything done when you’re working with two people, anyway,” she says. “If you don’t like it, lump it.”
These days, the Cemetery Lady is “stuck” in her hometown of Spokane, recording all the gravestones in Greenwood Memorial Terrace, a luscious, sprawling cemetery along North Government Way. This is where Maggie will be buried herself, next to John.
Her headstone is already there and, yes, it is recorded. She has inventoried more than 20,000 graves in Greenwood already, but suspects she’s less than halfway done.
“The problem is, I can never be totally finished. They’re still burying people.”
This, it turns out, is just one of the problems associated with keeping track of who winds up where after they die.
Relatives searching for a family grave encounter a bewildering hodgepodge of jurisdictions and sketchy records.
Washington’s first law establishing cemeteries predates the state. A territorial order in 1857 set terms for burial grounds, and many of the state’s first official cemeteries were established around then. (Already present, of course, were grounds holding the remains of Native Americans, many buried in long-forgotten sites that date back thousands of years.)
Just finding out what constitutes a cemetery, where they are, and who looks over them can be surprisingly complex.
The state licenses 152 privately operated cemeteries. It doesn’t deal with religious or municipal cemeteries, or those maintained by tribes or fraternal organizations. Many historic cemeteries are unregistered and unmaintained, or kept up by small cemetery districts that took over for groups such as the International Order of Oddfellows and the Freemasons.
The state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation maintains its own database — reputed to contain around 2,400 entries — of all “human remains” sites, from commercial cemeteries down to someone’s Aunt Edna buried out back, but it does not list individuals. The department website sends grave seekers to private websites, including Maggie’s.
Vital statistics are of marginal help. The state Department of Health can tell you how many Washingtonians die in a given year, where and from what. (In 2010, it was 47,981 — a pretty average year.) But once a death certificate is filed, a body is on its own; no central registry records its fate.
Local records are equally sketchy. Some Eastern Washington county officials told Maggie they weren’t required to keep death records until the 1920s. Others have lost decades’ worth of records in courthouse fires.
This is where amateur historians step in, and why their service, particularly inventories of older graves, is of such value.
TO FIND THESE once-hallowed places, cemetery readers search online, sort through files in musty courthouse basements, then scour the countryside — a challenge made more difficult by the fact that one cemetery often has multiple names.
“Oh, the gas you can waste!” Maggie laments.
Maggie isn’t shy; rolling up to a farmhouse and asking people where to find old tombstones usually bears fruit. (Although people generally are helpful, she has had both hostile and embarrassing encounters, such as unknowingly dropping in on a nudist colony while searching for one rural cemetery in B.C.)
Once located, a cemetery can be confounding. Many gravestone inscriptions will weather to the point of being unreadable. Some readers take paper etchings in hopes of bringing out letters and numerals. Most now take digital snapshots that, when enhanced, can bring out inscriptions better than the human eye. Sometimes, the reader concedes defeat and simply enters, “Unknown.”
And even a readable gravestone can tell a lie.
Markers get moved by careless caretakers or even clueless developers’ bulldozers. Other times, people aren’t buried where advertised. Maggie has seen repeated instances of women showing up on gravestones in more than one cemetery, because successive husbands saved a place for her beside them. Where did she wind up? Who knows.
Graves purchased in advance often contain a birth date but no death date, because the family didn’t follow through. But a more common problem is simple neglect. And even the more impeccably maintained cemeteries fall victim to the planting of shrubs or trees near graves by overzealous survivors.
This is the Cemetery Lady’s pet peeve.
“Look at that tree there,” she says one day, pointing at a carefully planted sapling in Spokane’s Greenwood. “If I had seen that earlier, I would’ve yanked it right out!”
Trees and shrubs should be outlawed, Maggie insists; they’ll cover a gravestone and make it unreadable in short order. Or worse, the roots tilt the ground and knock a stone over, or disrupt the grave.
Few people consider these details before they kick the bucket. Many don’t leave instructions for disposal of their bodies, let alone long-term plans for a burial site. It’s mostly up to families to maintain memorials, even in cemeteries that promise “perpetual care.” It’s all too easy to let a grave settle into obscurity.
A chief culprit these days, Maggie points out, is “lawn markers” — the flat, paving-stone-style headstones that are required by some cemeteries because they can be driven over by riding lawn mowers, cutting maintenance costs.
But over time, lawn markers naturally sink into the ground, and turf rises around them. Maggie says family members should ask cemetery staff to pull the marker up and reseat it once a year.
If they won’t? “Just do it yourself.”
IN THE PAST 50 years, trackers of the dead have an even-more-fearsome foe: a radical swing in U.S. burial customs. The percentage of Americans choosing to be cremated has leapt from about 4 percent in the 1960s to 40 percent today. In Washington state, it’s nearly twice that, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.
Declining religious affiliation might be a factor. But many people believe cremation is simply a sound ecological and practical decision. “Cremains” can be interred in a fraction of the space of a coffin. It’s also by far the cheapest means of disposal, a serious consideration, especially for a population that no longer enjoys the funeral allotments often provided by union contracts of yore, funeral directors say.
From a historian’s perspective, cremation is rarely good news. Many people plant cremains in marked capsules next to traditional graves of loved ones. Others place them in standing columbaria, seen increasingly at modern cemeteries (a literal pain in the neck for cemetery readers, because they’re so darn tall, Maggie complains).
But many others simply opt to have their ashes scattered in their favorite outdoor location.
That makes Maggie Rail sad, and a little angry. She believes disposal of remains with no permanent marker is disrespectful.
“Everyone should have a monument,” she says. “If nothing else than for your loved ones to come pay their respects.”
This is not the only reason she detests scattering. Over the years, Maggie has seen grave sites tell stories, bearing witness to history in ways that nothing else can. A fascinating example is found in the historic cemeteries of Roslyn, Kittitas County — a collection of 26 burial grounds clustered on facing hillsides just outside town.
There’s a veterans plot here, an old city cemetery and individual cemeteries arranged by ethnicity. Most worked in the local coal mine, and many died at a young age: Serbians. Croatians. Lithuanians. African Americans. Members of the Oddfellows Lodge. Knights of Pythias. “Red Men.” Masons. This little United Nations of grave sites is unique, at least in the Northwest.
Look closely and you will find 45 with the same death date — May 10, 1892 — the day a mine exploded in Roslyn No. 1. It still rates as the largest mining disaster in state history. The cemetery contains graves as old and notable as Jesse Donaldson, an escaped slave who fought with Union troops in the Civil War, and as recent and notable as Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson and Devin Weaver — four firefighters who died in Okanogan County’s “Thirtymile” wildfire of 2001.
Without grave markers, beneath the pines on this dry, quiet hillside with a constantly murmuring wind, would anyone remember their stories? Maggie wonders.
“In order to look at old history,” she says, “you’ll need the old names.”
MAGGIE RAIL SEES graves as both historical markers and emotional touchstones. As a devout Lutheran, she has not a speck of doubt that once she’s gone, her grave will contain a soulless body, her spirit having left it. But she still wants the body that stood her well for all those years to have its own place.
Burial sites, after all, define a “sense of place” for families. And they are part of a closure process, even generations after death, Maggie believes.
During her frequent visits to Greenwood, Maggie, for what seemed like years, kept seeing a local man named Gordon sitting at the grave of his wife, Irene, talking to her, visibly grieving.
“He was sitting there waiting to die,” she says. “He wanted to join her.”
And he has, now lying right next to her, a few rows down from where Maggie and John one day will do the same.
All those graves should remain there, she believes, if for no other reason than as a testament to that love.
She might not admit it, but this is the kind of stuff that motivates the Cemetery Lady to keep recording, even as an older woman who finds it tougher and tougher to get around between the graves.
Over the years, social clubs have given her a few community-service awards. She’s proud of those, but you won’t see them hanging on her walls. Maggie isn’t out for fame.
Everybody has a way to chip in, she figures. This is hers. And the only one capable of judging her clearly doesn’t need to read about it in any newspaper.
“God knows what I’ve done,” she says. “He’s the only one I want to impress, if I ever wanted to impress anybody. I do this to help people.”
And, yes, a little bit for herself. If you’re going to trust anybody about the secret to long life, trust the Cemetery Lady.
“You have to keep busy,” she says. “Or you’ll rot and die.”
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.