Seattle is a city of hills and fills. You start digging in your garden, and you never know what that shovel will bring up.
Like chunks from cemetery headstones.
We’re a relatively young city, so it’s not like we have anything like the Catacombs of Paris that house the remains of several million Parisians from the 18th century, when major sanitation problems linked to the city’s cemeteries led to transferring their contents underground.
Still, we have enough headstones buried in our yards that, says Guy Tasa, this state’s physical anthropologist with the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, “Two to three times a year I get a phone call that somebody’s found one in their property.”
We use fill on properties to level them off, or maybe to correct drainage problems. The fill has to come from somewhere. Admittedly, headstones are unusual fill, even if they turn out to have been temporary cemetery markers
The first time that Bryan Vaughn dug up a chunk of headstone at his home on North 135th Street was maybe 20 years ago. He was working on a planting bed, and 5 to 6 inches deep, he struck what looked like a square rock.
Vaughn cleaned it off the chunk and saw lettering from a flat, grass-level headstone. Vaughn correctly figured it had ended up there as fill.
He kept it. “What else are you gonna do?” It’s not exactly throwaway garbage.
That wasn’t the end for the headstone chunks. Over the years, whenever Vaughn dug around his yard, putting in a koi pond or another planting, he’d find a headstone chunk.
Headstones are part of the litany of artifacts dug up in our fills.
At the Burke Museum’s collection, for example, children digging in a Laurelhurst yard in 1959 found one of Seattle’s first coffee mugs, carved from a walrus skull. That’s a keeper.
The museum has everything from one of the first Rainier Beer bottles (1890s) to women’s shoes (also 1890s) found in our fills.
As he accumulated headstone chunks, Vaughn did find use for them. He used them as doorstops for his greenhouse and a shed he has. Certainly a conversation piece for visitors.
Vaughn researched the bits of names and dates of birth and death he found on the headstones: “MRS. ER … 1927 …” “S. G. READMAN. 1906 -1947.” “J. BANKS, 1890 …” “MRS. D. F. F. 1870 … “
They never matched up with the state’s vital statistics records. That actually might be an explanation as to why ended up in his yard. A headstone misprint.
This month, Vaughn was once again digging in his yard, when the rototiller he was using got stuck on his most remarkable headstone find yet.
This wasn’t a chunk but a complete headstone 22-by-9 inches: “ANDREW OLSON, 1849-1927.” At the bottom were the numerals “4 52 1,” likely lot and grave number locators.
An entire headstone, admits Vaughn, “is a little creepy.”
Once again, state records don’t match up the name with those birth and death years.
When Tasa was asked about Vaughn’s buried headstones, his first question was, “Are they concrete?”
Yes, they are.
“They’re temporary markers, with the letters and numbers pressed on them, until they can be replaced with a permanent headstone,” he says.
Maybe family members couldn’t be located to make a permanent one, or maybe the family at that time couldn’t afford a more expensive granite headstone, Tasa says.
Rob Goff, head of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, says he has a possible explanation why records for Olson or the others in the headstone chunks couldn’t be found using the years on them.
“The cemeteries I’m familiar with have huge sections hidden from public view that are full of broken headstones,” he says. If granite was used, maybe the headstone was chipped, or somehow damaged.
Another reason for them being discarded, Goff says, is that a mistake was made and the wrong birth or death year was used.
Goff has found a unique use for discarded headstones.
He lives in Spokane, “And I put them in the back of my pickup to get weight in the wintertime. If they’re not being used, they’re just granite.”
Goff is cognizant of how having a headstone in a pickup bed could appear to some.
He does turn the headstones engraving side down, and “I always put tarp over them,” he says.
At his North Seattle home, Vaughn is still trying to figure out what to do with Mr. Olson’s rectangular commemoration.
For now, every day, it’s there in his backyard, waiting.