On Oct. 18, I stood under cover of a large awning in Renton’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery, the murmurs of the assembled crowd so soft I could almost hear the gentle rain. From where I stood I saw a dozen plaques, each saying, “Gone But Not Forgotten These People of King County” for a different year, from 1993 to 2016. A small patch of broken ground marked where a new plaque would memorialize 180 more people. Firefighters in dress uniform stood at attention on either side of a lovely wreath in shades of purple. Just beyond, in the mist, stood a bagpiper. At a moment of absolute quiet, he began playing “Amazing Grace.”
Since 1993, our King County Medical Examiner’s Office has provided a gracious, dignified burial for “Indigent Remains” — people without family who can claim their body or whose family cannot afford the cost of burial. Sometimes family members attend the ceremony, the only funeral they can afford.
My friend Colette Fleming was buried here in 2004. Two years after I had grieved for her sudden death in 2002, I cried all over again at the thought that her body was unclaimed. I was comforted by the ceremony. I am comforted more that she has a Leaf of Remembrance at the Seattle Justice Center, where I can visit it. Mt. Olivet is beautiful, and the Indigent Remains Ceremony is tender and heartfelt. It still disturbs me that so many people are buried under a common headstone with no individual names.
The names are listed at the medical examiner’s website and read at the ceremony. Ten officiants shared reading the names and said prayers from a range of faiths, including a prayer song and a sage blessing from Billie Jo McDonald of Seattle Indian Center. For a complete list of names, visit tinyurl.com/indigentburial.
There are people I see (and hug) who attend every ceremony, and there are new people every time. This year several members of Amnesty International attended. One of their co-workers was among those being buried.
When the Indigent Remains Burial Program began, burials were held every two years, for about 200 people at a time. Then every 18 months. The last ceremony was a year ago, October 2016, for 278 people.
Poverty and loss of community are killing people.
In 2000, WHEEL Women in Black stood vigil for five homeless people who died outside or by violence in King County. In 2016, we stood for 62. On the day this paper is published, Oct. 25, we will stand for the 65th outdoor or violent death already in 2017.
St. James Cathedral held a Mass in November 2016 for 89 homeless people who died between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016. On Nov. 9, they will hold a Mass for 127: 79 outdoor deaths and 48 indoor deaths from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017.
Only 18 of the 180 people buried Oct. 18 were homeless at the time of their death. Poverty and loss of community are killing people. When Terry Lauber and Dick Foley sing “I’m just a poor Wayfaring Stranger” at the end of the Mt. Olivet ceremony, they sing for all of us.
I love King County’s medical examiner, Dr. Richard Harruff. All of WHEEL does. He and other members of his staff often come to our vigils. He takes tender care of our dead. And he will be the first to tell you that is not enough.
As Mother Jones said, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Let’s join together in a common fight against poverty, before more of us lie together in a common grave.
Anitra Freeman is a Real Change board member and a member of WHEEL and Women in Black.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full October 25 issue.