From the sky, a light rain. Placed upon the lawn, two open-sided tents. Gathered beneath the tents, a group of mourners, heads bowed. And in front of the gathering, set upon the emerald grass of Mt. Olivet Cemetery, three headstones. They mark the ashes of those whose next of kin could not be found.
Today, the living have come to remember the dead.
In his brown and dark green uniform, Seattle/King County Public Health Prevention Manager Gary Johnson offers a prayer. "We grant that our sisters and brothers may sleep here in peace," he says.
This year, the ashes of 209 men, women and children who've gone unclaimed -- the sisters and brothers Johnson speaks of -- were interred below one of the headstones, bearing the words, "Gone but not forgotten, these people of Seattle." The names of most of those deceased are known, but two remain unidentified. With each in his or her own container, the ashes can be reclaimed by any relatives who, upon hearing of the family member's death, contact the Medical Examiner's Office.
Stepping before the 40-plus attendees, a rabbi prepares to recite the Mourners' Kaddish. "It asks that you keep these people in your heart," she says, "and the memory of their lives are with you." She incants in Hebrew, her body swaying to the words' rhythm. "May the source of peace send peace to all who mourn."
From the mourners, a quiet "Amen." From a tree, the whinny of a Steller's jay. In the distance, a northern flicker's call.
Rev. Jeffrey L. Barker, of the United Church of Christ, reminds everyone that though the deceased may be physically gone, their spirits live on. As he speaks, a woman, dressed in black, weeps. "And as we leave this place today, may we take increased hope that each and every one of us is charged to reach out and help the poor," Rev. Barker says, "to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to set the captives free and to always help those in need." The woman's tears flow freely. "May we all pledge to do our part."
Since 2006, Public Health has buried the remains of those whose bodies have gone unclaimed, during ceremonies in April 2006, August 2007, and March 2009. Many had been homeless, but this year, the two unidentified people were remains found in unlabeled urns.
Standing at the podium, Rev. Rick Reynolds, of Operation Nightwatch, admits that taking part in such ceremonies is never easy. "But it's especially difficult when the faces of some of the people on the list come to mind," he says. "So forgive me if I have trouble getting through my prayer."
As he prays, the rain continues to fall. Standing behind the mourners in a long black coat, raindrops sparkling on his shoulders, a man takes a drag from a cigarette. White smoke trails from his fingers.
Following a moment of silence, Joe Frisino, office coordinator with the Medical Examiner's Office, informs the grieving that the three headstones, and two nearby benches, were donated. All bear inscriptions, the benches containing lyrics from the folk song, "The Wayfaring Stranger." Performing the tune, two former members of The Brothers Four sing of a-going over Jordan, just a-going over home.
As Frisino prepares to end the ceremony, a woman, Mary Larson, speaks up. "You know, before you all leave: There was one man I didn't realize he was going to be here today and his name was Jack," Larson says.
Larson, a nurse at Pioneer Square Clinic, recalls that Jack Atwood was an old logger from Oregon who often came by the clinic to say hello. Atwood possessed, even in homelessness, a collection of chainsaws. "I'm sure he's happy to be here today," she says.
As the mourners disperse, Larson says that while she'd known Atwood for 10 years, she hadn't seen him for several years. He used to sit as a model for her, while she painted his portrait. Larson, whose donations have helped make the headstones and benches at Mt. Olivet possible, was surprised to see his name among those being remembered at the burial. The portrait she began of Atwood remains unfinished. "He's a work in progress," she admits.
The rain tapers and, with the sun's attempt to shine through clouds, Frisino says his farewells to the mourners. Of those recently buried, he says the Medical Examiner's Office used any clues at their disposal -- information recovered in wallets, hospital patient lists, Veteran's Administration databases -- to locate relatives. While roughly $150,000 is set aside each year for the search and subsequent interment, he says there is no cost to relatives who request the ashes.
And sometimes, relatives do contact his office. Frisino recalls one family, from the South, who considered retrieving the remains. But when they heard of the ceremony, he says they decided to leave the family member at Mt. Olivet, since they would never be able to match the remembrance he'd already enjoyed.
"We just want to do something for them," Frisino says of all those buried. "Everyone deserves respect."