Next to a copse of poplar trees at Mt. Olivet, Renton’s pioneer cemetery, King County buried 137 of its dead.
The cremated remains of men and women interred on Sept. 17 had fought a war against poverty, homelessness, addiction, abuse, mental illness, ignorance and indifference. When it came time for them to be buried, either no family member could be found or no family member could find the means to pay for their loved ones’ interment. Therefore, the county provided their final resting place.
Seventy-odd mourners came to the cemetery to mark the passing of 137 others, known and unknown.
Dr. Richard Harruff, King County’s chief medical examiner, was scarecrow thin. He was dressed in the black uniform of his office and stood erect at the podium next to the gravesite.
“Death terrifies all of us,” he said. “Death causes us to seek refuge from this demon that devours everything we hold dear. If we are fortunate we find refuge in the love of our family and friends or in our spiritual beliefs and community.
“But what about these 137 fellow humans who died without anyone willing or able to take possession of their bodies? What happened to them?
“Here’s what I know: The King County Medical Examiner’s Office took responsibility for their disposition.
“Mt. Olivet Cemetery provided this space for their cremains. All of you came here with compassionate hearts to honor the decedents’ names and memories.”
In January 2013,Kathryn Ann Blair, 60, froze to death, south of downtown Seattle. In a letter distributed at the ceremony, Deborah Fields Keeling, Blair’s friend, recalled her “beautiful face, thick, wavy hair, big brown eyes, lots of personality, many talents and people who loved her.”
Blair had been sexually abused as a child. She was clinically diagnosed as schizophrenic and bipolar, and she battled alcoholism. Despite these realities, Blair earned a B.A. in art history at Kent State University. She and her mother lived in a mobile home in Akron, Ohio, until her mother died.
“In 2010, Kathy decided to act on her dream of living on the West Coast,” Keeling remembered. Blair tried San Francisco. “Feeling dissatisfied, Kathy moved to Seattle in 2011, hoping to find happiness and artistic friends. Instead, she found herself alone and homeless.”
Blair was buried under a headstone that reads, “Gone but not forgotten, these people of King County, September 2014.” There were 136 other stories like hers.
Next to her headstone were five others like it, each marking a different number of people. Each stone bore a date that marked previous ceremonies: April 2005, August 2007, March 2009, November 2010 and June 2012.
Ruanda Morrison almost joined the dead. Five days before the ceremony, she was beaten by five attackers, left for dead, unconscious and face down, on the street. Police soon arrived and took her to the hospital, where medical staff saved her life.
Morrison stood at Mt. Olivet, looking like an angel who had wrestled with death. She wore a sheer black
petticoat skirt, a black leotard and a black leather jacket; there was a sprinkling of gray in her short Afro and her right cheek was still swollen from her beating. At the burial, she spoke for Women in Black, a group that observes a silent vigil each time a homeless person dies outside in King County.
She started by reminding attendees that they share two things in common. “Two breaths. The first when we are born and our last breath when we are moving on,” Morrison said. “It is wrong to die a violent death. These people are gone now. Don’t let the shadow of homelessness suck them up.”