Seattle is a city of hills and abundance. You start digging in your yard and you never know what that shovel will bring.
Like chunks of tombstones in a cemetery.
We’re a relatively young city, so we don’t have anything like the Catacombs of Paris, where the remains of several million Parisians from the 18th and 19th centuries are located.
Still, we buried enough tombstones in our courtyards that, says Guy Tasa, state physical anthropologist with the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, “two or three times a year I get a phone call that someone has found one in their property.”
We use fillings on plots to level them out or to fix drainage problems. The filling has to come from somewhere. Granted, tombstones are unusual fillings, even if they turn out to be temporary cemetery markings
The first time Bryan Vaughn was at his home on North 135. excavated a tombstoneNS Road was maybe 20 years ago. He was working on a planting bed and hammering what looked like a square stone 5 to 6 inches deep.
Vaughn cleaned the chunk and saw writing on a flat, grassy headstone. Vaughn correctly assumed it had ended up there as a filling.
He kept it. “What else do you want to do?” It’s not exactly disposable.
That wasn’t the end of the tombstone chunks. Over the years Vaughn found a chunk of tombstone whenever he dug around in his yard, put in a koi pond or other planting.
Gravestones are part of the litany of artifacts unearthed in our padding.
In the Burke Museum’s collection, for example, children who dug in a Laurelhurst courtyard in 1959 found one of Seattle’s first coffee cups carved from a walrus skull. That is a keeper.
The museum has everything from one of the first Rainier beer bottles (1890s) to women’s shoes (also 1890s) that can be found in our fillings.
When he piled up chunks of tombstones, Vaughn found use for it. He used them as a doorstop for his greenhouse and a shed that he has. Certainly a topic of conversation for visitors.
Vaughn researched the names, birth and death dates that he found on the gravestones: âMRS. ER … 1927 … “” SG READMAN. 1906 -1947. “” J. BANKEN, 1890 … “” MRS. DFF 1870 … “
They never agreed with the state’s vital statistics. That could actually explain why he ended up in his garden. A tombstone misprint.
This month, Vaughn was digging his garden again when the rototiller he was using got stuck on his most notable tombstone find to date.
This was not a chunk, but a complete tombstone measuring 22 x 9 inches: “ANDREW OLSON, 1849-1927”. Below were the digits “4 52 1”, likely lot and grave number locators.
A whole tombstone, admits Vaughn, “is a little creepy”.
Again, the state records do not match the name with these birth and death years.
When Tasa was asked about Vaughn’s buried tombstones, his first question was, “Are they concrete?”
Yes they are.
âThey’re temporary markings that have letters and numbers printed on them until they can be replaced with a permanent tombstone,â he says.
Perhaps family members couldn’t be found to build a permanent headstone, or maybe the family couldn’t afford a more expensive granite headstone at the time, Tasa says.
Rob Goff, head of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, says he has a possible explanation for why records for Olson or the others in the tombstone blocks could not be found based on the dates.
“The cemeteries I know have huge areas, hidden from the public, full of broken tombstones,” he says. If granite was used, the headstone may have been chipped off or damaged in some way.
Another reason they are discarded, according to Goff, is that a mistake was made and the wrong year of birth or death was used.
Goff found a unique use for discarded tombstones.
He lives in Spokane: âAnd I put them in the back of my pickup to gain weight in winter. When they are not needed, they are just granite. “
Goff is well aware of what it might look like to some having a tombstone in a pickup bed.
He turns the gravestones with the engraving side down and “I always put a tarpaulin over them,” he says.
At his north Seattle home, Vaughn is still trying to figure out what to do with Mr. Olson’s commemorative square.
At the moment it stands in its back yard every day, waiting.