Rites of the people
King County's memorial honors the lives of the poor and homeless
Amid a sea of graves marked with individual names and messages of love at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Renton, there is one that reads, “Gone but not forgotten, these people of Seattle, June 2012.”
This single epitaph represents 154 individuals, 122 men and 32 women, whose remains were never claimed.
On a cloudy afternoon June 13, each was cremated and placed in an urn marked with the deceased’s name, as part of the King County Medical Examiner’s Indigent Remains Program.
The memorial, which occures roughly every two years, recognizes and celebrates the lives of individuals who can be considered invisible in life and forgotten in death, the indigent and homeless.
Greg Hewett, an administrator with the medical examiner’s office, said the involvement of the spiritual community sets the program apart from similar ones around the state and country.
“[The Medical Examiner’s Office] isn’t alone in this,” he said. “This is unlike any other community I have seen handle the indigent program.”
Linda Smith of the Church of Mary Magdalene said the memorial is important because it offers a final remembrance for individuals who have passed and closure for those left behind.
It is also about learning from the deceased and understanding the context of their struggles in life.
Tammy Ray, wheel representative, said the Seattle Women in Black group holds candlelight vigils every time a homeless person dies outside or by violence in King County. Since 2010, 108 homeless people have died in the county, according the medical examiner. All too often, she said, the vigil is the only memorial for a deceased homeless person.
“We pray,” she said during her address. “We commit ourselves to the value of each person, that no one die forgotten. And ultimately, no one die homeless.”
The annual budget from the King County Medical Examiner to run the program and biennual event is $160,000. Another $25,000 comes from community contributions, some of which is from local religious organizations.
About 30 people showed up to recognize those lost, and almost as many media onlookers came to film, photograph and report on the ceremony, which was led by staff from the Medical Examiner’s Office and local spiritual leaders dressed in everything from traditional robes to street clothes.
One mourner insisted the names of the 154 deceased be read aloud. Several names sparked moans from gatherers. Most were greeted with silence.
Hewett said in past years names were not read because there were too many. The list often includes several hundred people.
This does not necessarily mean there were fewer indigent deaths since the last memorial service than in past years; the event was held earlier in the year than normal, he said.
It’s good to read the names, Hewett said. It is important to note these were individual people.
The service lasted an hour, interrupted only by sporadic raindrops and the occasional “amen” from the crowd. In that time, nine religious leaders from various denominations each took their turn leading a prayer and blessing.
One of them, Rev. Rick Reynolds, said this year’s ceremony hit closer to home.
“This time takes on a different meaning when you know some of the folks buried here,” he said during his address. “We must value each person in life and in death.”
Reynolds pulled out a vibrant painting of a beaming man and held it up to the crowd. Horace Varnon was one of the 154 people now marked by the single grave. When local artist Mary Larson painted his portrait, she asked him how he wanted to be remembered.
Reynolds looked at the crowd in the dull light, before continuing.
He said Varnon replied, “I’m a survivor. Tell everyone I’m a survivor.”
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