Along the Mother Road
An American flag is shown between rows of headstones in the Veterans section on Thursday, March 1, 2018, at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in Seattle. 
    Slideshow Icon 6 slides
Enlarge Icon
An American flag is shown between rows of headstones in the Veterans section on Thursday, March 1, 2018, at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The tragic story behind Seattle’s biggest cemetery

Seattle’s biggest cemetery begins with a tragic story.

City founders David Denny and Louisa Boren had given birth to twins. One of them, a boy, died as an infant. They buried him in Seattle, but the city’s growth forced them to move his remains.

They had to move the tiny baby again, when the second cemetery was slated for closure.

Ultimately, the Dennys buried their baby on land they owned north of the city – what is now known as Evergreen Washelli on Aurora. It’s a vast green space with trees and walking paths.

“Washelli was developed out here in 1884 because of the growth within Seattle,” said Scott Sheehan, general manager of Evergreen Washelli cemetery.

Sheehan said early growth in the city saw spaces for the living push out the dead. It consumed local burial sites and cemeteries.

For the Dennys, this final resting place was a hard day’s ride from Seattle’s downtown at the time.

“It was buggy and horse to get out here,” Sheehan said. “They were hoping to never have to move those bodies again.”

Others joined the Denny’s in burying their lost loved ones on the site, and eventually the property was sold and became a privately-run cemetery.

KUOW's Region of Boom team is spending the Spring on Highway 99. Hear more stories from our series "Along the Mother Road".

Today it takes up a swath of land in Seattle roughly the size of an average 18-hole golf course, housing more than 160,000 remains, both cremated and buried, according to Sheehan.

In the middle of a booming city, this spot remains green and open.

And as development slowly makes its way to the Aurora corridor, the cemetery is likely to fulfill its founder's hopes and remain largely untouched.

Sheehan said he gets business cards from developers all the time. People see parcels of land that look like open space and they want to build there.

But he said the cemetery isn't looking to sell any of its property. And even if it were, it's difficult to develop land that's been designated as a cemetery.

Seattle may not lose this cemetery to sky scrapers and apartment buildings, but it’s also unlikely to get any other cemeteries like it as the city grows.

A long-standing moratorium is in place banning the expansion of old cemeteries and the creation of new ones in Seattle.

In fact, according to one King County report, Seattle started restricting cemeteries as far back as the late 1940s.

Eventually, this moratorium could force Seattleites outside the city in death. But, to date, that hasn’t happened.

Sheehan says Evergreen Washelli won’t run out of space for many, many years. That’s partly because the area has the highest cremation rate in the country at roughly 77 percent. That extends the longevity of a cemetery.

"It changes how you develop and how you use the land. Because if you were 90 or 100 percent burial then you’d have a very predictable amount of space that you’re going to use for each individual burial. With cremation, you have a lot of different options and choices,” Sheehan said.

Other forms of disposition, like green burials and human composting, could also change the way land is used.

There’s no good estimate of the capacity of Seattle’s cemeteries and how long it will take to fill them.

According to one city office, no planning work has been done around graveyards for decades. Officials say most cemeteries in the city are run by businesses or non-profits so future planning is up to them.

Carlton Basmajian is an associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University.

He said very few communities in the U.S. are including cemeteries in their growth plans.

Basmajian said there are no dire consequences of this. But he points out that the aging baby boomer generation could present a squeeze for some cities in the country.

"We argue that communities should at least be talking about it to be sure that the facilities are available that people are going to demand when they demand them. Because a lot of people don't do much pre-death planning."

Basmajian co-authored a paper published in 2010 that estimates the U.S. could need between 60 and 80 square miles of burial space for the more than 76 million baby boomers who will reach the average life expectancy of 78 years old between 2024 and 2042. And that’s factoring in rising cremation rates.

“These deaths are almost certain to occur disproportionately in urban areas where most people live (and die) and where space for burial is most limited,” the paper states. “We do not know how much space is currently available in U.S. cemeteries.”

Even though Sheehan doesn’t even want to take a stab at how long it will take to fill Evergreen Washelli, or the other cemeteries in the city, he’s not worried that the current boom is enough to bring them to capacity or push them out the way graveyards were in the 1800s.

And even when it does fill up, Sheehan said the cemetery will be a fixture of Seattle long into the future.

“We will always be a part of Aurora Avenue, we will always be a part of Seattle, we will never go away. This will be an icon that will be here for hundreds of years to come, we hope.”