Courtesy of Clark Wiegman
On an overcast Wednesday earlier this month, around 50 people gathered at Renton’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery for the funeral of 154 King County citizens whose bodies were either unclaimed or whose loved ones lacked the resources to provide an individual burial. Their cremated remains were buried in separate containers in a mass grave, marked by a stone with the epitaph: “Gone but not forgotten, these people of Seattle June 2012.”
The funeral was the sixth "indigent burial" ceremony in King County since the county Medical Examiner’s office began helping to organize them in 2003. The ceremonies are held once every two years and each grave holds the remains of about 200 people. This year’s ceremony was the first at which all names of the deceased were read aloud.
One of those names was Walter Connelly, who died in February 2011 at the age of 55 while living in permanent housing at McDermott Place in Lake City. Connelly’s name will be read aloud again this Saturday (June 16) when a bronze maple leaf engraved with his name and dates of life will be installed in the sidewalk in front of the Seattle Mennonite Church in Lake City.
Connelly’s leaf will become one of 69 “Leaves of Remembrance" placed in Seattle in the past year by the Homeless Remembrance Project, devoted to commemorating the lives of homeless people. Their vision is twofold: to honor and memorialize individuals through bronze leaf installations scattered across the city, and to create a community gathering place in a bronze "Tree of Life" sculpture that will be installed in Victor Steinbrueck Park at the north end of Pike Place Market this September. Taken together, organizers believe, the leaves and Tree of Life set a precedent as the world’s first permanent, civically sanctioned homeless memorial.
The Homeless Remembrance Project came out of Women in Black, a group of women from the homeless-organizing group WHEEL (the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League) and the Church of Mary Magdalene, who in 2000 began holding silent vigils honoring citizens of King County who have died outside or by violence. In 2003, the women decided these one-hour vigils were not enough. “We hand out these flyers and they’re either turned away or they’re read and then tossed away and for many people, this is it,” says Carol Cameron, a member of WHEEL and chairperson of the Homeless Remembrance Project Committee. “We saw this vision, this need for a place of remembrance for homeless people.”
The installation of the Tree of Life gathering place this fall will mark the culmination of the Homeless Remembrance Project’s nine-year struggle with city departments, commissions, and fundraising, the paperwork vestiges of which fill a tower of cardboard boxes in the WHEEL office.
It’s not difficult for most people to accept funerals as a basic human dignity, but when personal memorials enter the public sphere the issue becomes more complicated. Take the case of roadside memorials commemorating the victims of drunk driving, the spontaneous appearance of which has led 23 states to adopt official policies regarding their requirements and removal. Washington state has a DUI sign program that requires a formal application process before a permanent, state-sanctioned sign may be placed.
Had the Homeless Remembrance Project chosen to erect temporary structures or to place their memorials and gathering place on privately owned land — in the yard of a church, say, or on the grounds of a local shelter — they might have easily completed an installation within as little as several months. But homelessness is a public problem that throws people's live into extreme instability. The group knew that if their project was to have the desired impact, it had to be both permanent and public.
The project committee narrowed the locations down to a list of 10, and Victor Steinbrueck Park — recommended to the group by his son, Peter Steinbrueck, a City Council member at the time — was the homeless community’s overwhelming choice. In 2006, after receiving a resolution of support from the City Council, the group eventually won the approval of the parks department under the condition that “it may not include the names of the dead, as this would create a ‘cemetery feeling’ that parks cannot accept.”
The group understood the city’s stipulation, but was unwilling to give up the recognition of individual names that had been the driving force behind the project. “It’s a person’s name, it’s what left,” says Cameron of the Homeless Remembrance Project. “And it’s something physical that you can reach out and touch and trace the letters. And I think everyone deserves something like that, whether or not they’re homeless.”
Unable to evoke the names on the park grounds and facing other city regulations, artist Clark Wiegman — along with fellow design team members Karen Kiest and Kim Lokan — eventually came up with the concept of a rooted tree sculpture, with lost leaves scattered across the city. “The leaves would be our ability to memorialize and commemorate individuals and also to spread the message so it was something that was really in the fabric of the city,” says Wiegman.
Wiegman’s concept ultimately underwent three re-designs to meet the criteria of the Market Historical Commission. Nonetheless, in 2009 the commission unanimously rejected the Homeless Remembrance Project's proposal for a certificate of approval — a type of decision that is rarely overturned. But despite the commission’s claims, the group knew that everything in their design — from the proposed landscaping to the building materials — was in keeping with the original design of the park. In 2010, with the help of attorney G. Richard Hill, they won the impossible verdict: The Historical Commission’s rejection was overturned and the Tree of Life would go forward after all.
The success of the project in the face of seemingly endless bureaucracy is a testament both to the organization’s determination and both the city and community’s support. “Even people who were kind of obstructionist would all say, ‘This is very moving,' " says the Rev. Pat Simpson, a United Methodist minister formerly at the Church of Mary Magdalene. “It has touched people’s hearts.”
The Tree of Life is made up of two bronze, petal-like structures, riddled with cutouts that are smaller in size but otherwise identical to the bronze maple leaves scattered on sidewalks throughout the city. Michele Marchand, WHEEL organizer for the Homeless Remembrance Project, says that if you focus on the statue’s negative space you’ll see the outline of another tree, leaves tumbling to the ground. The structure bends toward the totem poles looking out over Puget Sound and rises out of a round glass plaza through which the park’s original landscape is visible underneath. A network of roots that glows green at night reaches down from the tree and extends under the glass, emphasizing connection and rootedness.
“It’s not just for the homeless community, it’s a thing of beauty for the city of Seattle, housed and homeless alike,” says Cameron.
Wiegman’s design calls to mind a host of images — dragonfly wings, the skeletons of decomposing leaves, a whale’s fluke. Wiegman says he also considered the image of a pair of caring hands, or two tattered sails: “There’s that idea of the migratory experience that the homeless deal with every day and in their lives.”
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