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.”
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