Everett’s Evergreen Cemetery
by Melinda Van Wingen
Everett, the “City of Smokestacks,” was once home to dozens of pulp, paper, shingle, and lumber mills. The milltown culture died off by the late 20th century. Buoyed instead by a 1960s Boeing boom, businesses left the compact North Everett peninsula for the sprawling potential of South Everett.
“When I was growing up, the cemetery wasn’t on the main drag from Fairbanks to Mexico City. That was Rucker Avenue,” says Gary Griffith, an 82-year-old Everett native, whose family is buried there.
Griffith says 41st Street was just a footpath in the early days. Today, it’s a busy strip of fast food restaurants and a freeway interchange along the cemetery’s northern boundary. A stretch of I-5, which opened in 1965, presses up against the cemetery’s eastern edge. Thousands of cars zoom past the cemetery daily. It’s buffered by a single lane of Old Broadway.
A lychgate at the cemetery’s northeastern-most corner is positioned near the freeway on-ramp. The gazebo-like structure once hosted pallbearers and coffins awaiting funerary processions. Now it quaintly reminds drivers of a bygone era. A line of giant sequoias along Broadway edges the cemetery. The trees are like bodyguards, strong spines erect, providing privacy for the 60,000 souls slumbering within.
Inside the cemetery, a curvaceous labyrinth of driveways and footpaths winds around the cemetery’s steep hills, which are freckled by a random scattering of tombstones and trees. Perched high on a bluff along the northern boundary, a granite pyramid resembling a Mayan temple bursts 30 feet into the air. This, the Rucker Tomb, hints at the tensions between Everett’s past and present.
The pyramid is not standard for a city like Everett, says local historian Jack O’Donnell. Comparable city cemeteries contain simple, modest memorials. It’s part of what makes Evergreen Cemetery so special to O’Donnell, who admits to climbing the pyramid as a teen. Wyatt and Bethel Rucker, early Everett investors with the Everett Land Company, built the iconic memorial for their mother in 1909. With a chapel, 22 polished granite crypts, and art glass windows, the pyramid is as much a testament to maternal affection as it is to the hubris of early Everett investors. It reminds visitors that Everett once teemed with pride and prosperity. The field of modest moss- and lichen-encrusted gravestones around the pyramid subtly testify to the hardship and humility that also defined early Everett.
The Rucker Tomb offers a wide vista of both the Cascade Mountains and the freeway, whose constant din ensures it is never fully quiet here. Everett Memorial Stadium, where Ken Griffey Jr. hit his first homer, is visible. So too is the bland 1980s architecture of the former GTE phone company, and a McDonald’s.
Despite the changing urban environment around Evergreen Cemetery, its appeal lays in its natural beauty and heritage resources. “Evergreen Cemetery outclassed anything else in town,” says O’Donnell.
“It’s a Disneyland of real antiquity. Because in Everett, 1898 is ancient for us,” says David Dilgard, a city historian. Dilgard leads walking tours of Evergreen Cemetery.
Dilgard’s tour meanders over soggy terrain to monuments illustrating the city’s triumphs and tragedies. Senator Henry M. Jackson, Governor Mon Wallgren, Civil War veterans, victims of the 1910 Wellington Avalanche disaster, early mayors, teachers, photographers, and shopkeepers are included. So too are the graves of a man buried with his sofa, the severed arm of a child, and a great-great-great grandmother of Barack Obama. His tour provides “little glimpses of Ye Old Curiousity Shoppe, the stuff that makes history sweeter.”
Together, these stories weave a rich tapestry of complex economic and political events, moments of national significance, and lighter fare to preserve the city’s local character and inspire civic pride.
Evergreen Cemetery is still a working cemetery. The Russian section on the western edge is a sea of shiny new tombstones engraved with faces, a macabre group portrait. It’s indicative of recent immigration and ethnic change in the community. Here there are graves so fresh that the earth hasn’t yet healed, big bouquets of colorful flowers burst with life, and canopies await another wave of mourners.
Service Corporation International, a publicly traded company, acquired Evergreen Cemetery in 2006. SCI operates the cemetery under its “Dignity Memorial” network of 1,800 cemeteries and funeral homes nationwide.
Everett once bustled with robust industries that have long since faded and folded. It now relies on Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, to provide jobs, revenue, and a manufacturing base. Similarly, Everett relies on SCI, based in Houston, to preserve and protect the cemetery’s unique heritage resources, like the Rucker Tomb. South Everett is an amorphous sprawl of national chain stores, car dealerships, and strip mall restaurants, but historically significant architectural gems and local businesses still dot the landscape of North Everett. The city is a battleground in the national war between national corporations and local communities. Not even Evergreen Cemetery is exempt from battle.
It may be SCI’s cemetery now, but it still belongs to people like Jack O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s mother-in-law suffered from macular degeneration, but she saw the picturesque lychgate in her peripheral vision from the freeway. “That’s Jack’s cemetery!” she always exclaimed. O’Donnell chuckles when he tells this story, but acknowledges its deeper truth. Long-time Everett residents must grapple with the ways mass culture has crept into their sacred spaces.
“It’s still the place to be buried,” says O’Donnell, who hopes to spend eternity at Evergreen Cemetery.
Like death itself, Evergreen Cemetery offers solace and sense of permanence for a changing community.
“Who knows when the last smokestack will be torn down,” says Dilgard. “ I’ll put my money on the pyramid being there next week.”