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Overgrown and forgotten, Tacoma cemetery holds a mystery: thousands of unmarked graves

Overgrown and forgotten, Tacoma cemetery holds a mystery: thousands of unmarked graves
Funeral director Bill Habermann inspects a headstone in a pauper's cemetery in Tacoma, Wash. He said the grave belongs to O. Yungstrom, who was buried in 1888. (David Montesino / News Tribune)

As a funeral director, Bill Habermann doesn't believe in bury and forget. In particular, he wants those who died anonymously to be remembered in the afterlife  if not by friends and relatives, at least by the written record.

To have lived a life but died as an unknown is close to having never existed at all. Which is why the 79-year-old Habermann, an easygoing, gray-haired former grade school teacher, found himself climbing over a fence one day into an old, closed graveyard and taking pictures of the headstones.

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He posted the pictures to findagrave.com to help anyone searching for long-departed kin. He also was interested in knowing who else might be buried in the neglected cemetery in South Tacoma, Wash., a 2-acre field of burial for the nameless and indigent that dates back to the 1880s.

Word was, there were as many as 200 Tacoma residents buried at "County," as the Pierce County-run graveyard was known around the turn of the 20th century. Some of the dead were said to be stacked on top of each other in single, unmarked graves.

A headstone for Harman Hanson tilts to the side at a pauper's cemetery in Tacoma, Wash., on Wednesday, July 20, 2016. The marker dates to 1891.
A headstone for Harman Hanson tilts to the side at a pauper's cemetery in Tacoma, Wash., on Wednesday, July 20, 2016. The marker dates to 1891. (David Montesino / News Tribune)

It seemed shameful to Habermann, and the practice turned him into a part-time grave-name digger. Now, after six years of painstaking record searches, Habermann has come up with a precise  and exceptionally larger  tally.

"As of today," he said Tuesday "there are 1,610 people buried there that I've identified. I estimate there's at least 500 more. So it's easily over 2,000."

That was news to many readers of the News Tribune of Tacoma and, for that matter, to its executive editor, Karen Peterson. She says she got a tip about the old cemetery in June from a former Tacoma police sergeant. It was so intriguing that, rather than pass it along to a reporter, she kept the story for herself.

"Sometimes it's good to be the editor," she wrote in a Sunday column. Besides the enticing genealogy aspects of the story, there was "the thrill of investigating a good mystery."

Peterson went through old newspaper files, historical records and interviewed local historians. But finding Habermann, the funeral director at Piper-Morley Funeral Home a short sprint from the graveyard, turned out to be the needed breakthrough.

With no county records available  they are rumored to have been lost in a fire  Habermann has been going through death records, news reports, funeral ledgers and assorted genealogical lists since 2010, attempting to put names to the buried and determine how many there are in the overgrown graveyard.

Bill Habermann, the funeral director at Piper-Morley Funeral Home, walks the two-acre lot of an unattended Tacoma, Wash., graveyard. Habermann says at least 2,000 people are buried there.
Bill Habermann, the funeral director at Piper-Morley Funeral Home, walks the two-acre lot of an unattended Tacoma, Wash., graveyard. Habermann says at least 2,000 people are buried there. (David Montesino / News Tribune)

In a lengthy story in the Sunday paper, Habermann told Peterson that putting names to graves "gives me something to do" when he's not taking calls at the funeral home. But he also noted the importance of "putting this [data] down on paper so it isn't lost forever."

Habermann has assembled three thick binders that bring the forgotten back to life.

When they last spoke, Habermann told the editor he had dug up (figuratively, of course) 1,601 names. He has found nine more since then, he said Tuesday.

"I went back over my records just to double-check, and it turned out I had missed a few." They are now among the 6,000-plus names that are posted, almost all by Habermann, on findagrave's Tacoma pauper's list. (His 1,610 entries each carry his name as the poster).

The graves are, for the most part, unmarked and clustered amid a grassy hill and dale next to the still-active Tacoma Cemetery. The site is surrounded by residential housing and the commercial strip of nearby South Tacoma Way, a short distance from the bustling Tacoma Mall.

The dead were buried two or three to a grave, with only 18 markers left atop in what looks like a mostly barren, overgrown field. At times, during early-century epidemics such as typhoid, the bodies were stacked as many as four deep.

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On a rotating basis, the county paid four funeral homes $4.50 for each burial. (During epidemics, the price rose to $10 a burial in part because death workers had to work quickly and handle diseased victims).

The unattended site seems to have a history of neglect, Peterson learned during her research while reading a story from 1901 printed in the Spectator, a weekly newspaper in Tacoma.

"For fifteen years," the story said, "this small tract has been set apart by the county as a burial place for paupers and penniless persons whose relatives could not be located, and yet it is safe to say that there are many among the oldest residents of Tacoma who do not know of its location, even at this late day."

The story lamented the "tangled shrubbery and mounds of earth, bare and unshapely" covering those "who lay down the burden of life and left behind no record of their existence."

Peterson found details on some of them. Carl William Alex Gildenmeister, a sailor born in Prussia, drowned on the waterfront in 1900. Hannah Flodburg, 33, born in Sweden, died in 1891, the day before "infant boy Flodburg," who also is buried there.

Two were robbers killed in a gunfight, she found, and one was a logger who fell off a train. Others died of tuberculosis or old age. Some felt they couldn't live any longer. In 1913, the Tacoma Times reported that Joseph Will Turner, a 30-year-old laborer, committed suicide over the loss of his lucky rabbit's foot.

"Friends of the dead said today that Turner had lost his 'charm' and that his superstitious fear of bad luck was greater than his fear of death," the story said. He died by asphyxiation "in a shack behind the Maple Leaf saloon."

The fenced-off former county site is now owned by the nearby Tacoma Cemetery, whose spokesperson said it has no plans to reuse that property "at this point."

Habermann suspects the site could become a working graveyard again with the newly dead put atop the old, burying them deeper in history and neglect. A state cemetery office official told him that a graveyard can be covered over 100 years after its last burial.

"I don't know if I should worry too much about that," Habermann said Tuesday. "The 100-year mark is about 2028. I'll probably be dead then myself. But I'm taking my vitamins every day anyway."

Anderson is a special correspondent.

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