This Memorial Day, Viv and I walked up to the least-known military cemetery in central Seattle, the Grand Army of the Republic cemetery just beyond the north end of Lakeview Cemetery, to the north of Volunteer Park, overlooking Montlake and Portage Bay.

The small cemetery went through a period of extreme neglect, which it’s recovering from. RootsWeb offers a database of the interred, although it’s noted to be a work in progress. A community group, the Friends of the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery Park, has spearheaded the restoration effort.

The first time we stumbled into the park, several years ago, walking among the graves was a deeply puzzling experience. Many stones were practically illegible, and many bore severe scars from hurried, clumsy power mowing, blades lopping off large chunks of blackened, acidified marble. The gaping scars revealed the original beauty of the stones, gleaming white contrasting with the dark, mottled greys and blacks of the aged and neglected monuments. Walking along the rows of closely spaced graves was unsettling in many ways, because it was apparent that the coffins below the soil had largely rotted away, and as one stepped upon a grave, it was quite spooky to feel the soil shift and collapse downward.

Most of the stones were obscured though weathering and overgrowth. Today, the overgrowth is gone, and there are clear signs of regular visitors. The inscriptions remain difficult to make out. There are four clear periods of design visible among the stones. The earliest are elaborate monuments now laid into the soil, often obelisks in form. The next period is represented by low, marble stones carrying a shield embossing dating between 1880 and 1920, more or less. Following that are small, simple concrete stones carrying a name below the letters G. A. R., generally dating between 1920 and 1950. After that time, a mix of flat stones, some in a contemporary military style and some in the style of flat family headstones from any contemporary cemetery are apparent.

When we first wandered into the cemetery, I was quite puzzled. This was clearly a military cemetery that had nearly been abandoned, something which surprised me. What war did it commemorate? Perhaps the Spanish American War, given the provenance of Volunteer Park’s name?

The dominant obelisk in the small cemetery answered my question. GAR Cemetery Park is a Civil War veterans cemetery.

Among the flat, contemporary headstones is that of a Medal of Honor winner (page search that link for Frank E. Bois). Interestingly, Bois was an emigrant from Canada. His grave was rededicated in late May, 2001.

On this Memorial Day, I found two other interred who had served in Indiana companies. While we were there, a woman was intensively gardening near the large obelisk. Three other people came and wandered around as we were there, one leaving several freshly cut roses on many graves throughout the cemetery.

We’d brought no flowers, but the cemetery is shaded by towering white oaks, the golden leaves of which have been used as garlands to symbolize honor, wisdom and valor in both American military decorations and elsewhere. I found one or two stems of these leaves and placed them on graves. In other parts of the cemetery, the stones are partially covered with crushed acorns and acorn caps. The tree was widely planted in the parts of Indiana I lived in as a child and being near them, smelling them, is a deep-seated sensory experience for me which increases the reflective experience of visiting a cemetery.

3 thoughts on “Memorial

  1. good one. many many a time we spent a sat. or sunday in one or another graveyard eating a picnic lunch (both of my grand fathers died in the 1940’s so they were mostly the ones we were going to see..oddly I had never met them of course..but was instilled with a lesson of how important they had been…or at least how much they were missed by my folks.) naturally we often ate the picnic around the “military” areas they usually had a bench and a cannon or somesuch…one cemetary we went to had a tank even! what fun for a tot! also I remember we would go there on memorial day so your post really brings that back. as for the oak leaf thing, do you know specifically where that one originated? because I have actually wondered about that one, although not enough to research it…I always wondered why we had the oak leaves and also the germans had the Iron Cross first class with oak leaves, crossed swords, and blah blah….I figured we were both barrowing from the french!! or maybe the english? is the symbolism a age of enlightenment/empire area? or is it masonic, like so much of our national symbolism? or does it simply go back to pagan times…or all three… or what.

  2. Good question regarding the oak leaves, Matt. the symbology of the acorn is very old, going back (I think) to Rome. However, I don’t think they used oak leaves, but laurel and (maybe?) acanthus, both borrowed from the Greeks.

    Holly, if you see this, were oak leaves used in garlanding in the Middle Ages? Do you know the symbolic etymology? Doesn’t oak figure in druidic lore, at least in theory?

    If it is derived from that, I’d expect the iconography to date to the Enlightenment, as a part of the reinvention of pre-christian European tradition that accompanied the rise of the idea of nationalism.

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