Cemeteries have always interested Shirley Penna-Oakes, past president of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society.
“I learned to drive in one,” she said. “That’s where my boyfriend at the time taught me. He figured at least I wouldn’t kill anyone.”
From that early not-too-reverent experience she came to love the art and architecture of headstones and the history contained in cemeteries. On one cross-country driving trip, she shot 37 rolls of film at cemeteries just to document the beauty she saw there.
So when she attended a cemetery walking tour conducted by reenactors a number of years ago, she thought that would be a perfect thing to do in Spokane. In commemoration of its 75th anniversary, the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society is inviting the public to a free Walking with Ancestors tour and barbecue at Fairmount Memorial Park this Saturday.
When preparing for the event, put on in cooperation with the Fairmount Memorial Association, Penna-Oakes walked through Fairmount and selected headstones at random to feature. It wasn’t a goal to select graves of Spokane’s famous people – just a cross-section of those who lived and died here before the 1920s, she said: “all sorts of people who helped build this community.”
More than 18 people will be dressed in period costumes and located at gravestones throughout the cemetery to tell the stories of the people buried at those sites. The reenactors will be EWGS members and friends, all of whom researched the persons and families they will be portraying. Even the emergency medical technician who will be on hand for the event will be dressed in period attire and toting a physician’s black bag.
“Everybody really does have a story,” said Duane Broyles, president of the Fairmount Memorial Association. “We want to help people understand that the dash between the birth and death dates on the headstone means something. There’s a life that’s lived, and we sometimes forget to tell those stories.”
One of those stories being told on Saturday is that of Christina Ellis Merriam. Born in 1847, she was the only one of seven siblings to leave their native Maine, settling with her husband Norman Merriam in Lincoln County. EWGS member Carol Nettles will speak of the Merriam family during the tour. “I will speak about them as if I were her,” Nettles said. “I have been able to research the family, including the Merriam brothers, including one who was instrumental in founding St. Luke’s Hospital and the Washington State Medical Association.”
At the Rock Chapel on the cemetery grounds, the genealogical society will conduct classes on getting started in genealogy, headstone photography, stone rubbing, cleaning headstones and the meaning and architecture of headstones. Penna-Oakes said there will be a display area where the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution and First Michigan Artillery (in costume and with cannon) will be present. Honor Flight will also be on hand to register living and deceased World War II veterans to help create a registry.
Walking with Ancestors tours take place 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 1:30-3 p.m., starting from the Rock Chapel. From 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Fairmount is providing a free barbecue for attendees. Penna-Oakes said she hopes this event will become a tradition in Spokane.