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Landmarks: Historic Woodlawn Cemetery revitalized

Thu., Nov. 8, 2012

Improvements made to Woodlawn Cemetery in Spokane Valley include a new entry gate and central bench/columbarium. (Kathy Plonka)
Improvements made to Woodlawn Cemetery in Spokane Valley include a new entry gate and central bench/columbarium. (Kathy Plonka)

There is a 2-acre graveyard at Eighth Avenue and Thierman Road in the Edgecliff neighborhood in Spokane Valley that was overgrown and neglected, kind of a neighborhood eyesore, at least until neighbors took notice. And what a difference that began to make.

In 1997, area resident Wendie Kiourkas walked by with her sister and thought that those who were buried there deserved more respect. She headed a cemetery restoration project and began researching who was buried there – discovering unmarked graves, incomplete listings (Baby Dishman 1909) and many occupied graves with no record of who was buried there.

The cemetery was not unlike many other community cemeteries in the county. Here’s a little background: In the mid-1900s, only Spokane and Whatcom counties still had townships. When citizens voted in 1974 to dissolve the townships, the Legislature cut off taxing power to these small government entities, leaving the 50 or so rural townships in Spokane County without revenue sources. The graveyards they operated were then taken over by cemetery districts, cemetery associations or neighbors. It was estimated at the time that as many as 30 cemeteries were inherited by Spokane County.

But there was no inventory, and county commissioners at the time stated that researching cemeteries was a low priority, considering everything else that needed to be done. So, many of them languished.

Woodlawn Cemetery, originally known as Englewood Cemetery, predates statehood. It was established in 1888 by the Southern Methodist Church, with burials first recorded in 1889. Burials ceased there in 1968. It is believed that some Spokane pioneers are buried there, as are many infants (a number of whom are unnamed) and those identified by their relationships (A. West wife). Early records show that a fence and many wooden markers were destroyed by fire, and that the East Spokane Home Economics Club restored some lost markers, replacing them with small cement markers “flush with the ground, containing names but no dates.”

When Kiourkas and neighbors, including Sally Hodl, began cemetery restoration work, they quickly received help – a Boy Scout troop cleared the initial overgrowth and Edgecliff SCOPE volunteers built crosses to mark the 112 known graves. They also successfully lobbied then county Commissioner Kate McCaslin for a water spigot at the site.

In the late 1990s, Duane Broyles, who at the time was general manager of the Fairmount Memorial Association, began a conversation with county commissioners about adopting small cemeteries like Woodlawn. He said, “I don’t know how receptive other operators in the county would be to take on something like this, but we have a pretty strong community interest in saving these cemeteries.” He and a cemetery design consultant walked through Woodlawn with Kiourkas, and they agreed that it should remain a reflection of the neighborhood and have its own identity.

And so in July 2000, the Spokane County Commission voted to transfer ownership of Woodlawn to Fairmount. Broyles said it would likely cost the nonprofit group $800,000 to restore the cemetery completely. He said that once it was fully renovated, it would likely be able to hold 2,400 burial sites and more for cremated remains.

Over the next few years sidewalks were put in, a wrought iron gate and fence erected at the Eighth Avenue entrance, a butterfly garden established just inside the gate, an irrigation system installed, local section hubs placed for grave location and one columbarium constructed adjacent to the central patio (with three more to come). The cemetery is being revitalized – though not made modern in appearance, per the wishes of the community – and it is functioning again as a community cemetery.

Hodl was one of the prime movers and shakers who helped begin the process of breathing new life into this neglected cemetery. When she was hard at work at it, she said she hoped to be buried there herself one day. She was 67 when she died of cancer on Christmas Day 2003, and her remains were placed in a memorial bench at the center of the patio a little to the south of Woodlawn’s entry gate.

There are now three to eight services and interments held annually at the restored Woodlawn Cemetery. How fitting that Hodl’s was the first.

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