Story & Photos by Scott Schaefer

Welcome to Dia de los Muertos de Burien – The B-Town Blog’s “Day of the Dead” tribute to Burien’s earliest, and sadly, mostly forgotten settlers, who are buried in a place most residents don’t even know exists.
This is the story of the area’s oldest graveyard, a private, historic and rundown place on South 200th called Hillgrove Cemetery.
You won’t find Hillgrove on many maps, because, like its 360 residents, it’s no longer living. It’s private, it’s fenced off, yet once you look at the chain link barrier and barbed wire, it’s obvious that people find ways to get in to do whatever living people do in graveyards full of dead strangers.
We too found our way into Hillgrove recently (how could we not this time of year?), and despite forgetting to wear boots (my Chuck Taylors got soaked but oddly, I didn’t care since I was too busy taking pics) yet managing to be very careful and respectful, took numerous photographs, which we built into a “Sound Slideshow” to a public domain song from 1910, the era when this site was in its heyday.
But before we present our photographic and audio tribute, we’d like to share our personal observations of Hillgrove:
It was a sad place, and not just because it was full of dead bodies – it’s in disrepair, with missing, crooked and broken tombstones, years of neglect and evidence of vandalism.

The oldest grave we found was from 1890.

Historic, old graves with unique stone markers ranging from the earliest burial (at least that we saw) in 1890 to the most recent in 2005. Some tombstones have been restored, while many are clearly without any markings (several we discovered only by stepping into indentations in the grass).
Here’s some info on it courtesy Highline Historical Society Executive Director Cyndi Upthegrove:

Hillgrove Cemetery is owned by the Hillgrove Cemetery Association, comprised of the remaining families that own the property. I don’t believe anyone famous is buried there, but a large number of local pioneer families are. It is in disrepair because the people that remain of those families are quite elderly and cannot physically maintain it themselves, and the city of SeaTac and the Port won’t maintain it because it isn’t theirs. SeaTac has occasionally mowed for them and helped to build a retaining wall at the left entrance when the bank slumped one time and remains started spilling out.
From what I understand, there are about 360 souls there. They consist of veterans from both the North and the South from the Civil War, the Spanish American War, both WWI and WWII, Korea and the first Iraq War. Their extended families are also buried there.
About 12 years ago a teacher at Highline HS teaching at-risk students taught a local history class and they really responded to it. These were very bright students “at risk” of dropping out. So she took them over to the cemetery to show it to them and they told her, “We know about this place. We come over here to drink.” Together with her, the Society acquired a grant to pay for her project. So she got them to clean it up as a class project. They dug up buried headstones, mowed, learned about the people buried there, mapped it and tended it for a couple of years. After they had invested so much time and care into it, they wouldn’t let anyone else go in there and mess with it.

The most recent, from 2005.

Then they graduated and moved on, and she quit teaching that class and things kind of reverted to how they were. We have retained some of the records and the Association has the rest.
Recently a paranormal investigation group contacted me to see if they could go in and look for ghosts. I referred them to the Association and I think they did some kind of investigation there, but we weren’t given their results. Occasionally a Boy Scout will work there building benches, or mowing and grooming the place as an Eagle Scout project.
We did several bus tours of “The historic sites of Highline” a few years ago and Hillgrove was a stop on the tour. People found it very interesting. I have always wished that we could engage the various cities and veterans groups to hold their Memorial and Veteran’s Day commemorations there rather than in schools and community centers, but other heads prevail.
I have always wished I had the funding for the Society to take care of the place for the community, but I don’t.

Walking around a decaying graveyard isn’t really creepy, or new to us – in college we used to visit one that was near our house, and this Reporter has always been fascinated with the dead and how the living treat them. Especially Hispanic culture and their “Day of the Dead” festivities, which involve spending the night in graveyards, setting up elaborate altars, offering food, wearing bizarre (and to me, really cool) costumes, and believing that, for one night on Nov. 2nd, their dearly departed dead relatives and loved ones come back and visit with them.
With those sentiments in mind, here’s our “SoundSlideshow” tribute to Hillgrove Cemetery and the historic people who are buried there, may they Rest In Peace (crank up your speakers!):

Click to Play
Click to Play Scott Schaefer’s SoundSlideshow

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7 replies on “SLIDESHOW: Celebrate Dia de los Muertos at a Local, Historic Graveyard”

  1. Scott, this is a great piece. I drive past this place frequently and have never given it any thought. Thanks for all the work you put into telling the story and putting it to exactly the right music (though In Memory of Elizabeth Reed came immediately to my aged mind). And thanks, Cyndi, for sharing so much of the backstory. I would be really interested to read what those earlier students found out about the people and families connected to that cemetery–maybe some current students would be willing to take that research and write it up for the B-Town Blog? Could the site be restored and maintained through the donated time, sweat, and supplies from a lot of community volunteers and local businesses? If so, I bet volunteers could be mobilized to take on the repairs and to sustain the maintenance if we had some overarching coordination…?

  2. Neat slideshow. I never knew this cemetery existed. It would be interesting to see the research that was done about its residents.

  3. Thank you for posting the information about Hillgrove Cemetery, Scott. Since we talked several years ago and you kept my remarks, the Hillgrove Cemetery Association has given their records to the Des Moines Historical Society and the DMHS has aagreed to tend the site and take care of it. From your story they apparently haven’t had the opportunity to do much yet, but I am sure they would like to. Our Society doesn’t have enough hands to take on the care of the cemetery. I would hate to see it fall further into disrepair. Perhaps interested viewers can contact Des Moines and encourage them. The site isn’t open without an appointment. Otherwise you are tresspassing on private property.

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