Under the mortuary

If you’re in a hurry to be entertained, go away. This is a pretty good story–well, reasonably good, anyway. But to get the good out of it, you can’t rush it. I’m certainly not going to rush it. Darkness and fear are waiting to pounce; but that part comes later. Are you still reading this? Well, let’s get started then.

Historical Duwamish River estuary.

A broad, busy road descends a gentle hill not far from my house. A hundred years ago, this was the south edge of Seattle. When people living here looked out their back doors they saw pastures, cropland and patches of woods sloping down to Puget Sound, an inland sea thronging with steam ferries, lumber schooners and China clippers. Streetcars clanged and clattered up the hill from the wooden causeway that crossed the Duwamish River estuary. At that time it was a marsh; and Harbor Island, which started as a mound of tossed ballast, hadn’t yet emerged.

IMG_5223On the east corner of a particular block of this hill a little country gas station survived, a misfit in modern Seattle. Its garage wasn’t the standardized franchise cube you see everywhere today. Despite one rather daring angular wall, it looked very home-made–the sort of thing your carpenter buddy might draw for you on a napkin in a bar, and then stake out on his way home while he was still buzzed. Its plywood siding was pierced by growing tumors of decay. All sides except the one facing the gas pumps nourished a banner crop of dandelions and garbage. The garage had grown a second story, as evidenced by exterior stairs. Here was an unpleasant apartment, perhaps inhabited by the station’s owner. It must have been hotter on any decent day than anybody could want, thanks to its southern exposure and flat tar-paper roof.

West of the gas station stood a small funeral home, crudely referred to as a mortuary. By the 21st century, the debris sandwiched between these enterprises was astonishing. We will return to the mortuary in a moment. IMG_5226Moving quickly on, the west corner of the block was occupied by a narrow, asphalt-covered parking lot. A large plywood sign dominated the street end of the lot. It boasted that this was the headquarters of Automobile Purchase Problem Solving Systems Incorporated, or some similar title meaning that, if you were the sort of person whose circumstances had denied him both the acquisition of enough money to buy a used car, and sufficient credit to borrow enough money to buy such a car, then this was the place for you. At the back of the lot, a small portable building enhanced by a wide wooden porch presided over the business. Larger and more prosperous car dealers might have referred their unsuitable customers here. Every appearance suggested that solving the car-buying problems of the financially impaired hadn’t started out as a lucrative business, and that business hadn’t improved.

Between the gas station and the used car lot stood a little mortuary (and now you’re probably thinking “It’s about time!”). An awning extended from its front door to the public sidewalk to offer a brief respite from Seattle’s “liquid sunshine.” This was flanked by two postage-stamp-sized lawns. In happier times they were always quite green, even after the Water Department began seasonal surcharges and brown became the new green. And they were always neatly mowed and edged. A low cement porch introduced the mortuary’s foyer, which was day-lit by two curving walls of glass brick.

Clearly, the little mortuary aspired to a better class than that of its neighbors. Its west side, however, differed from the front, as if it were an afterthought in a time of more limited means. This kludgy addition contained a furnace. It had an external door, reminding me of the gas station’s external stairs. I wonder if they engaged the same carpenter–one who wouldn’t alter a building any more than he could avoid, and who liked plywood.

This is how things stood in 2006. Shortly afterward, these three businesses failed or moved away during the Great Recession. They were ready. Like rotten fruit, they were just waiting for the right sort of storm to cast them down to where they could complete their destruction in a way that would fertilize newer, more profitable growth. Today, the gas station is boarded up, its pumps removed, and its grounds covered with straw to sop up decades of oil. Weeds are breaking up the asphalt of the used car lot; and its little office is dark, tho its boastful sign remains. The long black hearse that once haunted the back lot of the mortuary has disappeared; the little lawns are straw, and this building too is boarded up.

My informant, whom I will call Wiggins (forgive me for being vague in parts of this account; but it seems necessary to maintain some semblance of discretion) told me that, long ago, a man I’ll call Jones had fallen in love with the daughter of Smith, a funeral director in Georgetown. The couple married and left Smith’s territory to open a new funeral parlor. They named it the Smith-Jones Funeral Home, even tho Jones was the real operator. Perhaps Smith had a local following, and he lent his name to his son-in-law’s enterprise to encourage its success. Or perhaps Smith had the bigger stake in it.

In his youth, Wiggins was employed by Jones, chiefly to answer the telephone when it wasn’t convenient for Jones to do so. People die at all hours, without a thought for the convenience of others. And telephone answering machines weren’t very common then. Later, after Wiggins had moved on to a more promising career, he became quite disabled. He looked back on his days at Smith-Jones with nostalgia if not affection.

For years, I’ve been photographing dilapidated buildings and industrial sites. I don’t know why I like them. But it turns out that other people do this too; they call it “urban exploration” (UE) or sometimes “recreational trespassing.” The ruins of Detroit’s automobile factories are popular UE subjects. Seattle is too new, small and fortunate to have very good ruins; none is on the scale of Detroit’s. My partner TR and I had visited a fine abandoned cement factory on Harbor Island and a wonderful disused barracks, and were starting in on Seattle’s humbler ruins when we came to consider the mortuary.

I’d met Wiggins some time ago, in circumstances about which I’ll say no more. I’d been telling him about our explorations. He encouraged me to visit the mortuary. “There’s an entrance that most people wouldn’t recognize; so I doubt that it’s boarded up,” he said. “Think of artesian wells.”

An artesian well is one in which the water rises up of its own accord, due to internal pressure. Intrigued, I visited the mortuary. It was fenced off with sections of hurricane fence whose legs were set in blocks of cement. UE’ers know that this sort of barrier only looks enough like a real fence to discourage the idly curious. And these particular fences only blocked access from the street and the alley–not from the used car lot, which was not fenced. (Well, not very much. A hurricane fence had been built along the alley, but later pillaged of most of its posts and wire screens, leaving the post-tops to be slid along the top rail like the beads of an abacus.)

I scouted the mortuary, and noted:

  • North side; front door, boarded up.
  • West side; one door, locked.  A paper sign tacked to it explained that the funeral home had moved, and gave its new address.  I wrote it down; you can find out a lot about a property on the Internet with its address.  A man driving down the road had stopped his car to watch me.  When he saw me turn away with my notes, he seemed satisfied and drove on.
  • South side; furnace room door; locked. A grille in the bottom of the door had been kicked in and might be crawled thru. But Wiggins had advised that there was no way from the furnace room to the rest of the building (thus the external door). I stuck my camera in and took some pictures that were very discouraging. Next came a storage box; then a raised porch, where double doors once admitted coffins. These were boarded up. Cement steps led from the east end of the porch to the door of a venerable trailer home that seemed to be paying an extended visit.
  • East side; no doors, only the trailer, an overstuffed armchair and mounds of trash.

IMG_5373I consulted Wiggins. He guessed that the trailer was full of old paperwork, possibly interesting but certainly unattainable. He elaborated on his “artesian well” hint, telling me there was a cellar of sorts. He and Jones had sometimes entered the building this way, perhaps when one of them had forgotten his key. He recalled that the cellar sometimes filled with water; this was why he’d called it an artesian well. He thought the flooding might have been caused by over-watering the front lawn.

I revisited the mortuary and looked more closely at its south side. The plywood box that I’d thought was for storage had a hinged lid. I lifted it and peered in; wooden rungs descended a dark shaft. Found it!

But what to do at the bottom of the ladder? I went back to Wiggins; but he couldn’t remember how to get up into the building from inside the cellar. We’d have to wing that part.

casketA block of condos has a view of the back of the mortuary. So, in hopes of not being noticed, TR and I met as early as we could manage one morning to try to get inside it. The shaft was going to be a tight fit, so I packed light; a fanny pack for flashlights and stuff, my tripod slung across my shoulders, and my larger camera in its nest on a shoulder strap.

TR was nervous. “I have to confess I’m a bit anxious about this one. I’m afraid I’ll see something gross.”

“I read that the business moved south,” I told him; “So I think it took all its accouterments away.”

“Or ghosts,” he went on. “But that makes no sense. They’d want to haunt the place where they were killed, or haunt their former homes.”

“A mortuary might be a socializing spot for ghosts,” I reasoned. “A couple of ghosts might see each other there, and then return to see if they could meet up again. Like a singles bar.” I was just trying to be entertaining.  As an atheist I knew there’d be no ghosts. “I’m more worried that there’ll be a homeless guy sleeping in there. Or that bulldozers will come and start chomping on the building while we’re inside.” What I didn’t say; it was going to be damn dark and constricted down there, with a crumbling old building over our heads.

The night before, I’d suggested a plan. I’d go down the ladder first, because I have a headlamp. I’d check the rungs and the depth of any water, and then light TR down with my flashlight. But this morning he insisted on going first. “I have a headlamp too. And if the rungs break, I’ll heal faster,” he pointed out. I couldn’t argue with that.

In the alley, we slipped thru a gap between fence sections. We put on our headlamps and gloves. Now I felt pretty out of place for the morning commute, and I wanted to get out of sight ASAP. TR went over to the trap door, flipped it up and slid into the shaft. I followed as soon as there was room for me, and pulled the trap door closed behind me.

The ladder was shorter than I’d expected. At its bottom we ducked under a beam into the cellar. It was really just a pit, not a proper cellar. That plywood guy must have dug it as a route for the old-fashioned round heating ducts, covered with molting insulation, that wormed their way over from the furnace. Just inside the beam, I found a framed rectangle in the floor above us that had to be the way in.

I pushed on it; nothing happened. TR, who is taller, gave it a heave; it didn’t even creak. It was locked. or nailed down, or maybe the office safe was on top of it.

We scrambled around the muddy cellar, searching the floor for another way up. There wasn’t one. We found a discarded water heater, some other odds and ends, and a step ladder that would have been a dandy way to climb thru a trap door if we could only find one. The mortuary was a dud, its mysteries forever sealed.

We climbed the ladder, brushed ourselves off, and adjourned to my house to make waffles and consider our next escapade. We’d seen rumors about a ghost town in the Cascade Mountains. Maybe … ?

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