A grease-smudged stack of 25 fading sheets of paper in a storage shed is one of only two copies of who’s buried where in Evergreen Cemetery. All the burials since 1986 are handwritten, but that’s about to change. The City and Borough of Juneau was recently awarded a grant to map its graves digitally.
Ben Patterson has been overseeing the grounds at Evergreen Cemetery for about 12 years. During that time, he’s been able to reflect on where he’d like to spend his final days.
“I definitely don’t want to be put into the ground, I know that,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s because I’ve spent so much time in the cemetery, but I think I’d rather be spread around a little bit.”
Inside the cemetery storage shed, along with gardening tools and a lawnmower, is an invaluable stack papers.
“Basically 25 pages of maps that show all the plots,” Patterson says.
The other known copy is kept in a separate location to avoid both being destroyed in a fire. More than 8,000 people are buried at Evergreen. The cemetery dates back to the 1880s when it was moved from its original spot on Chicken Hill.
“It was staked as a mining claim for gold. So they had to move everyone that was there,” Patterson says.
Some of the rectangular plots look like they were thrown out like dice, some are orderly. Names collected from a 1986 survey are printed inside some of those rectangles.
“All the handwritten notes are just all the burials that happened since then or were discovered since then,” he says. “And that’s basically the only record of the these locations since the 80s.”
It’s not a great system, though Patterson has almost all the grave sites memorized. He can flip through the 25 pages and find people by name, and he can find them on the ground.
“I was just mowing the other day and someone walked up and asked me where a certain person was and I just happened to have just weed whipped around his headstone and they were joking with me that I had all 8,000 graves memorized,” he says.
With the rise in genealogical databases, like Ancestry.com, Patterson says he’s noticed an increase in these requests. Last week alone, he’s located the graves of five different people. A new system will be a big help.
“It is huge. It’s going to mean that’s it’s going to be way easier for people to find everyone in Evergreen,” he says.
The City and Borough of Juneau was awarded a $17,000 grant in federal funds to put a cemetery map online.
Outside, city cartographer Quinn Tracy holds a GPS device above the headstone of Joe Juneau to pinpoint the exact geographic location. The device beeps as the site is mapped.
“So when I bring these points into the information geographic names system, I’ll have a point and then name associated with that point,” he says.
Buried at Evergreen are several notable people in Alaska’s history: city co-founders Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, victims of the sinking of the Princess Sophia and civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich.
Tracy only needs two coordinates per grid section to map the entire cemetery–the rest will be overlaid using a digital scan of the 1986 survey. He peels back the moss from a crumbling headstone to uncover a name.
“I don’t know, it’s just kind of sad that some of these you can’t really read,” Tracy says.
Soon family and friends will be able to search for grave sites on the city’s website with the click of a mouse.
“It’ll be similar in concept to Google Maps where you enter an address and it takes you to that location,” he says. “In that case, you’ll enter someone’s name and will take you to their location in Evergreen Cemetery.”
Most of the remaining plots were sold in the 1950s and the site is almost full. Before long, there will be no new burials. Children nearby take turns tumbling down the hill.
Groundskeeper Ben Patterson says he doesn’t mind the historic resting place being treated like a park.
“I don’t find that disrespectful. I think it’s one of the neatest things about our cemetery is that it’s just so peaceful and people like it so much,” Patterson says.
The Evergreen Cemetery map goes online in October.