USA: The Immigrant Cemeteries of Roslyn, WA


A collection of cemeteries in a small Washington State town that captures the quintessential American immigrant story.

Why visit? 

Washington State is full of mighty volcanoes and open waters- but it's rather short on visible signs of human civilization compared to other parts of the world, or even other parts of the US. 

The small town of Roslyn offers a touching glimpse of a time past- capturing human stories about immigration, integration, life and, most of all, death. 

It's a great place to contemplate the essence of the USA- a melting pot of many cultures. 


Just east of the Cascades mountain range, about an hour and a half by car from Seattle. Map

THE TOWN OF Roslyn isn't much these days: a speck on the map, blink and you'll miss it, in the foothills of the mountains, fewer than a thousand souls. But at some point in the late 1800s, Roslyn was a boomtown. Coal was discovered in 1883, and a train track was laid to connected the town to the coast, and Roslyn needed labour. A lot of it. 

The hard and dirty work in the mines attracted immigrants from far and beyond, and the town expanded rapidly. 

But digging coal is tough work, and the life expectancy wasn't great... pretty soon the town's cemetery had to to expand, to accommodate the newcomers. 

As in life, Roslyn's immigrant communities stuck together in death... Roslyn has 26 different cemeteries, each representing a specific community. Many of these communities where based on nationalities or lodges, an early version of trade unions where workers banded together. Being a lodge member was like having life insurance- you paid your dues, and if you kicked the bucket, the lodge would give you a good send-off, a patch of land to rest in peace, and a stipend for your loved ones. 

The 26 cemeteries are all adjacent, and it is easy to walk from one to the next. Signposts point out the various groups and lodges, and provide some history. Overall there are some 5000 graves- the dead far outnumber the living in Roslyn...

It's quiet here, but the graves still have many stories to tell.

Serbs on one side- the Croats are just across the road. 

Walking around, it becomes quickly obvious that infant death rates were high. Very high. There are lots of small graves with 'baby' engraved on them. There's a tombstone with a lamb that must have been mass-produced for babes-in-arms- you will see many of them. Families lost multiple kids and they are often buried together.

Our Darling Baby- Note that the name is in English, but the dates are in Italian.

Brother and sister, side by side.

Was it worth it, to travel halfway around the world, to die an early death in a far-away place? Probably not, but people did it anyway, in search of the American Dream. 

Like Marghaerita Kena, whose tombstone announces she was born in Switzerland (presumably in the canton of Ticino, as her epithet is in Italian) and she died, as it simply says, 'in America'. She was 32 years old. Was it a dream or more of a nightmare? It's hard to say...

Foreign languages are common: many of the communities used their mother tongue, including the Serbs, whose tombs are inscribed in Cyrillic, and marked by an Orthodox cross. 

Jatosh was only 23 years old. The last two words indicate where he expired: Roslyn, Washington. 

When we hear the word 'lodge' we often think of Freemasonry, and the end of the 19th century was peak time for the Masons. You will find Masonic symbols on cemeteries across the US, and Roslyn is of course no exception. 

Other groups have lower levels of brand awareness. There is a plot for an African-American fraternal organization, but Italian groups dominate, banding together in many different units, like the Druids (?) or the African Hunters, which was a name that was used at the end of the 19th century by an Italian colonial military unit in East Africa. They must have gotten seriously of track...

One of our favourite group of stones is this one here. There is no better way to observe the assimilation process that immigrants went through. On the right lies Stephen Klučar, a Slovak who died in 1911. His wife Barbara died 24 years later. By that time, the family name had been Anglified to Clutcher.  And where Stephen's stone was inscribed in the old tongue, Barbara is remembered in English. 

Lastly, this cemetery is still in use. Although there aren't a lot of people left in Roslyn, occasionally someone does buy the farm, and another denizen is added to the Roslyn cemeteries. Like Tom, who, judging by his stone, loved the great outdoors, American football, and watery beer. May he rest in peace. 

Getting there: 

There is only one sensible way to get here: driving. From Seattle it's about an hour and a half, a straight shot down the I-90, and you will pass some stunning mountain scenery on the way. 

Useful links:

This semi-official website allows you to search the cemetery database.