Owner John Panesko has previously described the Pioneer Cemetery in Chehalis as “a place for people who were not wanted.”
People who died of tuberculosis in a nearby hospital were tossed into unmarked graves. Panesko thinks there are as many as 350 unmarked graves on the hillside cemetery near where Market Boulevard becomes Jackson Highway.
Several girls between the ages of 14 to 18 who perished in an explosion in 1911 while packing dynamite were laid there to rest. For several years, unclaimed remains from the Lewis County Coroner’s Office have been buried there.
But, if you ask Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod, even a graveyard of misfits deserves respect and dignity. On Thursday at noon, coroner’s office employees and more than a dozen guests gathered to honor four people whose bodies were never claimed.
Virginia L. Hoyt, 78, of Tenino, died on Oct. 22, 2022. Danny R. McGlone, 53, Chehalis, died on Oct. 31, 2022. Michael C. Witzel, 73, of Chehalis, died on Nov. 18, 2022. Thomas J. Hammond, 56, of Chehalis, died on Dec. 18, 2022.
Each will be interred at the Pioneer Cemetery.
Most years average eight to 10 people whose bodies were unclaimed, McLeod said previously. This year was the first since the inaugural ceremony in 2014 that did not include any children.
State law says the coroner must keep unclaimed remains for a total of 90 days after acquiring them, but does not declare what should be done with them after that period. Panesko allows their burial for free each year.
For each person, the office completes a comprehensive search to locate connected family members. On a few rare occasions, they don’t find anyone. More often, there is a family, but they are not interested in dealing with the body.
“These are human beings that we’ve investigated. We know their background, we know their history,” he said. “We know some of the trials and tribulations they went through. … (It’s) bittersweet for us on days like this because we’re actually saying goodbye to people who’ve spent some time with us.”
Sometimes, the next-of-kin had a bad relationship with the decedent. Other times, McLeod doesn't know the reasoning behind their abandonment.
The ceremony each year allows the people to be honored regardless.
“We don’t judge,” McLeod said.
With guitar strumming from Chehalis resident Brian Mittge, the small crowd sang “I’ll Fly Away” and “Amazing Grace” in honor of the four people, whose cremated remains were each wrapped in a box and adorned with a yellow rose.
McLeod thanked the visitors at the end of Thursday’s service.
“This shows that they have not been forgotten by society because most of the people here, I’ve never met. You’ve never met these folks,” McLeod said. “And we’re here today for the right reasons.”