Digging up Capitol Hill’s mortuary past as the last funeral home works to prolong its life

Time waits for no one, even director Smock (Image: CHS)

Time waits for no one, even director Smock (Image: CHS)

These days, Richard Hugo House offers a quaint venue for directors and actors to bring stories to life. But for decades the Capitol Hill theater served a different set of directors who helped lay thousands to rest.

Today, the building at 11th and E. Howell is being considered as a Seattle historical landmark. The nomination also brings to life a host of stories from Capitol Hill’s past of mortuaries, funerals and caskets. Among the undead is Bonney-Watson, Hugo House’s neighbor across Cal Anderson Park, resident these days at 1732 Broadway — and the last full-service mortuary on Capitol Hill.BW1

Bonney-Watson’s story, in particular, shows that while death is certain, the business of serving the departed has always been and continues to be dynamic, mirroring changes across Seattle and on Capitol Hill. It also is a visceral reminder of the diversity of industries and uses this area of the city has provided Seattle — the first known use of the Capitol Hill area by European and American settlers, it should be noted, was as a cemetery.

When Cameron Smock joined Bonney-Watson as a funeral director and embalmer 24 years ago, the company handled about 600 deaths annually at its location on Broadway and E. Howell. Today, as CEO, Smock has to figure out how to keep the business alive and kicking with 350, um, customers a year.

“This neighborhood has changed dramatically,” says Smock. “Our business was built on the families who built their families on Capitol Hill. Many of them have left.”

Compounding the changing demographics is a cultural shift from traditional (more expensive) burials to cremation. In the same time frame mentioned above, the percentage of families choosing to cremate their loved ones has risen from 25 to 80, says Smock. “We’ve had to become more efficient in our operations.”

Bonney-Watson dates back to 1868 when two Seattle cabinet makers decided to branch out into caskets. The two were pioneers in the field. In the ensuring decades, other entrepreneurs would follow as Seattle’s population multiplied. They all discovered that a major undertaking and business for a growing city is preparing and burying its dead.

According to the landmark nomination document for Hugo House, there were 10 undertakers in 1910 listed in the city directory, including Bonney-Watson, E.R. Butterworth & Sons, and Collins Brothers at 911 E Pine Street. By 1920, that number had almost doubled to 19.

One of those was Manning’s Funeral Parlor inside the present day Hugo House. Joseph Manning, a transplant from Connecticut, bought the two-story apartment building and converted the first floor to a pair of chapels. Around 1930, the entire second floor was turned into offices and preparation rooms for the mortuary.

In 1978, the building changed hands and was turned into a community theater. Many other independent funeral homes have followed suit, going out of business as the industry changed.

Bonney-Watson survived and is today the largest independently-owned funeral company in Puget Sound with four locations. It also lays claim to the title of the oldest continually operating business in Seattle.

Over the decades, the staff have seen it all. From a family that insisted on having the same casket that Michael Jackson was buried in to a family that wanted a unicorn-themed service to a family that requested the ashes of their loved one, an avid golfer, be spread on the greens of her last hole-in-one.

Smock attributes the company’s long life to long-time employees like Denise Davis.

Davis (Image: CHS)

Davis (Image: CHS)

Davis, the administrative assistant -receptionist for the Capitol Hill location, has the unenviable task of greeting grieving families every day, either on the phone or in person.

“It is sad and it doesn’t get any easier,” says Davis. “You’re meeting people at the lowest point in their life.”

The trauma can be overwhelming and make people forget about the simplest things, says Davis. She recalls repeatedly emailing a man who lost his daughter to remind him to eat.

Davis, who has a warm smile and comforting demeanor, says she puts herself “on the other side of the counter and think about how they want to be treated. You just walk in their shoes.”

“Our hallmark is always providing exemplary service and recognizing the unique differences of the families,” says Smock.

[mappress mapid="49"]The makeup of those families has changed as Capitol Hill and the surrounding area have changed. Instead of serving predominantly white Catholics, Smock says their chapel and reception room now hosts a clientele that runs the gamut of nationalities (Vietnamese, Samoan, Russian, Greek, Korean) and religions (Buddhist, Hindu and Protestant), to name a few.

Regardless of religious or ethnic background, Smock says people’s views about saying goodbye to the deceased have also evolved. “Most of the families we serve don’t want to have a funeral home setting,” or the casket and limos, says Smock. Instead, they opt for a cremation and a simple event “at a restaurant, or a local park, a family cabin, or along a river.”

To adjust to the shift, the Bonney-Watson staff sees their roles evolving to be more like “event planners, working with caterers and outside vendors.” Smock says Bonney-Watson is also doing strategic planning for its 51-year old building on Broadway as a way to “continue to be relevant to client families” in its second century on Capitol Hill.

In the chapel, for example, they could swap out the fixed pews for movable ones to increase the flexibility of the space. It helps, Smock says, that the company is profitable, debt free and owns all of its buildings.

Finances aside, Smock and Davis say, the funeral business boils down to serving people and tending to their needs, emotional and otherwise, during a traumatic time.
“That’s what gives us happiness because we’re helping them through it,” says Davis. “That’s what makes it worthwhile. When it’s time for me to go, I wish someone is there to help my family.”

8 thoughts on “Digging up Capitol Hill’s mortuary past as the last funeral home works to prolong its life

  1. Great article! Thanks for sharing the history and insight into the oldest continually operating business in Seattle. To outward appearances business is slow there, but BW is obviously filling an important need.

  2. One of the most romantic things I ever did was buying funeral insurance at Bonney Watson with my partner. Nothing says commitment like planning your deaths together!

    The folks at BW were wonderful. Very helpful and not at all a hard sell. (We got a very basic cremation policy.) Of course, it’s probably a bit of a treat for them to work with clients whose bereavement is a long way away (hopefully). We had an appointment at the end of the day when things were quiet and got a very interesting tour of the facilities and even heard a few funeral director jokes.

    Now every time I walk by the BW building with my partner I have to say, “Aww sweetie, that’s OUR funeral home!”

  3. Thanks for this peace, I really enjoyed reading this and can’t help but get nostalgic about they way things were. I’ve been to a few services here and really like the place. I hope they can hang on and adjust to the changing way of the hill if only to say I told you so. There’s always going to be a need for these guys, right?

    p

  4. Denise Davis is an angel. Weeks after my husband died she would call me at home to make sure I was eating, sleeping and in general just taking care of myself. My own family wasn’t even that considerate. She made a hellish time so much more tolerable, and I’m forever grateful. This was a wonderful article. Thank you for posting it.

  5. I’ve never had cause to visit BW (though I do pass it frequently on morning runs), but really enjoyed this article; it’s the kind of thing that, to me, is the best of CHS. I love learning about the businesses and people who make up the Capitol Hill community, both today and historically. A community is so much more than just its bars, restaurants, and new apartment buildings. Keep writing like this coming!

    • Thanks. Bernard does a fantastic job and I really appreciate his contributions to the site. We’re dedicated to providing coverage of as many aspects of being part of Capitol Hill as we can. Readers have favorites — and things they’d normally never read. We pride ourselves on reporting information of all kinds.

  6. Thanks for the nice story about Bonney Watson. I hope they keep operating, but I would encourage them to sell the existing property and move to a new location for updated operations.

    Sandwiched between light rail, the college, and a busy park, this property calls out to be redeveloped to take advantage of that proximity. This should be a high-density location. I suspect that few will take advantage of light rail to attend funerals. If they were to move ten or twenty blocks south, they could start over with less expensive property to perform their valuable service.

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