Historians love cemeteries. Years ago I was checking out a cemetery in Spokane, Washington and noticed a high percentage of headstones for babies who had died in the 1950s. Curious, I discovered that Rebecca Nappi, a reporter for the local Spokesman-Review, had written several articles about this, but she had never found a definitive answer.
But let me start at the beginning. The Fort George Wright Cemetery was officially opened in 1899 and the first burials were reburials from Fort Spokane and Fort Sherman. Located on a bluff overlooking the Spokane River, this new cemetery was for military veterans and for active duty military and their families.
All branches of the military are represented, and the cemetery has always been integrated. It has been owned by Fairchild Air Force Base since 1957, when the Army left Fort George Wright and the cemetery was labeled as surplus. Only 1.7 acres, the cemetery contains about 650 graves. At approximately the same time that Fairchild took over, the cemetery was closed to new burials, except for those who had already reserved a plot.
About 325 of those 650 graves belong to children. About 40% of the total, 261, are the graves of babies born to military families between 1951 and 1959.
So what happened? The journalist I referenced above, Rebecca Nappi, researched military, hospital and death records and interviewed doctors who had practiced during that time period. For a large number of the babies at this cemetery, the cause of death was listed as either stillborn or premature. Nobody remembers any type of epidemic ravaging the town, especially one that lasted an entire decade. Most of these babies were born at the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital, but there also seems to have been a spike in infant deaths of babies born in other hospitals in Spokane.
There are certain factors that explain what seems to be an inordinately large number of deaths.
- A lot more babies were being born, as there was a post-war baby boom from 1946 to 1964, explaining a generation of people called “Baby Boomers”. Hey, it’s more self-explanatory than “GenX”.
- We must remember that the 1950s were a different time. The level of prenatal care was much lower than today.
- Technology was, obviously, not as advanced. In the 1950s, if a baby was born weighing 3 pounds or less, there was very little chance that baby would survive. They did not have the tools and knowledge then that are available to doctors and nurses today.
- There were cultural differences between then and now. People generally did not talk about these deaths. There weren’t support groups. People believed in their doctors and did not question them.
- This cemetery was not open to everyone. Therefore the pool of people allowed to be interred here is limited and is skewed to certain groups. Older veterans could be buried here, but may have made other arrangements in order to be with their families. But the families of active duty military are allowed and those young parents would have wanted their children buried somewhere close.
I don’t feel there is any mystery surrounding the number of infants buried at Fort George Wright Cemetery. But I remember walking through this cemetery with my daughter and feeling a deep sadness for those families. It was a reminder not to take anything for granted. Life is fragile.
***It’s been years since I visited this cemetery, so I’d like to thank my parents, intrepid cub reporters Jim and Linda, for checking out the cemetery this weekend and providing me with current photos.