EVERETT — A “No Trespassing” sign is no match for the lure of a giant granite pyramid.
It rises 35 feet from the ground, towering over the resting places of numerous souls from a century ago.
The sides have steps leading to the top, like the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. Only it’s in Evergreen Cemetery, a short distance from the golden arches of a McDonald’s, and it holds the remains of Everett’s founding Rucker family.
Rucker tomb is an enigma and an attraction. Foreboding … and yet inviting. The pyramid is the symbol of old money, a place to party at night, a rite of passage to ascend.
It is seductive and dangerously easy to climb.
Hundreds of people have done it. Some cling to the capstone. Others stand at the top with outstretched arms, as though replaying the iconic scene from the blockbuster “Titanic.”
There are YouTube videos of people picnicking at the base and tossing skateboards from the top like lawn darts. Footage from drones show the enormity of it.
A sign near the 1907 tomb warns against loitering, but doesn’t say anything about climbing.
In August, police tried to talk down a 36-year-old man, who said he was told by God to climb the tomb and that God was going to open it to resurrect a girl named Tiffany.
Earlier this year, medics transported a woman, 39, to the hospital after she fell off the tomb on a Saturday afternoon. She later died from head injuries.
Everett historian Jack O’Donnell, 73, scaled the tomb in his youth, starting when he was 10 or 12.
“It’s one of the badges of courage for every kid who grew up in Everett to climb to the top,” he said.
O’Donnell has seen elaborate tombs on visits to cemeteries nationwide. “Not as impressive as Rucker tomb. It is a unique thing for a city this size.”
Sure, there are pyramids in other cemeteries. Actor Nicolas Cage made headlines last year when he bought a white, 9-foot pyramid in a New Orleans Cemetery. It has become a tourist draw, with women leaving red lipstick marks on the surface.
At Rucker tomb, people leave cigarette stubs and beer tabs. One woman reportedly blew her dead husband’s ashes through the keyhole.
Evergreen Cemetery is a big part of Everett’s heritage.
More than 50,000 people are buried there, including four governors, U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and veterans dating back to the Civil War. Also there is former President Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandmother and William Shakespeare, though not the Bard of Avalon.
Rucker tomb is the granddaddy of them all. Tucked in a back corner, amid century-old plantings, it has a vista of the Cascade Mountains and rolling spread of lichen-encrusted headstones. Cars on nearby I-5 are a muffled blur.
The geometric pyramid sits on a square platform that is 5 feet tall and 55 feet wide on each side, with holly trees protruding from the stone corners. Rucker tomb is featured in promotions by the cemetery, which is corporately owned by Dignity Memorial. A spokesman said the Rucker family purchased the tomb, but the cemetery owns and maintains the property.
Inside the private mausoleum are 22 crypts, with 11 taken. Who gets a spot is decided by those with the right of survivorship.
Bill Rucker is a designated survivor.
For Rucker, 78, the tomb bearing his last name in big letters isn’t ceremonial or a ritual. Or a big deal.
It’s a birthright of sorts.
“Many of my immediate family are all here. My one set of grandparents and my mom and dad, and my late wife, Susie,” he said.
He visits a few times a year, but usually stays outside.
He doesn’t have a key to the thick granite slab door. The cemetery office keeps the only one, a vintage skeleton key, and a worker must open it for him.
This isn’t a gravesite to place flowers or pat the earth.
The inside chapel is dingy, with broken art-glass dome windows filtering in light and debris. It would take more than floral arrangements to brighten it.
“The overall emotion is about half and half,” Rucker said. “Half is thinking about people who are there, and the other half is it is an amazing thing for these two boys who made it for their mother.”
Those “boys” were Wyatt J. Rucker (1857-1931) and Bethel J. Rucker (1862–1945), who were paramount in developing Everett in the 1890s with their widowed mother, Jane Morris Rucker, after coming West from Ohio to seek their fortune. The Rucker name is still prominent as a main street, a hillside neighborhood, mansion and downtown building.
Bethel and Wyatt had the tomb built for their mom after she died at age 77 in 1907.
The door reads:
The pioneer of Everett
The true wife
The perfect mother
The soul of honor
The pyramid was reported to have cost $30,000 — the equivalent of about $800,000 in 2018.
“It seems overly ostentatious and in a sense it is,” Rucker said. “It’s not like to glorify the family so much as to honor their mom.”
The matriarch’s husband, the senior Wyatt Rucker, had died in 1878 in Ohio, where he was originally buried. His remains were moved to the Rucker tomb in 1929.
The Rucker name
Rucker might seem a name to envy.
Bill Rucker terms it a mixed blessing.
“Growing up, I was really self-conscious and shy,” he said. “I was embarrassed, almost to the point of humiliation, that people will think I think I’m hot stuff and have a lot of money. I just practically wished that wasn’t my name. And the funny thing was, I’d been adopted anyway. So I really wasn’t one of them.”
He also has an adopted sister, who’s five years younger.
The blue-blood family wasn’t as rich as people thought, he said.
“Everybody assumed the founding Ruckers were real wealthy but they weren’t. They started with nothing and they had a mill in Lake Stevens, and had a bank there and one in Everett. But they lived very modestly, other than the house that they built for their mother.”
That house is the Rucker Mansion, a $40,000 home the pioneer Rucker brothers built in 1905. It was the digs for them as well as Bethel’s bride, Ruby Brown. Their mom lived in the mansion until her death two years later.
The house was sold in 1923 and no Rucker has lived in it since, though it has retained the name.
“My grandma, the last 20 years, just lived in an old brick apartment house in downtown Everett,” Rucker said of Ruby, who died in 1972.
Rucker has lived in Everett all of his life, except when he went to the University of Washington, earning a law degree in 1964.
The name isn’t a given for success in every endeavour.
“I ran for the Legislature and lost,” Rucker said.
He was elected to Everett City Council and served as its president for a time. Rather than pursue law, he owned H&L Sports and Soccer West, stores that didn’t have Rucker in the names.
The name comes up often, though.
“People say, ‘Are you part of THAT family?’” Rucker said. “I say, ‘Well, I was adopted and it was a long time ago, but yes.’ I like to play it down, even though I’m too old to be embarrassed about something I had nothing to do with.”
Inside the tomb
The Evergreen Cemetery worker who unlocks the door to Rucker tomb carries a broom to tidy up the inside. Bill Rucker and the worker’s dad, Gerry Willis, went to Everett High School, class of 1957. The two talk about that common bond for a bit before the cleanup starts.
“Once again, I’m inconveniencing you,” Rucker tells him.
The worker insists Rucker isn’t, and starts sweeping.
Debris comes through the broken upper windows from nature and from people who climb up and toss things inside — firecrackers, cigarettes, beer tops, rocks.
The engravings on the crypt walls are hard to read in the dim light and from the decades of grime.
The deceased ranged in age from newborn to 99.
Of the two spots for cremated remains, one is Rucker’s second wife, Susie, whose urn is barely visible behind moisture-glazed plastic. They were married 27 years. She passed away in 2009.
Otherwise, he has to read the engravings to remember who’s where.
“This grandfather lived until I was 5, so I have a memory or two of him,” he said of Bethel Rucker, who outlived his bachelor brother Wyatt, one crypt over, by 14 years.
He continues the tour: “Ruby was my grandma and she lived until 1972. She was a delightful lady, smarter than heck. She was Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Washington.”
Ruby and Bethel had two children, Margaret and Jasper.
“He died when I was 23,” Rucker said of Jasper, his dad. “He was a trial attorney in Everett. Alcohol led to his early demise.”
Next is his mother, Gertrude Rucker.
“Mom died in 2004. She lived four days short of her 100th birthday. She was quite coherent and a real smart lady as well,” he said.
“Having said all that about how smart everybody was in my family, keep in mind I was adopted so I’m not really a relative at all.”
The Margaret connection
Rucker tomb got a flash of fame in the 1995 movie “Assassins” with Sylvester Stallone, whose broken-arm cast doubled as a machine gun in a shoot-out filmed at the cemetery.
Ten years later, the pyramid was in the limelight again with “Margaret,” an indie folk CD and show based on a Rucker interred there.
Margaret Rucker (Bill Rucker’s aunt) was a UW poetry major who married a Navy man in 1931 and moved to California. Her husband, Justus Armstrong, who killed himself in 1950, is in the tomb, as is their firstborn son, who lived one day.
Margaret Rucker Armstrong died in 1959 from an overdose of sleeping pills. Years later a scrapbook with her poetry was found in a San Francisco dumpster by singer “Chicken” John Rinaldi and by a series of coincidences brought to the attention of Everett native Jason Webley.
Webley was familiar with the Rucker name, but not the people behind it. “It was just a name on a street,” he said.
His fascination deepened and with other musicians Webley produced the album “Margaret.” It led to a packed concert in downtown Everett in 2014, followed by a candle-lit pilgrimage of several hundred people to the tomb in her honor. Many climbed to the top.
The “Margaret” concert was also performed along the West Coast.
“This guy was reading the San Francisco Weekly and saw this article and said, ‘That’s my grandma,’” Webley said.
Webley met Margaret’s grandson, Rod Armstrong, at the California show. It led to Rod and his sister, Anne Armstrong, visiting Everett for the first time in 2016 and meeting Bill Rucker, who gave them a tour inside the tomb.
Webley came, too. “It was kind of chilling, it was surreal and magical,” he said. “They built this crazy thing and it ends up being a hub for stories and an anchor point in people’s lives and there’s a magic in that.”
Webley said a few months later he was at a friend’s show where people recognized him from the “Margaret” project.
“A woman overheard us talking about the pyramid and she made a beeline over and she said her husband thought the Rucker tomb was the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “She said that he told her when he died he wanted to get buried there.”
“She said, ‘I blew his ashes through the keyhole,’” Webley said. “I just stood there in awe. I remember there being dust and stuff on the floor, and I was, oh, man, was that that lady’s husband?”
Spirits of the dead
The tomb draws visitors day and night.
“I climbed it and so did my parents,” said Everett native Robert Kainber, who brings his 3-year-old daughter on outings to let her run around the tomb. “It’s one of those things you have to take the next generation to.”
Penny Goodwin of Denver comes over to the pyramid when she visits the graves of relatives buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
“We walk around and admire it,” she said, adding that getting any closer would be “disrespectful.”
Bill Rucker doesn’t mind people stopping by. If he’s there, he introduces himself and engages in a conversation.
“I don’t look at it as some sort of invasion of my personal privacy or property. It’s there. It is what it is,” he said. “If they take some solace or a quiet time of respect in memory of people in their family, I think it’s great. But not to climb up there and have a few drinks.”
On a recent weekday morning, Kirby Price leaned on his bicycle handlebars, about 25 feet away from the granite pyramid.
He was deep in a daze. It took a few moments for him to speak.
“I was actually praying,” he finally said. “I believe in the spirits of the dead. They can still communicate with the living if there’s a will. It’s a good thing. It always makes them happy… No one wants to be alone.”
Price, a transient, said he knew the woman who died as a result of the fall.
Rucker said he was not aware of a death at the tomb. “It was never in the paper,” he said.
It wasn’t, until now.
Rucker feels a responsibility to the tomb and the family lineage that raised him.
The grand final getaway isn’t a dinner-table topic at family gatherings. “One of my kids said, ‘That would be the last place I’d ever want to be,’” he said.
His first wife, the mother of his children, is still alive, as is his current wife.
He said it is uncertain who will occupy the 11 remaining spaces, but figures he’ll take one.
“I always assumed this is where I’d end up since almost all my ancestors are,” he said.
1. Jane Morris Rucker, the matriarch, Jan. 29, 1830 – Nov. 10, 1907.
2. Wyatt Rucker, Jane’s husband, died May 27, 1878, originally buried in Ohio, placed in Rucker tomb in 1929.
3. Wyatt J. Rucker, Jane’s son, Dec. 18, 1857 – Nov. 13, 1931.
4. Bethel J. Rucker, Jane’s son, Aug. 11, 1862 – March 28, 1945.
5. Ruby Brown Rucker, Bethel’s wife, Feb. 9, 1881 – Jan. 4, 1972
6. Jasper L. Rucker, Bethel’s son, Jan. 24, 1906 – Feb. 13, 1963.
7. Margaret Rucker Armstrong, Bethel’s daughter, Dec. 12, 1907 – June 18, 1959.
8. Justus Rogers Armstrong, Margaret’s husband, May 16, 1904 – April 21, 1950.
9. John Wyatt Armstrong, Margaret’s newborn son, Jan. 18-19, 1936.
10. Gertrude Rucker, Bill Rucker’s mother, Feb. 7, 1904 – Feb. 2, 2004.
11. Susie Rucker, Bill Rucker’s wife, May 18, 1940 – July 2, 2009.