The gravestone of Sterling Hallard Bright Drake is decidedly odd, and deliberately so. Found at Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla, Washington, Drake’s unusual X-shaped grave has been the subject of local legend, and international rumour, for years. Located towards the entrance of the cemetery, Drake’s X grave is adorned with curious words, quotes, epitaphs and images that have baffled, delighted and enraged visitors to his grave site. The majority of his epitaphs are incredibly melancholic, reflecting a man preoccupied with his own mortality and solitude.
‘An idealist and a dreamer, he died of loneliness and a broken heart, searching for a shrine he never found.’
Apart from his choice of decoration, what made Drake’s grave so infamous was that for many years, it commemorated a man who had not yet died. Drake endured years of strangers’ opinions projected onto him, his life, and his grave, where stories of his life and character were concocted without his knowledge or any real foundation in reality.
Sterling Hallard Bright Drake was as much of an enigma in life, as he was in death. Only when his grave was erected (pre-death) did his classmates realise that his birth date of 1945 made him two years older than them.
The short film ‘Sterling Hallard Bright Drake’ (2012) shines light on the local legend through former classmates of the class of ‘65, who share thoughts on Drake and their own curiosity at his insular life. They recount how handsome Sterling was in his youth, how he blew up a mailbox in 3rd grade, would shoot rockets into the air, and parachuted into the football field following his high school graduation.
The Stirling that meets viewers is a much older, unusual man, who explained his X-shaped headstone with curious eloquence, ‘everyone had a cross to bear, and I’ve always got one to carry and burn. But no one has got an X.’ In more practical interpretations, he suggested that his pre-emptive gravestone was an excellent marker and reference point in the cemetery as X indeed, marks the spot.
Unwanted public opinion plagued Stirling’s grave, with many locals voicing their offence and distaste at his unusual memorial, with the cemetery office fielding complaints and comments alike on an almost daily basis. However, while Stirling was alive, he deemed himself an agnostic redneck and had little concern for the offended pearl-clutchers of Walla Walla.
Originally Stirling considered two other grave designs before cemetery regulations led him to land on his final elaborate X. The first was that of a drinking fountain, where visitors could refresh themselves by his grave, the second was a large replica of his favourite (unfired) home-made rocket, x-caliber. Instead, the headstone with engraved images of the crossed sword and rocket (alongside babies, keys and explosions) were a more pleasant compromise. Sterling enjoyed an intense obsession with rockets in his youth, constructing ever more complicated rockets for school science fairs and enjoyed accolades and honours from official scientific bodies. While this talent for rocket-building never took him to NASA, he remained proud of his achievements until late in life, saying ‘I had more honours and more recognition than most men have in their lifetime by the time I was 21. There is nothing in this world I have not or cannot do. Except save my own life.’
Many comments concerning Sterling’s grave relate to the melancholic and threatening nature of the quotes. The aforementioned quote, regarding him dying of ‘loneliness and a broken heart’ was particularly evocative, which Sterling reiterated by saying ‘loneliness will kill you faster than a .44 magnum ever will.’ Despite having a family of his own, he never enjoyed a wide circle of friends, connecting with few people. Speaking of friends, Sterling explained that ‘in my entire life, I’ve had 5 and they’re all dead.’
In a less personal inscription, each corner of his X is marked with one word; conquest, war, pestilence and death. A choice made by Sterling as he believed that one of the four horsemen was going to ‘burn this earth to its knees.’
One final curiosity marked on Sterling’s grave is that of the Lady Gwinavier, whose life seemed to be tragically short (1997-2005). While many locals believed this to be a child or close relative, it commemorated his beloved schnauzer dog, with whom he swore he could communicate and adored more than anything. Sterling’s love for Gwinavier, and his later dog Phoenix, is a beautiful and sincere thing, commemorated with such sweet phrases as ‘a loving and faithful friend, she believed in the dream.’
Sterling contemplated that ‘Maybe I think too much? Too much a dreamer.’ But I can’t see that as being a bad thing. His strange X grave represents so much more than a reclusive man with a love of rockets, but is a reflection on the changing and personal nature of love. Much like the man himself, the Walla Walla X grave is strange, profound and quite beautiful.
Sterling Hallard Drake was born in Seattle on 7th November 1945 and died aged 72 on 16th February 2018. He was survived by his wife of 36 years, Carlene, his sister Kerry and a small extended family. On 2nd March 2018, he was finally laid to rest beneath his cross.
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https://vimeo.com/38536839 – Sterling Hallard Bright Drake (2012) – Big Whiskey Studios