MENDOCINO — A diverse crowd gathered Tuesday at a sun-drenched Mendocino cemetery to pay respects to an anonymous young man who never received a proper burial when he died, likely from drowning, more than a century and a half ago.
The man likely was a sailor who had not achieved a high station in mid 19th-century society, judging by his crude burial in a redwood coffin that was exposed in 1986 on Mendocino's ocean bluffs.
It was a different scene Tuesday, when the man was given a moving send-off with speeches, poems and the sound of bagpipes. About 40 people, including California State Parks officials, attended the event.
The burial plot where the skeletal remains were lowered in a small plywood coffin has a sweeping view of the coastal town and the bay where it's thought the man perished.
Mourners took turns shoveling dirt onto the coffin as "High Winds and High Waves," a song written by a Vancouver composer, sounded on the bagpipes.
Several participants said the man represented those who helped build Mendocino, first as a logging town, but never received acknowledgement for it.
"We know a lot about the movers and shakers in town, but not much about people like this guy," said Martin Simpson, a volunteer at the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino.
The ceremony also fulfilled an emotional need for several participants.
Breck Parkman, the state's senior archaeologist and officiate for Tuesday's ceremony, said people hope to be remembered when they die.
He told mourners that "by being here today, taking time out of your busy day, you become his family."
The event at Evergreen Cemetery capped an extraordinary effort to do right by a man whose history is known only by the bones left behind.
A hiker discovered the burial site on April 21, 1986 on the western outskirts of Mendocino. The bones were intact, save for the man's skull, hands and feet. The site also contained six brass buttons or snaps for trousers or bib overalls, and porcelain buttons for a collared shirt.
Parkman sent the bones to Sacramento for further review. But in a mix-up that may have been related to the state's efforts to identify the remains of Native Americans, Mendocino's mystery man languished in a Sacramento facility until a few years ago when Parkman inquired about them.
Emily Carleton, an archaeology specialist with state parks who examined the bones, was present for Tuesday's ceremony.
She estimated that the man was in his 20s and stood about 6 feet tall, which was five inches taller than the average for men at that time. She also theorized he was a sailor or logger, based on his skeleton showing he was strong in parts of the body used for pulling or hoisting sails.
Carleton's analysis showed the man was of Northern European ancestry.
"Being able to read the bones allows us to give them an identity, and we can have an affinity and connection to the past," she said.
Carleton theorized the man drowned because of his missing hands and feet, which is typical in such circumstances. Darker sand, like that he may have collected as his body lolled about in the surf, also was found where his trouser pockets would have been.