The Three Funerals of Edith Howard Cook

A team of geneticists and historians uncovered the name and legacy of a dead little girl found in S.F.

(Photo by Bob Calhoun)

In this time of rising funeral costs, most people barely get one memorial service. Edith Howard Cook has had three.

Her first was on Oct. 13, 1876, when she was buried at just under 3-years-old in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in the Richmond District. When the city of San Francisco moved the bodies from the Odd Fellows Cemetery to Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma, Cook was left behind.

Her second memorial service came on June 4, 2016 after workers discovered her airtight, glass-and-iron casket under the concrete garage floor of Ericka and John Karner’s home during a renovation. The Karners have two little girls of their own, one of whom was nearly three — just like Cook had been when she passed away. They named their newly unearthed housemate Miranda, and she was buried under that name at Greenlawn in Colma, but this time, she wasn’t forgotten. In the year since her second burial, dedicated members of an organization called Garden of Innocence toiled to find out who she was.

“Each child is given a name to give them the dignity that they deserve,” founder Elissa Davey tells SF Weekly. “A name is a dignity every human being deserves; to be called something.”

Cook’s third memorial came on Saturday, again at Greenlawn, a cemetery next to many others, on a grave-dotted hill south of San Francisco. Around 50 people showed up for the event. While her second funeral was shrouded in Daly City fog, the sun shone on her third. When the wind blew a cloud overhead, the gloom was short-lived.

Cook’s third memorial began as her second, with the Knights of Columbus 4th Degree Color Guard marching with swords at their side. The wind whipped their colorful capes and the matching plumage on their hats as they took their places behind Cook’s new gravestone, which was still covered up by a dark blue piece of cloth. The stone bearing the name “Miranda Eve” was gone, and a new one was in its place. A year of fact-finding and gene testing had reunited Cook with her name, her identity, and as Davey put it, her dignity.

“I’ve pondered why God brought her [Cook] out now, and why did he bring her into my life,” Rev. Allan Musterer says, moments after leading the crowd of latter-day mourners in prayer. “She’s telling me, ‘Hey, don’t forget. All your relatives that have died before you, they left something for you. Don’t forget them.’ ”

The mood of the service at times seemed more like an awards show than a funeral, with so many people honored for their contributions in granting Cook back her identity. One speaker would call out to a second, who would mention a third. Geneticists were thanked alongside gravestone makers. Anthropologists were praised along with funeral home directors. Slogging through old microfilm records was just as crucial to this effort as sophisticated DNA testing.

“It’s really something,” Peter Cook, Edith’s great-great-nephew tells UC Santa Cruz biomolecular engineering professor Ed Green, in the moments before the ceremony began. “I can’t figure out how they were able to trace the body to me.”

“It was a lot of work,” Green replies. “A lot of work.”

And Green had help. Anthropology professor Jelmer Eerkins of UC Davis volunteered to conduct forensic studies on Cook after reading about her discovery. He worked with genealogists, and they tracked down Peter Cook of San Rafael, suspecting that he was the little girl’s last known descendant. Eerkins convinced Cook to give a saliva sample, which was then analyzed by Sidra Hussain, a grad student working with Professor Green at UC Santa Cruz.

“It was great to finally know who this baby was,” Hussain says, recalling the moment they were able to match Peter Cook’s DNA to the little girl found under the Karner’s home.

“It’s interesting to see all these people who’ve come together to celebrate that we’ve finally been able to find out who this child was,” Hussain continues, looking around at the diverse group that has come to be known as Team Miranda.

But all of this may have not worked out so well if it weren’t for the casket maker from 1876.

“She was mummified,” Eerkins says, before noting that her cast iron coffin worked as “a sort of germicide.”

“Soft tissue and clothing and hair, and all kinds of things were preserved,” Eerkins adds.

Elissa Davey got choked up at one point during the service, but they were tears of joy as much as they were of sorrow. Enrique Reade, a general manager of Garden of Innocence and proprietor of Reade and Sons Mortuary in Fresno, sang “What a Wonderful World.” He asked everyone there to join in but the crowd stayed mostly silent, letting Reade’s voice carry over the Colma hillside.

After final prayers were said, the Karners stepped forward with their two little girls — both looking adorable in their summer dresses — to pull back the cloth, and reveal the new gravestone.

“Edith Howard Cook,” it reads in cursive script, engraved by Rico Memorial Stones of Fresno. Beneath her name is a photo of Cook’s preserved face, looking almost embryonic except for the shocks of her red hair. While Edith died 140 years ago, her grave marker now bears the phrase “GOOGLE HER” in bold print, urging people of the present to seek out her story. “Thank you Team Miranda!” the stone also reads, preserving the spirit of this third, and final memorial forevermore. “I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m relieved, I’m thankful,” Ericka Karner reflects moments after unveiling Cook’s new marker. “It’s a whole bunch of emotions.

“Whether it’s closure or her just having a wonderful resting place and the respect that she obviously deserved is amazing,” Karner adds.

After the unveiling, the Karners’ eldest daughter left a note written on pink paper with a heart drawn on it at Cook’s new headstone. Other mourners and celebrants followed by leaving so many flowers and Beanie Babies on the grave that you could no longer see the new stone.

The event’s closing moment came as Team Miranda posed for a set of group photos. The family that found Cook, her last known descendant, the professors, the advocates, the historians, the minister and the mortuary director all gathered together for maybe the first and last time as the moment was committed to digital memory. Team Miranda lingered for a moment after the last pic was snapped, but their work here was done. Edith Cook had her name back, and it was chiseled in stone.

View Comments