Next to Volunteer Park in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood lies a spot that’s visited by 10,000 people every year. Through the gates of Lake View Cemetery and halfway up a hill with clear views of Lake Washington, the space is shielded by evergreen shrubs.
This is where Bruce Lee, legendary Chinese American martial artist and film star, was laid to rest in 1973. His grave is not only a Seattle tourist attraction but a national and global pilgrimage site.
Lee was 32 years old when he died from a brain swelling caused by an allergic reaction to painkillers. But in many ways he lives on still.
Since his death, visitors have come to his grave, alone and in tour groups. So many people visit, said cemetery manager George Nemeth Jr., that shrubs were planted around the grave to prevent visitors from trampling on the other graves in the cemetery.
Even on cloudy days, the grave is rarely without a visitor. People coming to pay their respects blanket the graves of Lee and his son, Brandon Bruce Lee, who is buried next to him, with offerings: figurines, crystals, candles, flowers, oranges, notes, money from around the world.
A 2014 exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, titled Do You Know Bruce?, displays some of the items.
Dog tags, shirts, drawings, heartfelt letters and a first-place medal from the New Jersey Martial Arts Academy are displayed just inside the entrance to the exhibit. There’s even a pair of nunchaku, made famous by Lee, who deployed them with brutal precision in his movies.
Above the offerings, a screen plays footage of visitors to Lee’s grave from far afield – New York, Denver, Mexico, England and Kazakhstan.
The guestbook in the Lake View Cemetery office has messages as far back as 1999. One message, signed by Nurlan Adakhamov from Kazakhstan in 2006, reads:
“I worked hard to save money and to spend them for this trip from Kazakhstan to USA, WA, Seattle. The only purpose of my trip was visiting Bruce Lee’s grave and his son’s.”
Visitors come for a variety of reasons. Some find a connection through martial arts.
“When you think of modern martial arts he’s the only name that comes to mind,” said Martin Serrano, a Taekwondo aficionado who was visiting the grave from Tuscon. “I used to teach martial arts myself and he was a big inspiration for me even getting into it.”
Others find a connection through his family history.
Heidi Martinez, who trained in Taekwondo up to red belt, first visited Lee’s grave when she was 18. Standing at the grave on her second visit, she talked about Lee being an inspiration for her when she was growing up. “Not just that, but he was an immigrant too,” she said.
Martinez’s family immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, and she sees a connection between Lee’s story and her family’s. “It was really hard for everybody who migrated back then.”
Others find him personally inspiring.
“He rose up against adversity, he had a spinal cord injury and he was able to recover from that – that’s amazing,” said Kevin Dang, another visitor to the grave. “And he still fought. He loved his family, he did what he could to bring martial arts to America. He’s inspired so many martial artists and actors.”
Bruce Lee, born in San Francisco to immigrant parents, spent his early life in Hong Kong. At age 18 he moved to Seattle, where he studied at the University of Washington and taught martial arts.
Feeling the traditional martial arts could be too restrictive, Lee eventually developed his own unique style, Jeet Kune Do, incorporating deep philosophy into the flexible movements.
“To me ultimately martial arts means honestly expressing yourself,” he said in a 1971 interview.
His father was an actor in Hong Kong, and Lee appeared in film roles from a young age. According The Wing’s exhibit, Lee’s U.S. film roles not only introduced Eastern martial arts to American audiences, but for the first time portrayed Asians onscreen in the U.S. in a way that wasn’t caricatured or grotesque.
In an interview, Lee explained the connections between his work as an actor and a martial artist.
“Martial arts has a very very deep meaning as far as my life is concerned because as an actor, as a martial artist, as a human being – all these I have learned from martial arts.”
At Lee’s grave recently, Ron Snow of Edmonds visited with his wife — in fact, this was the place they had met many years ago. As he spoke with a reporter, his wife washed the stones, rearranged the flowers on the graves and swept the area.
Snow met Lee twice, the first time when Snow was a child. Snow says he lived next door to Jesse Glover, Lee’s first student in the U.S. One day, Lee stopped to teach Snow and the neighborhood kids some Kung Fu moves.
Snow had never seen anything like it.
“Here I am, 12 years old, thinking, ‘What the heck is that guy doing?'” he said.
Snow later studied Jeet Kune Do with Taky Kimura, one of Lee’s close friends. Snow said Lee’s philosophy of no limitations continues to inspire him.
The example of Lee’s recovery from a back injury helped Snow through his own medical problems.
“He gave me inspiration to heal myself,” said Snow. “If it wasn’t for Bruce Lee I don’t know where I would be today, believe me. I’d probably be in a wheelchair.”
If you go
Lake View Cemetery is at 1554 15th Ave E., Seattle. It is open 9 a.m. every day, and closes at dusk.
Bruce Lee’s grave is about halfway up the hill. Follow the car path up the hill as it turns right, and a small stone-paved path leads down to the graves of Lee and his son (this map shows the location of the grave in the cemetery).
Lake View Cemetery asks that visitors stay on the roads, and respect the privacy of other visitors, especially if there is a service in progress. Bicycling, skateboarding and dogs are not allowed.