A special start to Easter at Central Whidbey's Sunnyside Cemetery

Vern Olsen plays a hymn for worshipers at an Easter sunrise service at Sunnyside Cemetery in Coupeville. Olsen, who has provided music for the service for the past 30 years, is stepping down.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Vern Olsen plays a hymn for worshipers at an Easter sunrise service at Sunnyside Cemetery in Coupeville. Olsen, who has provided music for the service for the past 30 years, is stepping down.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

With its uncharacteristically nice weather and final performance by a well known Central Whidbey musician, this year’s Easter Sunday sunrise service at Sunnyside Cemetery may turn out to be one of the more memorable in recent history.

Presented every year by the Coupeville United Methodist Church, the sunrise service has always been popular as the cemetery overlooks some of the most beautiful parts of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

This Easter was no exception as nearly 100 people attended the 7:30 a.m. service. Regulars said this year was particularly nice. Not only was the temperature relatively mild but the sun made an appearance too.

“We’re lucky,” said Nancy Wilson, a Coupeville resident. “Usually it’s windy and rainy.”

Wilson has been attending the annual service since 2004. There have been a few years where the weather has been particularly nasty but it’s always been worth going because you’re doing it with friends, she said.

“No matter what, it’s a wonderful start to Easter,” she said.

Coupeville resident Marshall Bronson, also in attendance, agreed.

“Even in the worst weather we get at least 50 people, and we’ve had some bad weather,” Bronson laughed.

He personally enjoys the service because it’s an opportunity to join in spirit with the community. It’s also a chance to see members of the congregation he doesn’t normally see, particularly those who attend the church’s early morning service.

Bronson said he typically only attends the 11 a.m. service.

On a sadder note, this year may have marked a permanent change in the sunrise service. After more than 30 years of providing the music with his signature accordion, Coupeville resident Vern Olsen says he’s ready to retire.

“This might be my last year,” he said.

Olsen, best known as the director of the Shifty Sailors folk music band, said he’s getting older and after three decades of service, is planning to hang up his Easter accordion.

But all things change and the sunrise service has undergone a number of them since its inception. Although no one seems to know just when it began, Coupeville resident Roger Sherman, a local historian, said he first started going to the service with the church’s youth fellowship group in the early 1950s.

At the time, it was held on Pass Island, the land mass that connects the two sections of Deception Pass Bridge. Later, it would move to Pennington Hill in Coupeville before eventually moving to Sunnyside Cemetery.

Like it did for Sherman more than 50 years ago, the sunrise service is still attracting young people. Madeline Isaacson, 19, said she’s been going since she was a child and has grown to love it. She’s currently going to school in Tacoma and drove home for the weekend so she wouldn’t miss it.

“It’s just really special,” Isaacson said.

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