A quiet but community-minded real estate deal on Vashon closed last week, with the owners of Island Funeral Service selling their building and surrounding grounds to Puget Sound Zen Center.
For the Zen Center’s sangha — a Sanskrit word meaning “community” — the purchase marks the fulfillment of a long-time goal to create their own space for meditation and Buddhist studies on Vashon.
But the purchase comes with plans for an added use of the building — under the terms of a seven-year lease with the Zen Center, the building will also remain a center for funeral services on Vashon. Islander Lisa Devereau, funeral director for Island Funeral Service, will continue to work from an office in the now Zen Center building.
The Zen Center has already begun to move into the 1966 building, with plans to update the property and transform its two-and-a-half outdoor acres into a series of beautiful Zen gardens. The chapel, which seats about 100 people, will now be called a meditation hall, and be made available for funeral services arranged by Devereau.
The sale of the building, on a 2.5-acre property, was recorded last week with a sale price of $866,575. The former owners, Russell Weeks and O. Douglas Weeks, brothers who do not reside on Vashon, have owned Island Funeral Service since 1997. They will continue to own the business — the Weeks also own several other funeral homes in Enumclaw, Buckley, Tacoma and other communities.
Owner Russell Weeks, reached by phone, described the real estate deal as an effort centered on “trying to do what is best for the community in the long term,” adding that he and his brother had talked about selling the property for several years because “the property values were bigger than what our business could support.”
He credited the board of the Zen Center, as well as Devereau, for shepherding the transaction along the way.
Devereau, Koshin Christopher Cain, abbot of the Zen Center and Diane Sweetman, the president of the Zen Center’s board of directors, also praised the Weeks brothers for their willingness and flexibility to buy into the idea of the purchase/lease agreement.
Last week, the trio sat in Devereau’s new office in the building, a cozy and warm wood-paneled place, where a sliding glass door remained open to provide ventilation and a gentle soundtrack of falling rain.
Though everyone present wore masks, it seemed that all were smiling as they discussed what had just happened with the sale.
Devereau described the real estate deal as a “fairy tale that is good for us, and good for the community.”
The building was never officially listed on the market, she said, though she had fielded a couple of other inquiries about it from interested buyers. But the new ownership and lease arrangement with the Zen Center, she said, had prevented her from having to move the funeral business to a storefront in Vashon town — a prospect she said she had found distressing.
Cain and Sweetman also said they were thrilled to have finally secured a physical space for the Zen Center, which was established in 2003.
Throughout the pandemic, the Zen Center’s members have gathered on Zoom, but in the years before that, the sangha met above an orthodontists’ office in the IGA parking lot and then moved to the Mann Studio near KVI beach for several years. In 2015, the Zen Center moved to the Vashon Havurah building. The group’s last physical gathering took place at Mukai Farm & Garden, last summer. The sangha now numbers approximately 80 people.
A few years ago, a different new home for the group seemed to be in the works.
In 2018, the Zen Center purchased almost seven acres of undeveloped land just north of the Harbor School, with the plan to break ground on the construction of a new Zen Center on the site in 2025. However, building on the site turned out to be more difficult than the group had first imagined.
“Some challenges arose with King County zoning regulations as the property was not zoned as a commercial property,” said Sweetman. “Our research also made it clear that working through the permitting and fundraising to build a brand new building was going to be a daunting process.”
The sale of that property, she said, had helped facilitate the purchase of the funeral home property.
For Sweetman and Cain, the purchase of the building and the agreement to lease space back to the funeral business and allow it to stay in its longtime location seemed natural.
“This property is a sacred space,” said Sweetman.
Cain also pointed out the historical connection between Zen Buddhism and funerals, as Zen monks officiate funerals in Japan.
“Life and death are great matters,” Cain said. “We’re okay with that.”
Cain also said the arrangement would not have happened if not for the Zen Center’s relationship with Devereau, who he called “a friend of our community.”
“We needed the right person to share space with, and Lisa is that person,” he said.
Cain also said he hopes that the Zen Center’s new home will be a place of deep spiritual connection and quiet contemplation for islanders for decades to come.
“I hope this place is a beautiful, thriving center when I retire and when I die,” he said.