Monday, June 2, 2008

Department of Amplification

Taft Pioneer Cemetery

My apologies for slovenly and dissolute behavior. My excuse is that I’ve recently purchased a banjo and am furiously plucking away trying to learn the very basics. I’ve let music slide for the past thirty years, so it was time to get back into the game, so to speak. This time I’m determined to actually learn how to play the thing. I’ve never tried playing the banjo, so it seemed a good place to start as I figured I had less bad habits to overcome starting afresh with a new instrument. I’m not going to become a fiddler, and a recorder doesn’t go with much and isn’t a lot of fun to play by ones self, and I never got past chording with a guitar, so a banjo seemed about right. A campfire instrument; I’ve got grandkids, you know.

Likewise, I’ve begun selecting photos and doing layout for a book of Native-American graves, which is sucking up a lot of time, as well. One more futile project, but the photos are great.

St. Patrick’s Historic Cemetery

I have been to a few cemeteries of late, as my uploads to Flickr will attest. The most recent stuff has been from revisits to nearby cemeteries that I first visited when starting this project some years ago. I was much stingier with the camera in those days. It was before I really understood what I was doing, so revisits are always productive.

But what I really want to write about is a clarification of my most recent post, where I discussed the problems big lawn cemeteries are facing these days, partly as a legacy of the very design of the cemeteries themselves. I quoted the Big Oh in that blog, too. The implication one gets from that blog is that cemeteries are doomed, without major changes. And that’s true of the mega-designer-cemeteries where most people chose to be buried these days. The small, vernacular, usually pioneer, cemeteries, on the other hand, the ones that make up the lion’s share of the number of cemeteries even if they don’t swallow up the lion’s share of the business, are doing better than they’ve done for a hundred years. Cemetery district after cemetery district across the region has won funding measures and the little, obscure cemeteries are being spruced up, lawns cut, new benches and flag poles installed, and new fencing and new gates erected. The genealogists alone are probably responsible for the vernacular revival, which is in full flower, although local pride surely stokes the fires, as well.

That’s only the half of it. The other half is the markers. All the truly great handmade memorials are in the small, vernacular cemeteries. Some wonderful professional markers do show up in designer cemeteries, but the entire stock of creative hand-wrought grave markers is in the vernacular cemeteries. Sometimes it’s a matter of economics, but often it’s apparently a matter of choice. The breadth of expression in these markers has expanded in recent years to encompass whole new understandings of memorialization. And, of course, nothing conveys as much information to the casual observer as a handmade memorial. A constant glory of the Native-American cemetery, for example, is their limited use of professional monument carvers. An Indian graveyard fairly screams with stories.

Confedertaed Tribes of Grand Ronde Cemetery

It is not, by any means, too late for designer cemeteries to recover at least part of their losses. The pendulum towards cremation has probably gone too far to be totally reversed, but with new directions its impact can be mitigated. As noted, already lawn cemeteries have begun to accommodate the demand for uprights, as well as creating specially landscaped areas for cremains, either contained or scattered; but if they really want to reverse the trend, good old-fashioned p-r will probably be necessary. It would behoove them to increase their visibility.

A more important change, though, that might be harder to realize is getting back to openly celebrating death and stop trying to pretend that it doesn’t happen. That attitude is self defeating. They might begin by recapturing the old language and stop calling themselves memorial parks or, even worse, gardens. When cemeteries began in the early 19th century they glorified death and as a consequence were so immensely popular that they gave rise to parks. The more they abandoned their founding principles, the more they began to slip away, leaving cemeteries to the small, homey, rural graveyards on someone’s back forty or around the local church.

That’s where the Golden Age lives today: in the nooks and crannies of the back country. It’s waiting for you alone. Go see it while you’re still alive.

Taft Pioneer Cemetery

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Golden Paradox

Camp Polk, OR

I have this recurring fantasy that somebody’s going to want me to talk to them. You know, about cemeteries. I try to think of what is the most important message that I could leave about cemeteries. What is the essence of what I’ve learned from scouring nearly 600 graveyards?

Two things: One, that we’re in the golden age of cemeteries; and Two, that cemeteries are in danger of dying.

If they wanted, I could talk a little longer.

I could talk about what I meant by that. I could try and say it quickly before anyone had a chance to get bored.

Cemeteries? Puhleeease!

American Legion (Manzanita, OR)

Okay. First point. Golden Age. It’s the Golden Age because, in cemeteries’ public service function as historical art galleries and cultural museums, their current diversity is historically unsurpassed, with the possible exception of a few decades in the early nineteenth century. There is a greater variety of self expression and a greater quantity of information being given at gravesites now than at any previous time in our history — with the same prior caveat. The significant difference between this period and the early nineteenth century is that in its current format personal expression is afforded a much broader scope than previously in content, style, and class (my apologies; I know we aren’t supposed to talk about class in America; big no-no). There’s a greater range of design with a greater range of material being employed now than at any time in our history. And that includes the nineteenth century. If you want great cemeteries, they’re all around you.

Forest Lawn (Gresham, OR)

Second point. Cemeteries have been trying since 1855, with a certain sluggish success, to commit suicide by eliminating their very raison d’être as the locus of remembrance and display. Eighteen-fifty-five was the year Adolph Strauch at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati became America’s first cemetery superintendent, initiating the long march away from upright memorials toward lawn cemeteries, where the stones are flush with the ground in the name of efficiency. The result being that the very purpose of a memorial marker, to be a visible place of remembrance and demonstration, became less and less possible until in the end the customer started to look for other options, cremation being the main culprit. Today, the only lawn cemeteries not looking frantically at all possible options in order to stay afloat — at least around here – are the national cemeteries, and they only thrive by giving their product away. A Sunday (August 5, 2008) Oregonian headline summed up the situation for everyone else as “Oregon cemetery plots go begging.”

Skyline Memorial Gardens (Portland, OR)

Well, what do they expect after trying to do away with headstones for 150 years? If you can’t find your grandparents out there in the vast field, much less honor them with decorations, might as well just burn them to a crisp and throw them in the ocean. More than half the people in Oregon currently do just that. Good job, cemetery industry. The only segment of the cemetery industry making waves at present is the green cemetery movement, and they do away with headstones altogether. If cemeteries weren’t dead before, that ought to kill them. Granted, burial can be much more “green” than cremation, with its attendant problems, but burial without a sense of place is about as good as mass ditches. It’s just one more reason to crank up the old furnace.

That’s it. That’s what I know about cemeteries. Oh, there’s a bunch of other little stuff, but those are the two biggies: Golden Age and dying. That’s all you have to remember. You can go back to your regular programming, now.


Needless to say, if you want a good cemetery-cum-art gallery, skip your local lawn cemetery, although even they are bending to pressure now-a-days and are finding ways to sneak uprights into their mix (except for the freebie place). Pack a lunch; head for the hills. Tell ‘em the Dead Man sent you.

South Yamhill (McMinnville, OR)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sacred Ground and Digital Archaeology

north palestine cemetery - palestine, or
North Palestine Cemetery

I work with sacred ground: cemeteries. There are other types of sacred ground — churches and the like, battlefields, virgin springs — but cemeteries are pretty much universally accepted as sacred ground. At least if they’re your cemetery. If they’re somebody else’s cemetery, they’re fair game for looting. The world’s museums are stuffed with artifacts stolen from cemeteries, up to and including the bodies themselves. But if it’s your grandma and grandpa, hands off. If the looting is done publicly and at a decent time remove, it’s called archaeology.

But the bottom line is a cemetery is a cemetery is a cemetery. Make that your mantra.

A cemetery is composed of dead bodies and their associated artifacts. Among other things, the artifacts tell you the cemetery is there. Without them the bodies belong to the nameless stream of dead people long since disappeared. The most important artifact in a cemetery is the one that tells you that it is there. If it’s lasted for any length of time, it’s probably stone. It’s called a tombstone. The rich can build their whole tomb out of stone; then it’s called a mausoleum. A mausoleum is a glorified tombstone. Among the more notable mausolea in the world are the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids.

river view cemetery - portland, or
River View Cemetery (Portland)

All cemeteries are liable to be robbed. For some reason human skulls have a value all of their own, not to mention burial offerings. Public theft — that done by archaeologists — has the virtue of A) keeping the artifacts in the public eye, and B) if we’re lucky, advancing our knowledge. Archaeology is first and foremost the study of three things: fire pits, garbage heaps, and cemeteries. Post holes are good, too.

When an archaeologist studies a grave, he or she, aside from looking at the body itself, inventories the associated artifacts, which we commonly call the “grave offerings,” although they all don’t serve the same purpose as the word “offerings” implies; some artifacts are more decoration rather than offerings to the dead or to the spirits of the dead; perhaps “ephemera” might be a better term to cover both. Traditionally, of course, the artifacts are simply taken back home with the archaeologist to their university or other supervising institution, the better to preserve and study them, being the rationale.

agency mission cemetery - mission, or
Agency Mission Cemetery

Just exactly what the purpose and understanding of ephemera are, though, is a matter of interpretation, and undoubtedly many different forces come into play; but when food offerings are found at a grave site, for instance, it’s not clear that the people who left them actually intended them to be used by the deceased rather than leaving them as a symbolic gesture. One has to presume that the concept of symbolism dates to very early human existence. For the observer, it’s not important that the ephemera are not meant for the deceased’s actual use; they’re significant because they indicate what the survivors — and presumably other people of their time and place — thought important. Grave ephemera, then reflect the people and times in which they are offered. That’s what the stuff found with King Tut does: it helps explain Egyptian life in those times. That’s what archaeologists do: they try to make sense of peoples and times through what they throw away and what they leave for their dead. It’s a very time-consuming task.

apostolic cemetery - silverton, or
Apostolic Cemetery

The first “offering,” as it were, is the marker itself, the object that tells you a grave is there. The marker is important because without it people wouldn’t know where to come to remember the deceased; and ultimately cemeteries are not about stashing the dead somewhere, but about not letting people die. Cemeteries are where the connections between the quick and the dead are maintained. No one in a cemetery, if they have a marker, is truly dead. The marker can be considered “the permanent offering.” It’s the offering that’s not ephemeral. Its importance is that it locates the place of remembrance and the place to which temporary offerings are brought. Without the permanent marker everything quickly fades. Cemeteries, if they don’t obviate the process, at least slow it down.

American grave ephemera include anything left at a grave site excepting the monument, from a simple flower or a pebble to complex assemblages of hundreds of items. Through a combination of decay, cleanup, and theft, grave site ephemera disappears relatively quickly and from times past we have no record of what was left at our graves. We can find grave ephemera from other eras and places where ephemera were buried with the deceased, but for the most part that has never been an American custom; and consequently, most everything ever left at graves here has long since vanished.

Interestingly enough, though, while grave ephemera from other cultures — Peru or Egypt, say — excite great interest and study, to my knowledge local ephemera has always been ignored. Which only means, of course, that vast amounts of information have been lost and that the opportunities are endless. (The worry being, inevitably, that the opportunities will continue being ignored.) With the advent of digital photography it’s become economically feasible to amass large collections of ephemera pictures dripping with anticipation that someone will come and sort them. My only regret is that we don’t know what people left behind at graves in the 1940s, much less the eighteenth century. We only know what the Egyptians left behind.

brown cemetery - beatty, or
Brown Cemetery (Beatty, OR)

Grave offerings open tremendous windows into the deceased, their culture, and their times. They tell us more about those who left them than about those for whom they were left. The amount of cultural information packed into one picture of grave site ephemera is quantum leaps above the information conveyed by tombstones alone. Unfortunately though, it’s apparently a case of always being unable to see the forest for the trees. Current ephemera is too much under our nose to pay attention to it, and once it’s gone we never knew it was there in the first place.

Winchester Rifle - Alpine Cemetery
Alpine Cemetery

In tombstones the corollary to ephemera is “personalization,” which is the monument industry’s jargon for anything carved into a stone other than names and dates. There has always been some degree of personalization of tombstones, a practice which has waxed and waned in popularity depending on custom, technology, and materials. And there have always been “handmade” markers as well as professional ones. There has been some limited academic attention paid to professional representations in recent tombstone personalization, which has been largely anecdotal rather than analytical and dealt with small databases.

Which is all a round about way of explaining what I do, what the DeadManTalking collection is about. It took me several years to figure it out myself, so don’t worry if it’s not clear to you, it’s still foggy to me. I also know that, whatever I think my mission is today, I will think differently in a year.

I collect grave site offerings, permanent and ephemeral. I am a digital archaeologist. I record objects brought to sacred ground to bask in and add to the spiritual powers present there. I don’t loot any graves. I don’t take anything away to display or to sell. What I do is record a world that will be gone tomorrow. Like the river that is never the same whenever you step into it twice, the cemetery you visit will not be the same one I saw. I’m showing you the soft inside of the culture of the Oregon Territory as it stands at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It will never be seen again. Enjoy it while you can.

canyon city cemetery - canyon city, or
Canyon City Cemetery

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hollywood Forever: Cemeteries in the Cinema

Willamette National

We’re going with a lagniappe here. Last week in a two-day binge I visited twenty-one cemeteries in Southwestern Washington. It was a somewhat unsettling experience.

Think of it this way. You’ve lived next-door to this girl forever. Decades. You always thought of her as a bit frumpy, didn’t put her best foot forward, and didn’t go out of her way to be friendly. You’d wave when you saw her in her yard and you’d say “Hi” at block parties, but let’s face it, you ran with different crowds.

Until once you were stuck with her for a couple days volunteering to work a table at the neighborhood fair. You ended out going out for pizza together and — bingo — you fell in love. Holy Christmas, how did that happen?

That’s me and Washington. You can’t say anything nice about Washington, if you live in Oregon. Same goes for California, but more so. So, to discover after a two day run along the shore and through the coastal mountains of our neighboring state that I was in love with her was, indeed, unsettling. Don’t tell my friends, eh?

What it means is that I’m stuck in data entry land for the next week or more until I get all my pictures (543) uploaded and sorted. Blogging will just have to wait.

That’s where the lagniappe comes in: a little something to tide you over.

Lone Fir (Portland)

DeadManTalking Goes to the Movies

Almost a year ago I began making a list of movies with cemetery scenes in them. Kay and I had long since come to the conclusion that half the movies we saw had such scenes, so I stuck a card next to the video machine and started jotting down titles every time I saw a movie with a cemetery in it. That was last May. I’m not a movie fanatic, but I probably see one a week on average, maybe a bit more. Here’s what I came up with. I’d be delighted if you’d pad the list.

El Alamein
Little Miss Sunshine
Les choristes
Enter the Dragon
800 Bullets
Pan’s Labyrinth
Cross My Heart and Hope to Die
The Wicker Man
Hot Fuzz
The Contract
Shaka Zulu
The Lives of Others
A Time to Kill
Under Suspicion
Eastern Promises
Déja vu
Paris, je t’aime
Lonely Hearts
No Country for Old Men
After The Wedding
Mr. Brooks
Sweet Land
3:10 to Yuma
Across the Universe
Texas Rangers
We Own the Night
Magnificent Seven
Gone, Baby, Gone

Gethsemani Catholic

Saturday, March 29, 2008

I See Ghosts

Rose City

Without nitpicking over the exact number, let’s agree that a picture is worth a heck of a lot of words. A thousand, ten thousand, who’s counting? It’s inevitable, when scanning a cemetery and spying those telltale ovals, that you drift toward them immediately. Who knows if there’s anything else worth seeing in that cemetery, but a photo-ceramic is a sure thing. You’ll trudge the length of the cemetery to see just one. Trust me, it might be the only thing there.

Photo-ceramics (also known as photo-porcelains or sometimes even as photo-ceramic-porcelains) in this neck of the woods, and I gather worldwide, began almost simultaneously with the advent of photography. It didn’t take long to add photography to a process that was already in place. Prior to photography, portraits were hand-painted onto the clear ceramic ovals and then fired. Photographs promised verisimilitude and quickly took over. I have yet to see a hand-pained portrait, though I have run across ones that were hand-tinted.

The first place I took notice of photo-ceramics in an expansive way was in a Portuguese cemetery on Maui, Hawaii, where virtually every tombstone was adorned with a memorializing photograph, in contrast to a neighboring “American” cemetery which held virtually none. It’s where I began to understand the relationship between the portraits and culture; and back in Oregon one could see those same cultural effects at work, albeit in a lesser fashion. Roughly said, the warmer the country of origin, the more likely the use of photo-ceramics, at least in a Euro-American sense. I don’t know how this works out in Europe, but as for her children in America, photo-ceramics are more likely to show up on graves of people from Eastern or Southern Europe than on graves of people from Northern or Western Europe. The split may be religious as much as anything, with Catholic and Orthodox countries more likely to use photo-ceramics than Protestant countries. Certainly, here one is much less likely to see portraits in Lutheran cemeteries than in Catholic, reinforced by the Mexican tendency to employ images on their tombstones.

Montana/Idaho Cemeteries

The split is further reflected in current sources for photo-ceramics. A tour of the Net finds production centered in Europe — Italy, Czechoslovakia, France — with one company reporting from New Mexico. The European companies only deal to the trade and their prices run from $75 for small ovals to several hundred dollars for larger designs and with elaborate frames. Integrating multiple photos into one photo-ceramic costs extra. Significantly extra. They’re ready to provide stock backgrounds, if desired. Remember, though, that the price the dealer quotes will be at least double what the ceramist charges the dealer.

A photo-ceramic is fired at 900°, which permanently sets the ink. The companies warn you that absolutely true color reproduction is impossible, given the firing temperatures. In a true photo-ceramic the photographic image is reproduced onto the ceramic, and the original photograph is returned to the owner; which brings up the question of process concerning the portraits where the image has faded beyond recognition. The general reason tendered has to do with modern photographic emulsions and their temporal nature versus older technologies; but, if the image is reproduced on the ceramic rather than the original image being used, it shouldn’t matter what the original medium was. Right?

Regardless of those technical questions, while the use of photo-ceramics has never died out, it certainly waned for a number of decades; and it’s my understanding that in some areas of the country it wanes still. In the Oregon Territory, on the other hand, there are two distinct periods of photo-ceramics; the first corresponding to the national height of popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century, which is the period most people associate with photo-ceramics; but the second is currently running and still in the ascendancy. Without a doubt, there are more photo-ceramics in Oregon cemeteries from the last two-and-a-half decades than from all previous decades combined, and they’re only getting more popular. This is the heyday of photo-ceramics.

Saint Wenceslaus

The heyday is distinguished not just by a flowering of portraits but a great expansion of what constitutes proper subject matter for a tombstone image. Forever and anon photo-ceramics were restricted to portraits alone, and in that they’re an excellent source on the vicissitudes of style and technology. As John Martine has observed, “I tend to think that faces look like eras. Like there are faces in these [photo-ceramics] for the 1920's that you just don't see anymore.” Of course, images are affected by clothing styles, hair styles, background, as well as technological clues; but today’s pictures under glass are not only not necessarily portraits anymore, they might not even be of the deceased. Or of a person. I know of at least one motorcycle immortalized in a photo-ceramic, a tractor on another, and one where only hands are visible. Often as not, now it’s the snapshot which is preserved rather than the studio sitting. In general, photo-ceramics have followed the trend of including increased information — known in the trade as “personalization” — in grave site memorials. From ceramics of the era when everyone used studio portraits, all the information one can glean has to be pried from the personal details from the portrait itself, and by custom most people wore their finest and hence most unusual clothes; clothes that gave little clue to the person’s everyday life or habits. Today’s photos, in contrast, are just as likely to be favored candid photos packed with information about who the deceased was.

Agency Mission

And, of course, casual photos are much more likely than studio portraits to give regional information. A studio portrait from Nampa, Idaho, in 1918 looks little different from a studio portrait from New York, say, of the same time period, or from Paris, for that matter; but casual shots of the Cascades look nothing like casual shots of New York. Trust me again.

John Martine highlighted another difference between the Oregon Territory and elsewhere in the US when he noted that “realistically though, every year there are fewer [photo-ceramics] out there,” thanks to vandalism and theft; a sentiment echoed by caboose_rodeo from Connecticut who corroborates that “most of our ceramics are smashed or missing,” as well. There are occasional ceramics with damage to them in Oregon and a very few are missing, but for the most part vandalism doesn’t seem to be a major problem. Out here vandals usually go for toppling the whole stone, forget about the details.

In recent years photo-ceramics have been augmented by various etching techniques — diamond stylus and laser — capable of faithfully carving photographs directly (the life span of which is yet to be determined) onto the stone, most often a highly polished black granite; a technology of which the Russian immigrant community is especially fond; and if those images are added to the photo-ceramic revival numbers, the heyday gets even more impressive.

Pleasant View

Should you want to see large collections of photo-ceramics, visit the Flick group site I See Dead People, or my set Ghosts, which includes other media as well as photo-ceramics. Best of all, head out to your local cemetery, camera in hand, and capture your own images. Let me know how they turn out.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

So, You're Dead Already

Beth Israel

All geography is divided into two part: physical and cultural. The study of cemeteries is a branch of cultural geography. Cultural geography is the social sciences in situ.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can go on to the cemeteries.

You’ll recall in blog one, when I lamented the dear departed Stew Albert, that I promised more on Jewish cemeteries. This is it.

Not unlike geography, all Jews — well, almost all Jews — are divided into two parts, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, which roughly correspond to Mediterranean and Eastern European. The Mediterranean Jews are, more or less, those left over from the diaspora, whereas no one really knows how the Ashkenazi came about. There are competing theories. There are far-flung Jewish outposts in places one would never suspect, such as China and India, and even — to everyone’s utter surprise — South Africa, where a tribe insisted forever, to their neighbor’s ridicule and amusement, that they too, despite being totally like their neighbors in behavior and appearance, were Jewish; only to discover in this time of miracles and DNA analyses, that, not only were they Jewish, but that they were Cohens, an upper, priestly class of Jews. Suffice it to say that American Jews are, for the most part, either Sephardic or Ashkenazi, though that distinction is lost on the average American.

What it means in terms of cemeteries is that Jewish cemeteries are both religious and ethnic enclaves. That you don’t get one without the other. Which is not the case in your average cemetery. Even the most tightly religious Christian or nonaligned cemetery counts among its interred people from all parts of the world and backgrounds. You can be a Hottentot and be buried in the highly Scandinavian Svensen Pioneer Cemetey, for example, and while you may have to be a Catholic to be buried in St. Wenceslaus, you don’t have to be Bohemian. Which all goes towards making Jewish cemeteries unique: they aren’t like other cemeteries.

Beth Israel

They aren’t like other cemeteries in a lot of other ways, as well.

[But, again, before I go any further, I have to issue my standard disclaimer: what follows is local knowledge. How the Jews manage cemeteries in Fort Lauderdale or Scarsdale, I have no idea. I’m talking Oregon here. And not all of Oregon at that.]

For one thing, they’re hard to find. I spent months tracking down Neveh Zedek, even though it’s on street maps. Even when you find their names and addresses, they aren’t the easiest places to locate. Only Beth Israel is visible to the casual passerby, all the rest require driving out of the normal flow of traffic to find them.

There are seven Jewish cemeteries in the Portland metropolitan area, five independent and two as elements of Metro pioneer cemeteries. The five independent cemeteries are all distinguished by having live-in caretaker/guardians. A long history of cemetery desecration has undoubtedly led to that practice. The East Side Jewish Community of Portland (that’s their name) maintains a small enclave within Douglass Pioneer, which is exposed but in a cemetery that is unexpectedly located and not given to vandalism; while, as mentioned in “Stew, I Hardly Knew Ya,” Havurah Shalom hides in the secretive Jones Pioneer, another Metro cemetery.

Shaarie Torah

Ahavai Shalom shares Portland’s Boot Hill with River View, Riverview Abbey, Greenwood Hills, Beth Israel, and the GAR Cemetery, but it’s at the end of SW 1st St., a street you’ll never have cause to drive down, unless you’re heading knowingly for that cemetery. It, Beth Israel, and Neveh Zedek all share common features. Each is very well maintained, the lawns are lush, the plantings pristine, and the monuments are clean and well cared for. Unlike their neighbors, they tend to scrunch their burial plots together, leaving broad open spaces for the future, rather than filling in randomly from all over, which is the normal practice. They both sport endowed chapels. As one would expect from Jewish cemeteries, they have the appearance of attention to detail, respect, pride, and good taste. Many markers are piled with pebbles as a customary reminder of someone’s visit. Epitaphs tend to extol the virtues of family, good works, and modest self-appraisal.

Kesser Israel

The same could be said of Shaarie Torah, another Jewish cemetery on Portland’s east side. It shares the traits of care, live-in protectors, endowed chapels, and clustering of stones. It also shares its grounds with another Jewish cemetery, Kesser Israel, and there is where the uniformity, and perhaps the stereotype, breaks down. Kesser Israel is anything but well-cared for, well-maintained, or properly arranged. They do have a live-in protector, but that house is as ramshackle as the cemetery and looks to depend on pit bulls instead of people to do the job (though to their credit, I saw none). The graves here are more or less strung out in lines, but the open space, instead of being a greensward waiting for its intended use, is a wasteland and junk pile waiting for reclamation. One would be ill-advised to saunter here. Beware the rusty nail. The monuments, too, are often unlike any others in the state, much less in other Jewish cemeteries. A chain-link fence divides Kesser Israel and Shaarie Torah and there is no gate between them — you have to go “out and around” if you want to visit them both — and Shaarie Torah on their side has covered the fence in ivy so that their neighbor isn’t visible. Surely there’s an uncomfortable history hidden here somewhere.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say one cemetery represents the Ashkenazi and one the Sephardim, but at the least they demonstrate that what from the outside might appear to be a monolithic culture, Judaism, is in reality a fractured, multifaceted, and sometimes divisive community, just like yours and mine.

What the Jews do for a living is reflected in their cemeteries, just like in yours and mine, as well. The geography of cemeteries is intimately tied to occupation. It’s not an accident that most Jewish cemeteries are in the Portland area while most Finnish cemeteries are in the woods or along the water. Finnish tombstones are engraved with images of log trucks and fishing boats. Jewish tombstones are… Well, they don’t engrave tombstones with desks or shop counters, at least not that I’ve seen. But occupation is reflected, not only in tombstone design, but in tombstone location. Jewish cemeteries cluster in Portland because Jewish occupations in America are traditionally urban and there has to be a thriving business, financial, or intellectual community before enough Jews arrive to require their own burial ground.

Which leads us to the non-Portland, Jewish cemeteries in Oregon, of which I know three; one of which, Temple Beth Israel’s enclave within Eugene’s Masonic Cemetery, mimics the arrangement with Portland’s Metro for Havurah Shalom and the East Side Jewish Community. The other two, though, are almost defunct. One is part of Jacksonville’s history cemetery (sorry, I have no photos) and the other is Albany's Waverly Jewish Cemetery, which does boast a fairly new grave. They’re interesting because they mark the location of former Jewish communities, which implies that both towns had times of former glory, which they did.

Waverly Jewish

As the southern Willamette Valley fills up and the university continues to grow, perhaps someday Eugene will boast its own, independent Jewish cemetery. But maybe not for a while. I suspect that its Jewish community is closely tied with the traditions of Jewish activism which populate Havurah Shalom rather than the more commercial Jewish occupations, and that the idea of mingling with ones fellow intellectuals in an eco-friendly display cemetery appeals to its sensibilities. Regardless, it takes a good Jewish cemetery or two before one can say they’ve “arrived.” For Eugene, perhaps, the harbor is in view.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cowlitz Mission

Stevenson Cemetery

I am by intellectual temperament a fatalist. In my world serendipity rules the roost. I’m not convinced of the probability of random behavior or of choice. That I happened to be driving past Saint Francis Xavier Mission on the Jackson Highway was not simply a matter of chance. The universe has been conspiring for 14 billion years to get me there. That sounds pretty awesome until you realize that the universe has also been conspiring for 14 billion years to get me into a 7-11 yesterday to buy a Pepsi. Having your life written out ahead of time doesn’t mean that it’s all glamor.

But enough about me. I’d just come from the Toledo Cemetery, which wasn’t on “the map” either. “The map” is that supplied by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) names project GNIS, and as used by ePodunk. The USGS, for reasons known only to itself, routinely ignores significant, and often old, cemeteries and they list none for Toledo, Washington; but while driving through town I said to myself that this place has to have a cemetery and that, if I looked closely, I might even see it. And I did. Cemetery District No. 7, says the sign, and I found graves going back to 1886, but there are probably earlier ones; I didn’t look that closely.

It was shortly after leaving Toledo and was wending my way northwards towards Seattle that I passed the complex of buildings for St. Francis X., as they are wont to call him. Another sign announced the presence of Cowlitz, WA, though there are no other buildings and the highway doesn’t slow down there; but once more I found myself talking to myself saying, missions always have cemeteries, and I wheeled around and headed back to the church. The cemetery is just past the church on Jensen Rd., which intersects with the highway.

St. Francis Xavier Cemetery

Now, anyone who knows anything about early Oregon history knows that Lewis and Clark was a cozy little expedition but that the real heavy lifting, after and probably before them, was done by the Métis from Red River. Métis are another Canadian shibboleth like zed, eh, that distinguishes Cannuks from Los Americanos. If you know who the Métis are, you’re probably Canadian. Or know something about Oregon history. The Métis were the folks who introduced farming to the Willamette Valley. They came in as trappers and, more importantly, haulers with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Company saw the Willamette Valley as the place where they could grow the food for their entire northern operation and hence began early investment in farming in the region. They didn’t encourage their trappers to settle down in the valley, but they didn’t prevent them and in the end provided much necessary support. There’s a lot of history here, much too much for this blog, but suffice it to say that the Métis, who are a tribe of half-primarily-French and half-Native-American stock, were the backbone of the foundation of modern Oregon.

St. Francis Cemetery

The Métis were Catholic and their religion in the form of missions came along with them. The next mission north of Fort Vancouver on the route to Red River was the Cowlitz, now the Saint Frank, Mission. The Company was forever trying to talk the Métis into farming at Cowlitz and Nisqually instead of the Willamette, but the Métis were no fools and knew good land when they saw it. It was not until forced by the Americans out of French Prairie, their Willamette home, did some of them turn to the Cowlitz before retreating further east to Idaho or back to Red River. The displacement of the Métis signaled the end of phase I of the conquering of Oregon by the Euro-Americans, and with it the raison d’être of the Cowlitz Mission came to an end as well.

Regardless, the mission is still there and so is the cemetery, though it doesn’t have many recognizably Native-American or Métis names. A white cross embellished with engraved morning glory leaves and flowers for Josie Wahawa (1885-1893) probably marks a Native-American grave, and Leon Chevalier (1863-1887) sounds Métis, and I’m sure there are more, but it’s nothing like the agency cemeteries of Pendleton, say. The one claimed Métis grave I have in my collection is for Albert Doney (1936-2000). He has a Red River cart and the words “Chippewa Métis” carved into his stone at Stevenson Cemetery in Stevenson, WA. Surely he never rode in a Red River cart, but presumably an ancestor did.

St. Louis Cemetery

The French-named towns of the Willamette Valley have their origins in the Métis, as well, but only one cemetery there retains anything of the feel of what it was like a hundred-and-fifty years ago, Saint Louis. It’s still out in the country surrounded by fields and next to a traditional, white-steepled church. It’s an unusual cemetery in that many of the stones are set at right angles to the others, for no apparent reason. It has at least one Charboneau grave, and Charboneau was a Métis scout who accompanied Lewis and Clark and took Sacajawea as his wife. You might want to wonder why Lewis and Clark took a Métis with them, and what did they know about the Métis that we’ve forgotten? Besides that they existed?

Like knowing the way, for instance.

None of this, of course, takes the Cowlitz Indians into consideration, and they were a powerful tribe in their own right and their own day and reason enough to put a mission into their homeland. The Cowlitz, for example, would occasionally come downriver and spank the Chinook, who were just as likely to head upriver and do the same to the Cowlitz. In any event, the mission represents an important locus in the birth of modern Cascadia and deserves protection and recognition as such. It maybe even deserves pilgrimage. At least, if you love it here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blue Lines

Oregonian tend to think of the Columbia as their river. The big cities are on their side. The Interstate is on their side. Hood River is on their side. God is on their side. Vancouver is on the Washington side.

We conveniently forget that a river has two banks and that after Hermiston, both of the Columbia’s are in Washington. Eventually the whole river disappears into Canada, which, after all, is a foreign country and we have no idea what happens to it after that. The Columbia could be a secret pipeline from Hudson’s Bay, for all we know. The Métis think the Columbia is pay-back for the Red River, but that’s an obscure story down here.

That the big cites and the highway are on the Oregon side is an accident of geography. Vancouver at the edge of the “plains” on the bluff overlooking the Columbia was the site of the first whiteman’s trading post (that suspect Hudson’s Bay again) and there’s way more flat land up there upon which to build a city than there is on the Oregon side of the river; but Portland only backs up to the Columbia. Its river is the Willamette, and it’s the Willamette with its connection to the valley above the falls that trumps Vancouver’s flats. Likewise, it’s sheer luck that The Dalles, the annual Native-American rendezvous spot, and the Hood River Valley are on the Oregon side, and that when the Columbia makes its big sweep around the Oregon knuckle that the outer bank — the bank where the force of the river eats away at the land — is on the Washington side leaving scant purchase for roads, much less towns.

The result is that Oregon’s gain is Washington’s gain. It’s classic win-win: Oregon gets the traffic and Washington gets the quaintness. A fair number of Oregonians test the Washington side between Dallesport and Vancouver, through the heart of the Gorge on Highway 14, a broad, well-maintained two-lane highway that offers some spectacular views — especially around Cape Horn, where the road rises high above the water — unequaled across the river. Far fewer brave Highway 4, a tight, twisty run from Longview to Long Beach. Nonetheless, it’s one they would do well to take now and again, the scale is more human.

But here I have to issue a disclaimer. I have not been west of Cathlamet on Highway 4 — soon, but not yet — and the highway heads away from the river there; but between Cathlamet and Longview, the highway rides on most of the land that is there. The only people living anywhere here abouts live on Puget Island (which connects to Washington with a bridge and to Oregon with a ferry), a farming island in the middle of the Columbia, but the island supports no town. Curiously enough, though, this almost lack of people is enough to form a county, Wahkiakum County: 3755 of them, according to ePodunk.

The lack of people, of course is what makes the north bank quaint and accessible, Longview to Vancouver notwithstanding. Lack of people also makes for slim cemetery pickings; and not enough make use of the views, with the notable exceptions of Stevenson Cemetery, which is scrunched between the highway (14) and the river just east of town and is visible from the highway, and Mount Pleasant Cemetery out of Carrolls, WA (I currently have three Mount Pleasant cemeteries in my Washington State database), which perches on hill some 1200 feet above the river with soaring views of the Columbia in one direction and the Cascades in the other. Don’t mind the wind, thank you.

But it’s the downriver cemeteries of Cowlitz County to its border with Wahkiakum County that I’ve been recently exploring. (If you’re elsewhere in the world, I suggest a good map to understand the geography of this region.) Of the three I visited, only tiny Abernethy has river views, and those through the trees. Come summer that view will shrink. The other two, Bunker Hill (every state has one) and Oak Point have none.

You might note, if you’re staring at that map, that there are a lot of things around here named “Abernathy” and that many sources likewise call the cemetery “Abernathy”; but when you finally find its near-forgotten little self — hardly a city lot under a canopy of trees plunging towards the water — you’ll find a sign saying “Abernethy Cemetery” and that most everyone in the place is named “Abernethy,” as well. No one is named “Abernathy.”

The other cemeteries are fine enough, if not noteworthy, but they do have a couple graves that are uncommon and represent the other blue line — other than the Columbia: police, law enforcement officers. Running into graves of policemen (so far no women that I’ve run across) is not in itself unusual, but both of these have a twist. In Bunker Hill it is a fellow named Clint Crombie (1895-1981) who was not just a cop but a Mountie, a corporal in the Northern Patrol. How romantic is that? His trusty dog, Rex; his horse; his flat-brimmed hat; always getting his man. Why, I’ll bet he knew Sergeant Preston personally. Maybe he even served under him. Coulda been. Could too.

Crombie may have been romantic and glamorous, but not so Marvin Meads (1925-1992). Marvin was all business. Marvin took his business to the grave with him. Marvin was a sergeant in the Longview Police Department. We know so because he had his badge sealed in clear ceramic and mounted on his tombstone under his name, just like people seal photographs of the deceased with clear ceramic and mount them on tombstones. Marvin, not to be outdone, did this as well; but Marvin, unlike most people who choose a portrait, opted for a full body shot, in uniform, brandishing a shotgun. Just the image you want to carry into heaven with you. Or, perhaps he was concerned about just which direction he was going and thought a little protection might come in handy. In any event, it was a curious choice.

Just don’t let the vandals see it, Marvin.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Stew, I Hardly Knew Ya

Stew and I went back a long ways. He was two years older than me — that would put him in the class of ‘57 — but that’s close enough. We were both pre-baby boomers. We were both radical revolutionaries. Stew was known and loved by everyone. I’m loved, I’m told, by my family.

Hey! A love’s a love.

Stew never heard of me. I’m sure he never heard of my claim to fame, either, and, unfortunately, neither have I. Just as well, I suppose; I would have squandered it. I’ll tell you one day about my groupie, but not now.

That I ran across Stew’s grave in a tiny, hidden Jewish cemetery here in Portland should not have surprised me, because I knew he’d died here recently. I hadn’t thought that he was Jewish, but that doesn’t surprise me, either. Knowing he was Jewish and knowing who tends to end up in Havurah Shalom, the hidden cemetery, could have enabled me to put two and two together. I was not abled and hence didn’t put two and two together until I got home and downloaded my pictures and looked at his tombstone again: “Stew Albert, 1939-2006, Husband and father/ Mentor and friend/ Scholar and poet/ Revolutionary and rabbinic inspiration.”

“Revolutionary and rabbinic inspiration?” Why, that’s Stew Albert, I blurted out loud, and began to cry. It was as if I suddenly run across the grave of a friend whom I hadn’t known had died. It wasn’t just Stew laying there. It was part of my life. Jesus Christ, I muttered, has it come to this?

Stew Albert (check out his site) was a cofounder of the Yippies along with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffmann, and he raged against the machine until the very end. His signature post remains: “My politics have not changed.” While Stew was disrupting the Chicago Convention in 1968, I was getting arrested for running the “underground” press in Minneapolis; and, if we never met, our lives ran somewhat in parallel, if in no other fashion than we both ended up in Portland. They stopped running in parallel a bit ago when Stew up and died, which is how I came to find his grave in Havurah Shalom.

Finding Stew is no easy task. First one has to find Havurah Shalom Cemetery. The intersection where it is next to has been rearranged since I was there last and it took me two whacks to get it correct. It’s behind the Sylvan Hill Church at the Sylvan exit from Hwy. 26 at the crest of the hill before plunging towards Portland. Southeast corner. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

Regardless, when you find the church, find its parking lot around back. (There is no parking around front, so that part is easy.) At the far back corner of the parking lot you’ll notice gates leading through the hedge. If you pass by the gates you’ll be greeted by a small sign telling you that you are in Jones Pioneer Cemetery, one of fourteen pioneer cemeteries under Metro’s (a Portland, OR, area regional government) jurisdiction. Jones doesn’t have a lot of monuments, and many of them are scattered in an almost unfriendly fashion away from each other under a dark canopy of hardwoods, with a denser clustering of newer graves higher on the hill where the trees thin out or disappear; but the largest grouping of graves is in the farthest away corner yet, filled with light and detailed from the rest of the cemetery by a low hedge: Havurah Shalom, a small cemetery devoted to Jewish civic activists.

Havurah Shalom, like most if not all Jewish cemeteries, is associated with a congregation with, as is usually the case, the same name. It is a Reconstructionist Jewish community, which means that it emphasizes evolutionary social development and community politics. Where else are you going to bury a guy like Stew? You don’t even have to be Jewish to belong, so long as you don’t mind eating blintzes and knishes.

Given that cemeteries reflect their communities, the particulars of Havurah Shalom describe an unusual and enriched gathering of souls. Havurah Shalom is not the only Jewish cemetery within a Metro cemetery, the East Side Jewish Community of Portland relatively recently opened up a small cemetery within Troutdale’s Douglass Cemetery, but Havurah Shalom set the precedent and the standards. Nothing announces Havurah Shalom, there is no signage, but that you’re suddenly in a Jewish enclave is evident as soon as you reach the cluster of monuments. Many of the stones, of course, are emblazoned with the Star of David, but if you look around you’ll notice that many of them have acquired small piles of pebbles brought by mourners and that an unusual number of the stones are natural. But even more noticeable is the nature of the epitaphs, which tend to reflect the community activism of their members. Indeed, some stones go so far as to state that their person was an “activist,” plain and simple. This is not a gaudy community, but it is straight talking. Restraint and dignity reign. Stew has a lot of good company.

Havurah Shalom is typical of Portland Jewish cemeteries in being hidden. There are five other Jewish cemeteries in the Portland area, besides the two in Metro cemeteries, and all five have live-in surveillance families in on-premise housing; and four are located where you’ll never accidentally drive by them (Beth Israel at the top of Burlingame is quite noticeable). The Jews have learned some hard lessons about vandalism and have taken the most surefire method available for dealing with it. East Side and Havurah Shalom try to hide in plain sight, as it were.

Jewish cemeteries are not the only ones where religion and ethnicity are intertwined, but no Christian church cemetery ties the two so closely together. One could argue that, say, Saint Wenceslaus Cemetery in St. Helens is an example of a Christian ethnic cemetery, but nothing restricts Christianity to the Bohemians, as Judaism does to the Jewish people (whomever they might be, which is, admittedly, a slippery slope). Joining a Reconstructionist Jewish community will not make one Jewish. But if you were to start a stroll through Oregon’s ethnic cemeteries, Jewish cemeteries, because of their clarity, are a good place to begin; and if you’re going to start with Jewish cemeteries, Havurah Shalom is as good a choice as any. The others are equally interesting, and we’ll get to them by-and-by, but for my money this is a high point of our culture: it shows the best of who we can be. It’s American, it’s inclusive, it’s distinctive, it’s embracing. You’ll even note, as you walk through Jones Pioneer approaching Havurah Shalom, that, as the light expands and the newer graves begin to appear, they too, if not directly a part of Havurah Shalom, reflect its spirit. Conscience, peace, and dignity find shelter here. It is a good place to die.

A set of photos devoted to Havurah Shalom can be found on my Flickr site. A link from each photo will take you to a map and aerial photo of the cemetery location.

The Dreaded Introduction

A bit of introduction here that no one will read; but this is, after all, blog #1 and you might want an idea of where we’re going.

We’re going to the cemetery, Oregon cemeteries, for the most part, but without restrictions. Along the way we’ll find out what kind of cemeteries there are, how they function, and how they got there. In the process we’ll find out who lives in Oregon — or wherever — and what they think about life and family. We’ll learn about place and how place affects people. We’ll learn about how society is changing its view of death and that society has always been changing its views. We’ll see how the cemetery industry was born, how it was shaped, and what forces currently move it.

There is no more intimate part of life than death. It’s the other bookend. As Benjamin Franklin observed two-hundred years ago: if you want to know a people, visit their cemeteries. He didn’t say visit their watering holes or subway stations. We’ve spent the last several years finding out just who lives in Oregon. We’ve been to their cemeteries. Not all of them, we’re still working on, in particular, the southwest quadrant and big chunks of Eastern Oregon, but we’ve dropped in on close to 500 Oregon cemeteries, plus another sixty or seventy from elsewhere (we’re staring to prowl Washington). You can take a virtual tour of them all by yourself at my site. Over here on the blog we’ll talk about what it all means and where the fun stuff can be found.


(Oh boy, this is where is gets heavy.)

Cemeteries are a sort of wiki-place where the art and history of a community are on public display and to which everyone can contribute. There are no curators or academicians to decide what goes and what doesn’t. Only the community mores regulate that. (And we’ll see how well they succeed.) Before there were parks, there were cemeteries. People flocked to them by the tens of thousands. They had to have traffic cops on the weekends. They had to have rules about who could ride their horse into the cemetery and who couldn’t. In fact, cemetery visiting became so popular that the big-name cemetery designer of his day, a guy by the name of Frederick Law Olmsted, finally said, hey, let’s build a cemetery, but without the bodies. People could still come by the thousands but the upkeep would be infinitely simpler. Let’s, he said, build a park.

Well, they did build parks, and slowly people stopped hanging out in cemeteries. Soon all that art and history was being built, but nobody was visiting; they were all down at Central Park.

We’d like to reverse that trend. We don’t expect cemeteries to replace parks, nor do we suggest planting stiffs all through them (green burials notwithstanding), but we do think cemeteries are worth returning to their former glory as fun and entertaining places to visit. We like the spirit of places like Camp Polk Cemetery, which is riddled with fire pits and handmade benches. We’d like you to come out and visit your local cemeteries, and meet your neighbors in the process.

If you go, we’ll see you there.