Saturday, January 31, 2009

Department of Correction and Amplification

Lest I lead you astray, forget everything I’ve said about Willamette National Cemetery. It’s still there, but the ephemera behind the berm have been removed. It’s as sterile as a DI’s… well, you get the picture.

It’s evident that the folks at the VA don’t read this blog (ho-ho) or they might have thought twice about removing the ephemera. Then again, being military bureaucrats, probably not. The US is known the world over for its military cemeteries, for their dignity and often dramatic landscaping; but warm, homey places they’re not. In the end, the Army’s going to bury you in a barrack, too.

Which isn’t to say I don’t like VA cemeteries, I do; but there’s something forlorn about a person standing in the middle of a barren field, head bowed, quietly staring at a patch of concrete at their feet. Makes you long for an inflatable teddy bear, after all. Maybe a plastic whirligig.

In any event, if you’re looking for the equivalent of the Vietnam Wall up behind the berm, like I promised, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s too bad. I’d written to the local press about the ephemera, but no one ever went up and looked. There was no Maya Linn, no big bucks. Just relatives of the deceased. People. You, me. People. Nothing special to write about.

Too late now.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Greatness Large & Small

Eugene Masonic Cemetery

Some are born to greatness, others acquire it after long struggle, and others have it thrust upon them. People? No, cemeteries, of course.

I recently ran across a one-post blog (there are a lot of them out there) that said some tantalizing things about cemeteries and made a number of suggestions as to how to pump more life into them, which may seem a touch counterintuitive. My favorite suggestion was to stick a high class restaurant into the middle of them, although I’m not sure how that would work. You go talk to your local cemetery about it.

The author also suggested some things already being done in some cemeteries such as readings; small, historical drama presentations/reenactments; concerts; etc. All in all, practicality of some ideas aside, it was good to see someone thinking about how to restore cemeteries to their former glory. As anyone with a passing knowledge of cemetery history knows, cemeteries were the precursors to parks; and while parks have evolved to fulfill functions cemeteries couldn’t approach, it doesn’t mean that they have outlived their usefulness as parks.

Lone Fir Cemetery

There are two cemeteries in the Dead Man Talking database that are heading back towards being parks. Indeed, they already are parks as much as they are cemeteries: Portland’s Lone Fir and the Eugene Masonic Cemetery. The Eugene cemetery is an exemplar of the rural cemetery movement and had a streetcar line delivering people to its doorstep, even though it was, like other “rural” cemeteries, out in what was then the countryside. That was being born to greatness. Unlike Portland’s River View, a rural cemetery which also was built for but has continually maintained its greatness, Eugene Masonic had a long period of decline and suffered serious vandal damage (and still does) before being consciously returned to greatness by taking a radical new approach as to how the cemetery is regarded and used. It’s all Eugene and all Oregon and it gets constant use by its neighbors. Lone Fir also gets constant use, though it approaches being a park in a more traditional manner.

River View Cemetery

Eugene Masonic is notable at first glance for its shaggy appearance and at closer inspection for the minute detail with which the cemetery is cared for and presented. It looks shaggy because the site is mowed but twice a year and functions as a local wildlife habitat for both animal and plant species. Walking paths throughout the cemetery are kept mowed and are sprinkled with signs ecumenically pointing out significant local species or interesting interments; and to their credit, the interments signaled out for illumination are not necessarily those of city luminaries, but also include short bios of more representative citizenry. (Historical markers always tell as much about the erectors of the markers as the people or events they are commemorating.) They’ve also begun to allow green burials, have erected a charming viewing platform and scatter garden, restored an art deco mausoleum on the property, and a local Jewish organization has reserved part of the cemetery for their members’ use (a practice also found in two Portland pioneer cemeteries). Things are hopping there and neighbors love to come there with their children and dogs, which are kept on the paths and scrupulously cleaned up after (both kids and dogs).

Lone Fir, on the other hand, began life as a Donation Land Claim (DLC) cemetery; which simply means that the original owner of the land set aside part of his or her holdings to serve as a cemetery, one of the most common origins of Oregon Territory cemeteries. Lone Fir grew to greatness due to its location. It too was built in the countryside and soon swallowed by the city outside which it lay. It grew to greatness by having a rich and complex history, which is still evolving. Not designed as a “rural cemetery,” it nonetheless is a major city arboretum and that lone fir (which still stands) has been joined by an astounding variety of trees. It also contains some nice little niche areas, such as a firemen’s section, a heritage rose garden, a Gothic mausoleum, and an emerging Chinese memorial commemorating the Chinese who were disinterred from this cemetery and shipped back to China, providing, of course, that they were adult males. Chinese women and children were left behind. Lone Fir is also the repository for the lion’s share of the interesting monuments in the city; and this goes back to the early days, as it harbors by far the city’s largest collection of Woodmen of the World faux stumps. Yet the modern revival of individualized memorials is well represented here too, with striking new monuments. Not to mentions the proliferation of Russian tombstones with their fanciful scenes and babushkaed photos laser-etched onto black granite. They are ubiquitous. Along with their gardens. The Russians love to create miniature gardens on their cemetery plots, and all summer long you’ll see well dressed women hiking back and forth between water spigots and small garden plots. As a consequence, the once somber tones of the cemetery have been enlivened by countless color spots. It’s all good.

And as a consequence Lone Fir gets heavy use. Not only are the plots going fast (we bought two), but the place is always attended by people. All manner of folk drift though reading the stones or stopping by for a picnic lunch, weather permitting. Musicians can sometimes be found playing quietly in the marble forest, and many a reader has found a comfortable stone to rest their back upon. Drinking isn’t a problem; the grounds are much more likely to be used for smoking a joint. It’s still peaceful, after all.

But greatness in a cemetery is not necessarily defined by its use as a park. Most of the cemeteries in the database that I’d mark as “great” (and surely greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder), get little or no park use. Which may be too bad, but it’s true.

Mountain View Corbett Cemetery

“Great” has more to do with ambiance than size. Location helps. Mountain View Corbett Cemetery, the eastern most of Metro’s fourteen pioneer cemeteries, has such a close-up view of Mt. Hood and the surrounding agricultural fairyland that, if the wind’s not blowing, makes it a delightful place to be. For a tiny cemetery, it has more than its fair share of personalized monuments, another mark of a great cemetery. Taft Pioneer Cemetery with its majestic view of the Pacific Coast has also inspired above average memorializations. Pleasant Hill Cemetery, on the other hand, while having one of the best caches of personalizations in the state, is located smack alongside busy Hwy. 58 southeast of Eugene. I attribute its lively character to being close to Ken Kesey’s ancestral home. There’s still many a Merry Prankster hiding in the woods of Lane County. In any event, it proves one can have a splendid cemetery in a mediocre setting.

Pleasant Hill Cemetery

Genealogists and local historians might qualify “great” by who, how many, and what kind of records a cemetery possesses. Willamette National would qualify by many standards as a great cemetery, but other than nice lawns and beautiful committal chambers its really only “great” aspect is the personalized memorials hidden behind berms at committal shelter no. 3. Those moved me to tears. But I can see a genealogist going ga-ga over the records. Though I can’t understand how the Vietnam Wall can get such publicity, while the memorials behind the berm are ignored. Go to Dead Man Talking Flickr site and see for yourself. It only scratches the surface.

Willamette National

I qualify cemeteries by how I feel when I stroll around them. That’s how I began. Inveterate backroaders, cemeteries have long been a pleasurable stopping point for Kay and me while traversing the outback. A good place to check out a few stories, get a grip on community history, and see how the locals handle death. Always a fun trip. Approached that way, a cemetery has to stand on its own merits. The stories behind the tombstones will remain enigmas. The making up of ones own imaginary history is often good enough. In any event, who is buried in a cemetery is of little import for the casual visitor, and what constitutes “good” in a cemetery has to be apparent at first glance. Cemeteries are defined by the memorials they keep.

Taft Pioneer Cemetery

That’s my take, anyway. Thank God you have yours.

See you at the sepulcher.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Camp Polk Cemetery
"Varieties of Hope"

It’s on an island surrounded by a grass covered wildlife sanctuary carved from an old lake bed, pancake flat (the sanctuary, not the cemetery) deep in the ponderosa country leading to the Cascades. A few short years ago it was virtually lost to the wilderness, but now it’s being surrounded by suburbia, even though there’s no city near by. The houses being built on the periphery of the sanctuary are anything but cabins. The sanctuary, though, provides ideal cover; a limited form of perpetual care, as it were. Nothing will ever be built next door to the Camp Polk Cemetery. And, God willing, no one will ever straighten the place up.

As it is, it is, as Kay comments, a “free-for-all.” There is absolutely no rhyme nor reason to any of the layout, with graves sprawling every which way and marked with all manner of hardscrabble brevity, personal fancification (like that word?), and homey care. No one does any general landscaping and plots are held by handmade signs attached to sticks, or whatever. How one acquires a plot is unexplained. There are, apparently, no rules. It’s the only cemetery I know dotted with fire pits encircled by crude benches, People come here to party. Perhaps “celebrate” would be a better word. There is no vandalism. There are no empties scattered about. There are not even great piles of detritus, as one tends to find in Native-American graveyards, which exhibit a similar strong sense of place. The cemetery is well maintained. It’s just chaotic.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the great Oregon cemeteries. And if any cemetery screams “sense of place,” none does louder than Camp Polk. It’s a little-sung state treasure.

Camp Polk exemplifies all the cemetery forms of expression that convey a sense of place: monuments, personalizations, and epitaphs, but especially in its layout. Or lack thereof in this case. Cemeteries, like golf courses, tend to try to recreate a British landscape wherever they are. Following to one degree or another the dictates of the rural cemetery movement, which attempted to recreate English manor house grounds, cemeteries tend to be marked, wherever they are, by, at the very least, lush lawns. While it’s a goal often honored in the breech, it doesn’t mean that it’s not aspired to by most cemeteries; yet Camp Polk bends to no fancy foreign notion of what sacred ground should look like. At Camp Polk the sacred ground looks like all the other ground in the forest. Which is, perhaps, a way of saying that all ground is sacred, versus only a small, landscaped portion of it. By definition, a cemetery with a sense of place shares the landscape of its neighborhood.

Camp Polk Cemetery is unique as a white person’s graveyard, in my experience, in its matching the Oregon Native American cemeteries for their laissez-faire attitude and decorative sense, but, as I’ve already pointed out, there are significant differences. A subtle one is emblematic: the constant theme in Native American cemeteries here, besides horses, is the eagle. They’re everywhere in Indian cemeteries. In Camp Polk it’s coyotes. The place is infested with them. Artificial, of course (though I’ve seen coyotes in cemeteries more than once). What this means, I’ll leave for others to decide; I only report the news.

Camp Polk Cemetery is not only surrounded by development oozing out from Bend, a Central Oregon “hot spot,” but it’s developed a cachet of its own, one that it’s not always had. It was lonelier, when we first found it. It’s still a free-for-all, but suddenly there’s a lot more activity. While it may once have been in danger of disappearing into the wilderness, it’s now in danger of one day being filled up.

I’m not the only person in love with Camp Polk. Some time back, Kim Stafford, perceptive observer of Oregon life and director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark College, made a project of locating several pioneer cemeteries in eastern Oregon, of which Camp Polk was one. He evoked his experience in an essay entitled “December Meditation at Camp Polk Cemetery” (Having Everything Right: Essays of Place [Sasquatch Books]) The following excerpt gives, not only a flavor of Camp Polk, but that of a cemetery dog, as well:

December Meditation at Camp Polk Cemetery

Religion in the desert has a lot to do with patience, and patience has a lot to do with silence. Beyond my feet where I lie at Camp Polk, there is a stone with an infant’s oval ceramic photograph fixed to the pedestal. Someone sometime has used it for target practice, and the gray paint of the bullet shies away low and to the left. There are so many children, and they are all so silent they are a chorus. The desert is big enough to hold that wind.

At Ashwood in that ten years back I heard a wind coming. All was still where I crouched, but I heard that wind. Hot. There was a permanence to every stone crumb and weed-stalk in the little enclosure of wire where I stood up. About a quarter mile away, a single tree was moving. The others were still. I folded my map and put it away. Then the little whirlwind moved down the hill into another tree and left the first tree alone. There was a weight to the afternoon. Then all the trees were still and the wind was a slender spiral of dust coming down toward me.

Even under the snow I can see the varieties of hope at Camp Polk: the ring of stone, the chain perimeter, the lichen-shredded picket fence, concrete moat, rusted cast-iron rail around a rich man’s plot. In the sweep of open desert ground, the grave’s plot is a pouch, a box, a small fenced span of certainty. That’s all. That’s enough. It’s nearly dark.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

High Wheat

I began this blog with the intention of trying out ideas here before attempting to publish them elsewhere.

The two following photos and accompanying notes are the first installment of a longer photo-essay on cemeteries and the sense of place. The scenes etched on these stones are essentially the scenes one sees if one lifts ones eyes while standing in these cemeteries. One could find similar scenes north of them in the Palouse, but no one would mistake them for Kansas. Or Massachusetts. They are rooted in place.

In the future we'll look at gravesite ephemera, epitaphs, and the cemeteries themselves as emblematic of place.

Arlington Cemetery (Arlington, OR)

Athena Cemetery (Athena, OR)

There is little question that these two stones are the work of the same artist; they match almost perfectly. The Potter stone hails from Arlington, OR, a tiny (pop. 524 as of 2000) town on the banks of the Columbia River east of the Cascades. It came into existence as a cattle shipping station, but the cemetery marker clearly illustrates the current farm crop, wheat. Heading east on Interstate 84, Arlington is the last hamlet before the highway rises off the bank and begins its slow drift away from the river. The land above Arlington is known as “high wheat country” and is broad, lonely, and marked off dramatically by plowing patterns, such as those stylized on these stones. There are always mountains on the horizon and the vistas are immense.

Athena is better than twice the size of Arlington, which still doesn’t make her very big, but she’s off the highway and keeps to her own traditions. At times known as Mud Flats, Yellow Dog, and Squaw Town, she lays in the same rich Columbia Plateau as that above Arlington where rolling treeless hills stretch forever towards the river. That both cemeteries should have stones carved with the same vision is not surprising. If the common design didn’t convince you that you were in wheat country, the tractor on the King monument should clarify matters. Now, one might be tempted to add wind generators to the tableau.

Judging by cemeteries alone, one might think Arlington the larger of the communities, but its size reflects both its past and the large area it services. It is exceptionally well maintained and has a fine group of Woodmen of the World faux stump monuments, as well.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hello Rabbits

IOOF Cemetery, Grass Valley, OR

I’ll confess, it was the name “Graveyard Rabbit” which drew me in. That and Judy Shurer’s kind invitation. I’ve always called myself a cemetery dog and perhaps I’m still that. An old dog that doesn’t mind trailing a rabbit or two. Just for fun, you know. I mean them no harm.

That being said, hello to all of you from the capital of the Kingdom of the Willamette in the incomparable Oregon Territory.

You’ll find few recent entries on my blog for any number of unrelated reasons, but as much as anything else because no one was reading it. I can write letters to myself, but… No one was reading it, of course, because no one knew it was there. Or very few people, at least.

But the blog has never been my focus. For a long time it’s been the pictures. All 14,000 of them covering some 600-plus cemeteries primarily in the Oregon Territory. Taking those pictures has been an extensive education. They are posted in Flickr at “” That’s where the last several years have gone. I’ve been writing, as well, but nothing in print nor on line. Along the way, though, I’ve made many observations, and I look at cemeteries now much differently than I originally did. If you read my previous posts, you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

On the other hand, if the blog turns out to have readers and a dialog ensues, I promise greater diligence in the future.

Hilltop Cemetery, Independence, OR


To open our conversation I’d like to make some observations about what constitutes a “cemeterian.” Who are all these people hanging around the graveyard? We get lumped together over a common interest, but in some ways the threads are pretty thin.

Broadly put, cemeterians fall into two classes: those who are interested in cemeteries and those who are interested in who’s buried in them. As far as I can tell, the latter — historians and genealogists — far outweigh the former. Historians and genealogists, of course, can ply their trades without ever touching foot in a marble forest; yet even the most determined history sleuth finds the cemetery an inspiration for their investigation, not an objective. The cemetery may be a locus of their research, but it is not the focus.

The pure cemeterian, on the other hand, is more like the student of architecture, who is less concerned with the inhabitants of a house than with its design and function. What little study is done of cemeteries, per se, is usually the province of academe; and within that, most is done by geographers, folklorists, and architects/landscape architects. Most of that is either design oriented (architects) or anecdotal (folklorists) with the geographers holding a sketchy middle ground. Very little has been done in the way of organizing the entire database. There is no effective means of obtaining an overview of the cemeteries of any region, much less the country. Cemeterians, it turns out, aren’t very good counters. It’s hard to know exactly how many of what kind of cemeteries there are out there, not to mention where they are. Which is why even the best of cemetery research is fragmentary and lacks a cohesive setting.

Which is why, after a couple years researching cemeteries for a guide to the same in my region, I expanded my focus to concentrate on collecting images of grave monuments and ephemera, with an emphasis on personalization. It had become obvious that this was an enormous subject of which the scope had yet to be determined. The first thing needed, I reckoned, was knowing how big the playing field was. Someone had to go out and find out how many cemeteries there really were out there — not just burial sites, how big were they, and how were they being used. Without that, all research was anecdotal. Until one knew the size and breadth of the subject, one could have no idea if the data one had was common or unusual. Even the industry, both the burial and regulatory industries, have no hold on how many, what kind, and even location of all the cemeteries. Simply trying to acquire, much less organize, that data is a considerable task, which, surely, is part of the reason few people have attempted it.

Which is no excuse, but rather a reason. There is a difference. Nonetheless, it’s time that database be organized, and that’s what I do. For my little chunk of the world, anyway. I organize it. I go and find out what’s really there, take pictures, and upload them to the Net. And then I push them around in my head and try to make sense of what I’ve got. Sometimes I count things to see how patterns break down. Sometimes I write about the things I count and the things I shoot. I try and make sense of what I see. I try and connect what I see with the people who use the cemetery. I try and see what they see when they come to the cemetery. I look for hints on how they use the cemetery and what it means to them. I look, not for individual stories, but for community. What is the eschatology of the cemetery community? How does this place fit into their lives?

Camp Polk Cemetery, Sisters, OR

If you read previous posts here, you’ll find reference to a piece I was putting together on Native American graveyards, a project which has come to an abrupt and unfortunate halt; perhaps I’ll write about that later. My current work is a photo essay concerning cemeteries and a sense of place; how in a cemetery place can be referenced by monument design, gravesite ephemera, epitaphs, and setting. It’s my common theme.

In any event, I won’t lead you to Uncle Joe’s grave, though I might lead you to Spokane Jim’s. The dead in a cemetery don’t excite me much, but I find the living fascinating. People like you. I’m just a lonesome, little, amateur geographer taking the pulse of the cemeteries of the Oregon Territory at the turn of the 21st century. I’m glad to be aboard.