Saturday, February 28, 2009

Last Words
A Glossary of Cemetery Terms

Highland Cemetery (Elgin, OR)

I can remember it clear as day, now fifty years later. I could see what my semester grade was: 68. I was looking down at the grade book lying open on his desk: not passing. I’m sure even 68 was generous. I was a flake. I did no studying. I could have cared less about Latin.

Mr. Johnson looked up at me. He was old, he had a shock of white hair, and he was kind. He smiled at me. He didn’t want me in his class again, either. He gave me a D.

Take that for what you will. I’m sure Mr. Johnson smiles down on me, yet, from his place in the firmament, bemused that I should publish a glossary and pretend to any competence.

I have limited the glossary, for the most part, to terms directly associated with the cemetery, eschewing funerals, religious services, embalming practices, and the like. Even so, I imagine there are any number of specialized terms I ignored or of which I am ignorant. Please be so kind as to fill in the gaps. I harbor no pretense to erudition or expertise and accept amendments cheerfully.

Were I to leave you with but one word, it would be eschatology. That’s the name of the field.

May I have a word with you?

Northwood Park Cemetery (Salmon Creek, WA)


A platform on which a corpse or a coffin containing a corpse is placed prior to burial, or a coffin along with its stand.
Coming via Old English from similar words (e.g. beere) having the sense of “to carry,” witness such words as “bear,” as in to bear children, or “barrow,” as in wheel barrow.
black glass
An 8x10 rectangle of black glass into which the deceased’s name and statistics were etched and subsequently embedded in stone or concrete, popular in the late 1930s and early 40s; manufactured by Memorial Arts in Portland.
“Black,” like its antonym “white,” is essentially unchanged in meaning through time. “Glass” likewise has retained an ancient meaning, originally from a presumed Indo-european root ghel-, “to shine or glitter, especially with a green or yellow cast.
Container in which a corpse is buried or cremated.
Of uncertain origin. Predates “cask” which precludes it being a diminutive of said word.
A cave, grotto, or large subterranean space used as a burial ground, commonly in the plural.
Borrowed from Latin via Italian. The Latin catacumbae first designated a set of underground tombs between the second and third milestones of the Appian Way. Before that its origins are in some dispute.
For the most part, the catafalque is the stand upon which a coffin rests during viewing or the funeral service. The Catholics also use it as a pall-covered faux-casket used in a requiem Mass after the burial.
Taken from the Italian, meaning “scaffold,” where the trail gets obscure; but it looks related to the French word for scaffold, échafaut.
A place for burying the dead; a graveyard. The Catholic Encyclopedia says this about “cemetery”: “The word coemeterium or cimiterium (in Gr. koimeterion) may be said in early literature to be used exclusively of the burial places of Jews and Christians.”
Slowly twisted up to us from the Latin and French and ultimately the Greek koiman, “to put to sleep,” itself from an Indo-European root with the senses of “to lie; bed, couch; dear, beloved,” itself an interesting comment on associations. Other words with the same root include “to hide” and “city.”
An empty tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person buried elsewhere.
From the Greek kenos, “empty,” and taphos, “tomb.” (Keno players take note.)
Cloth coated with wax or gummy matter and formerly used for wrapping dead bodies.
A mongrel word formed by joining the Latin word for wax, cera, to the English word “cloth.”
Synonymous with “cerecloth.”
From the Latin cera, “wax,” plus the suffix “-ment.”
charnel house
A building, room, or vault in which the bones or bodies of the dead are placed. Also used without the “house” and as an adjective.
The first syllable “char” comes down from the Latin through French meaning “flesh.” It’s the same “char” that appears in “charcuterie,” an establishment selling cooked meats or the contents of such a shop.
A place for maintaining the ashes of a cremated body.
Things having to do with cremation are cinerary, in particular cinerary urns, in which the Romans kept their dead. From the Latin word cinis, “ashes,” whence incinerate, etc.; which is probably why “columbarium” is preferred for the same thing, the association being with doves instead.
Gravediggers’ cant referring to sealing a grave and backfilling with dirt.
“Close,” has retained its meaning and related forms since Latin (via French), where is derives from clausus, itself the past participle of claudere, “to close, enclose, put an end to.” It ultimately issues from a Proto-Indo-European root, as well: *klau-, “crooked or forked branch used as a bolt.”
A container in which a corpse is buried or cremated; synonymous with “casket.”
Middle English borrowed this French word for “basket.” The French borrowed it from the Latins who in turn borrowed it from the Greeks.
A wall of niches which contain urns or boxes of ashes of the dead; also one of the niches in such a wall.
The Latin word for “dove” is columba. In much of the Mediterranean world dovecotes are built as walls or towers of niches in which the doves build their nests and from which the farmers can harvest the eggs and birds. Columbaria look like dovecotes. The wild columbine looks like five doves facing each other in a circle. And don’t forget Christopher Columbus.
A lamentation for the dead.
With several alternative spellings, from the Gaelic for “a crying.”
A portmanteau word carrying the meaning of “cremated remains.”
For the source of “cremated,” see “crematorium” below. “Remains” is ultimately from Latin manere, “to stay,” and the prefix re- which can have the meaning of “back”; hence, “to remain” equals “to stay back.”
Either the furnace for burning corpses or the building in which such a furnace is contained.
From the Germanic branch of the Indo-European root ker-, “heat, fire,” the source of such diverse words as “hearth,” “carbon,” “carbuncle,” “charcoal,” and, of course, “cremate.”
Underground vault or chamber, especially one beneath a church that is used as a burial place.
From the Greek via Latin, coming from the Greek word kruptein, “to hide.”
A mournful funeral hymn. A complicated explanation for a simple history.
It came from the Latin for “to direct,” and was part of a call and response routine in the Catholic Office of the Dead, i.e. their service for the dead. Because of its location as the first word in this mournful response, it eventually became shorthand for the whole thing and acquired the meaning of the whole and subsequently took on the independent sense of a hymn to the dead.
An ancient Celtic structure most often regarded as a burial chamber, consisting of two upright stones plus a horizontal capstone. Synonymous with “cromlech.”
Different sources give different origins for “dolmen,” though all point to a Celtic origin. The second syllable, “men,” comes from the Celtic word for “stone,” men, which is also encountered in “menhir,” upright stones found abundantly singly or in groups in Brittany and Cornwall, in particular.
A melancholy song or poem composed in remembrance of the dead.
Essentially unchanged from the Greek in meaning and not too changed in spelling, elegos, a mournful song.
The process of preserving a dead body by means of circulating preservatives and antiseptics through the veins and arteries.
Goes back to the Semitic word for “balsam,” the plant, whose name is essentially the same as the word “balm”; balsam, evidently, being a prime ingredient in the process from a very early date. We got it from Old French, which brought it in from Latin.
An epitaph can be either the inscription on or at a grave or tomb or a brief writing mimicking a real epitaph.
From the Greek through Latin and French; epi- meaning “at, upon,” while taphos means “tomb.” Cf. cenotaph.
Eschatology has two senses: one is as a collection of beliefs surrounding death and the end of days; the other is the study of such beliefs. In Christian theology, it’s the study of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
From the Greek eskhatos, “last,” plus the common suffix “-logy,” which issues from the Greek “to speak,” most specifically about a given subject.
“Grave” has three senses relating to death. There is the hole into which the body is interred, which extends to the general place of burial; and, finally, it is allegorical for death itself.
From the Germanic for “trench” or “grave” through various forms of English meaning “to dig, scratch, or engrave.” You might think of gravlax, which is salmon that has been buried for a period of time.
Originally the hearse was a harrow-shaped structure for holding candles over a coffin and still retains that meaning, but its more current usage is as the vehicle used for transportation of the casket.
From the Latin word for “harrow,” which itself probably came from the Oscan word for “wolf,” on account of the harrow’s resemblance to wolf’s teeth.
An ancient subterranean burial chamber, such as a catacomb, usually used by one family or a particular group.
From the Greek word meaning “underground.”
As a noun or either a transitive or intransitive verb, it expresses deep grief or mourning.
Another word drifting down through the ages essentially unchanged in form or content. Ultimately from the Latin lamentum, with the same meaning.
Or ledger stone. Stone slab covering most or all of a grave, often with extensive writing.
From the earlier legger, “book”; probably from a sense of “to lay.” “Ledger” is also used in the building trades to denote a particular element of scaffolding support.
More or less synonymous with “niche,” excepting that loculi tend to be reserved for entire remains, whereas niches are reserved for cremated remains.
From the Latin for “little place,” loculus; itself the diminuative of the Latin locus, meaning “place.”
A building, regardless of size or ornamentation, in which dead bodies are permanently housed.
The word has trickled down from the Greek, more or less unchanged, in which it is the name for the tomb of a satrap from Asia Minor named Mausolus. His tomb was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Any tall, narrow marker such as a column or obelisk made from a single stone.
A combinatorial word from the Greek mónos, “alone”; and lithos, “stone.”
A place where the bodies of the dead are maintained, that they may be identified or claimed; a deadhouse.
Named after a building in Paris, La Morgue, which had the same purpose as the English morgue. Supposition has it that its name came from the word morgue, meaning a “haughty or arrogant manner,” which somehow got transformed into “solemnity”; but there is no direct evidence for such.
In current usage it means either a burial place for the dead or a place where the dead can be visited before burial.
Webster’s equates “mortuary” with “morgue,” but “morgue” has more the sense of “governmental structure,” whereas “mortuary” has more the sense of a “private burial home or viewing residence.” At one time a mortuary was a gift given to the minister of the parish of the dead person, ostensibly to cover any arrears in tithing the dead may have occurred. The panoply of “mort-” words stem from the Latin word for “dead,” mortuus. Besides the obvious, other “mort-” words include “nightmare, morsel, morbid, mortgage, and ambrosia.”
Literally, a city of the dead. A cemetery, especially a large and elaborate one belonging to an ancient city.
From a Greek word, the components of which are nekro, “corpse,” and polis “city.”
A hollowed space in a wall made especially (in this connotation) for placing of urns containing cremated remains.
There are two competing theories as to the origin of “niche.” No one argues that we borrowed it from the French, but there’s a question of from whence the French got it. One school says it’s a corruption of the Old Italian word nicchio, “seashell”; but a better argument is that it’s derived from the Latin for “nest,” nidus, the argument that my Petit Robert makes. Ultimately it comes from the Indo-European root sed-, from which a whole host of words including “sit, saddle, settle, sewer, assess. posses, preside, supersede, cathedral, chair, ephedrine, tetrahedron, soil, sedate, banshee,” and “soot” derive.
A tapering, four-sided stone pillar, usually monolithic and capped with a pyramidal apex. In cemeteries a fashionable imitation of Egyptian custom.
From the Greek obelískos, “small spit,” derived from obel(ós), “spit, pointed pillar” plus the diminutive suffix -iskos.
In gravediggers’ cant, it refers to digging a grave: one opens a grave.
“Open” has kept its form, more or less, and its meaning for a long time. Ultimately it’s from the Proto-Indo-European *upo, “up from under, over,” and is related to “up.”
For the most part it means an often velvet cloth draped over a coffin, bier, or tomb, but occasionally it refers to the coffin as it’s being carried to the grave.
Old English pæll, “cloak, covering” from the Latin pallium meaning the same.
A one-foot by two-foot, raised flat marker, so named for its resemblence to the household item.
Ultimately from the Latin pulvinus, “cushion.”
A pile of combustibles for burning a corpse as a funeral rite.
The same word as “fire” only spelled slightly differently, but from the same Indo-European root paw, “fire.”
A mass, musical composition, hymn, or service for the dead.
A case of the first word of a long speech coming to represent the entire speech. In this case, the first word of the Catholic mass for the dead is the Latin requis, “rest,” from whence the entire mass or, subsequently, musical composition. The ultimate Indo-European root kweie, “quiet,” has given rise to many English words, among which “quiet, quite, quit, acquit, coy, whilom,” and “while.”
Above-ground stone coffin often inscribed or decorated with sculpture.
Ultimately from the Greek sarx, “flesh,” and phagein, “to eat,” referring to the supposed properties of limestone when a corpse is placed in it. Originally sarkophagos, “flesh-eating,” was preceded by lithos, “stone,” but over time lithos got dropped and any old stone coffin became a sarcophagus.
A burial vault or receptacle for the dead.
Winding down from Old French which took it from the past participle of the Latin verb sepelre, “to bury the dead.”
An under officer of a church who is a Jack-of-All-Trades for the place including keeping the priest happy, maintaining vestments, ringing bells, being the janitor, digging the graves, and maintaining the graveyard.
Coming to us from Anglo-Latin, it’s a synonym for “sacristan,” both of which derive from the latin word for “sacred,” sacer; whence, of course, “sacred” itself.
A cloth used to wrap a body for burial; a winding sheet.
From an Anglo-Saxon word, scrud, “garment, cloth,” it also survives in English as “shred.”
The excess dirt left after an excavation, in this case a grave.
From the Middle English spoilen, “to plunder”; ultimately from the Latin spolium, “booty.”
An upright slab or pillar carrying an inscription or sculpted design, serving as a marker or commemorative tablet. In architecture it often incorporated into the facade design of a building.
From the Greek with the same spelling and meaning; ultimately from the Indo-European *sta- "to stand, set down, make or be firm" From whence, among others, the suffix “-stan,” as in “Pakistan”; “-stan” being the place where one stands.
A poem or song of mourning.
From the Greek thrnos, “lament,” and aoid, “song.”
Various senses of being a place for the dead or a monument commemorating them.
From the Greek through Lower Latin through French to English it’s been spelled similarly and meant the same. Perhaps related to the Latin tumulus, “mound.”
A container into which cremated remains are placed, made, usually, of metal, wood or stone.
From the Latin urna of the same meaning.
A burial chamber underground or partly so, including in meaning the outside metal or concrete casket container, as well.
In a bit of allusion, the Indo-European word for “to roll,” wel-, obtained the sense of arching, as in during a roll, and then into a thing which has an arch; in this case the arch over the tomb (could have been over the bank). Some other words out of the wel- include, “waltz, willow, wallow, revolve, valley, volume, evolve, vulva, covering,” and “womb.”
A watch kept over the deceased, possibly lasting the entire night preceding the funeral.
One has to be awake to keep watch at a wake, all of those words coming from the Indo-European weg-, “strong, lively.” As well as “vigilante, reveille,” and “velocity.”
winding-sheet (-cloth)
A sheet for wrapping a corpse; a shroud.
From the sense of winding a cloth around the body.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

South Coast Literati

Reedsport Masonic Cemetery

Last week I made a quick trip to a stretch of the southern Oregon Coast, visiting old haunts, old friends, and a handful of cemeteries. It will take me a little time to get all the photos uploaded onto Flickr, so I can’t as yet link you to the cemeteries; but I reaped a handful of interesting epitaphs that I figure wouldn’t hurt to display now. In fact, proportionally, I did better with epitaphs than with monuments. Who knew they would be so literate down there?

It must be said that Coos County and the Coquille River Valley form a world apart, only tenuously attached to the rest of Oregon. Or the rest of America, for that matter. We’ve long observed that, not only do they march to a different drummer down there, it’s not clear that they even have a drum. What is true is that there’s more farmable land in the valleys of Coos County than anywhere else in the Coast Range, though much of it is hidden to the casual visitor. The hills are not as tall here as they are to the north and south, yet they scramble the countryside thoroughly and snake valleys far away from what passes for civilization in these parts. Despite being an area of early white settlement, there is still a rawness and roughness prevalent here that has long since been wiped from the rest of the Coast. Only recently did the logging mills disappear from the Coos Bay waterfront, and only now are tourists making serious inroads into pockets near the sea. Still, it will be a long time after the headlands are rimmed with second homes before the vacationers will make significant forays into the interior. It’s a long ways back in there and it’s not clear to where it goes. Road signs in the mountains can be scarce or lacking altogether, and winter is not the time to get lost in there. Wisdom says, stick to maintained roads and don’t drive at night in the rain. Highways can slide down hillsides with no notice.

Sunset Memorial Park

But enough geography. On to the epitaphs:

The first two cemeteries I visited are actually in the Umpqua River drainage, to the north of Coos County. The Umpqua harbors its own particular culture which interacts considerably with the Coos/Coquille folk, but which is strikingly different, as its major agricultural and population center is far inland and has distinctly different growing conditions from the fog-shrouded, drizzled coast.

Scottsburg gives us two epitaphs:

The Daileys, Paul (1928-1991) and Marcella (1932-1999), repeat one I’ve recorded elsewhere: “Where there walks a logger there walks a man.” A search of the Internet turns up references to a CD of the same name as that phrase from the 70’s by one Buzz Martin of “Five Rivers area,” Oregon; early and local enough to have been the inspiration for both my citations. On the other hand, there could be a prior source for all of them.

Claude (1922- ) & Frances (1923-1998) Friend have a gorgeous bronze plaque that also carries a reference to logging, of sorts, but theirs is a little less strident, a little more welcoming. Indeed, with its folksy twang and soft edges, it’s got “Jimmy Stewart” written all over it: “Tried to leave the woodpile a little higher than we found it.” They claim “four beautiful daughters,” who are surely warmed by that woodpile to this day.

Scottsburg Cemetery

The next town downstream from Scottsburg is Reedsport, which, while founded in 1852, wasn’t platted until nearly fifty years later. Reedsport is more or less the town at the mouth of the Umpqua, though that honor is technically held by the smaller Winchester Bay (which predates Reedsport by two years).

The Masons provided the main cemetery in Reedsport. I recorded a couple interesting epitaphs from there. Jamie Palmer (1983-1999) represents the occasional constant in epitaphs: the enigma. Hers is “They’ll always be five.”

Five what? She was sixteen when she died. “They” implies people. Are we talking age or number?

Advice (other than the “ones good deeds live after them” sort) is scarce on tombstones, but some people carry their idealism to the grave. The twenty-year old Steven Mix (1953-1973) left us with an uplifting homily, reflecting, perhaps, his youthful ardor:

Before you abuse mock and accuse be sure
You have walked a mile in your neighbors shoes

When we finally get to Coos Bay, we find the cemeteries dominated by lawn cemeteries, and despite the concentration of population, the metro area offered the slimmest pickings. In fact, the only interesting memorial I recorded was a modest one to the quasi-mythic distance runner, Steve Prefontaine (1951-1975), for whom this was his home town. Steve died in a car accident but he is still honored here in his home state. His is the only upright tombstone allowed in Sunset Memorial Park. The epitaph is unassuming:

Our beloved son and brother
who raced through life
now rests in peace

Sunset Memorial Park

It was the delightful and obscure Coos River Cemetery, though, that provided the best lode of epitaphs. It’s listed on ePodunk as the South Fork Cemetery, but don’t believe it. The handmade sign says otherwise.

When it comes to obscure and inscrutable, William Gilmore (1839-1937) is in a class by himself. Shortman and I stared at his stone for a long time, but came to no conclusions. Whatever Mr. Gilmore was trying to say, it went to the grave with him. You tell me what you think it means:

Theinheriet laws
matter is the crea-
tor of the universe

Go ahead, read it as often as you like.

Coos River Cemetery

Al Lewis’s (1899-1975) stone is notable for its simple elegance as much as its John Wayne inspired epitaph: “He had true grit”; whereas Alice Spear’s (1923-1989) epitaph is notable for its playful nature. The marker was adorned with musical notes, so I presume the epitaph was lighthearted:

They said she was too different
and she wrote too many tunes.

Yet as a heart-tugger it’s hard to top the four words left on Manuel Rodriguez’s (1946-2003) headstone:

I miss my friend.

And so it goes.

Coos River Cemetery

Friday, February 13, 2009

Up and Coming

Cove Cemetery

Fellow Flickrite, Mr. Ducke, trenchant observer of many things, cemeteries included, tendered the perfect phrase in a recent communication regarding the removal of ephemera from behind the berm at Willamette National: “I am sure that you have noticed the following heartening trend. I have found in the last 10 or 15 years that people are 'taking back' [emphasis added] the cemeteries. The volume of offerings and decorations seems to increase yearly, and new sandblasting techniques have resulted ina personalization of gravestones mostly lacking in the 20th century . Ultimately, asmost cemeteries are run as businesses, they will have to realize that if they refuse to allow people to express the rituals of mourning and remembrance that have now become meaningful to them, they will take their business elsewhere.”

Eugene Masonic Cemetery

In August of 2007, The Sunday Oregonian highlighted that very problem with a piece titled, “Oregon cemetery plots go begging.” The paper and the industry clearly laid the blame on cremation leaking away the cemeteries’ business, without probing deeper into the cause of that phenomenon. Cost has certainly been a factor, but no more so and probably less than the rise of the lawn cemetery, which squashed the very reason for a cemetery’s existence in the first place: as a place of memorialization, not just for the deposition of bones. What Mr. Ducke highlighted is the countervailing trend: the movement to take back the cemeteries. To express that personalization and to make the cemetery a meaningful place once again. That movement is being expressed again and again everywhere I go, and I’ll be surprised if it hasn’t hit your quarter, too. We like to think we’re cutting edge up here in the Left Corner, but we’re all cutting the same cake.

Myrtle Creek Pioneer Cemetery

The Sunday Oregonian, to their credit, has noticed the cemetery revival, as well, and in January of this year featured an article entitled “Monument revival,” subtitled “Once neglected, heritage cemeteries [the new name for “pioneer cemeteries”] see the light with renewed interest in forested settings, native plants and tourism”; concentrating in particular on two stars of the Oregon cemetery world: Myrtle Creek and Eugene Masonic, both of which, indeed, are exemplary. Myrtle Creek, while meticulously restored with impressively beautiful, new ironwork gates, is essentially frozen in time, whereas Eugene Masonic is experiencing a new sense of purpose as well as a renewed interest as a place of burial. Where Myrtle Creek is painterly perfect and harbors an air of Renaissance serenity, Eugene Masonic is a robust work-in-progress brimming with life and bustling with people and dogs and wild life. The two could not be more dissimilar. Nor more alike.

Amboy Cemetery

Chelatchie Cemetery

Echo Cemetery

Both stem from a tide which has inundated the Northwest. The reasons are complex and varied, but probably the biggest single factor has been the Internet. That and the Mormons. Strictly speculating, it appears that the cemetery revival has been a function of the explosion of interest in genealogy. The Mormons, of course,. take genealogy seriously and have done monumental work in amassing demographic data from all over the world. It was that amassing of information which allowed the average person a chance at tracing their own genealogy without having to travel the country over, if not the larger world. The placing of the same data on the Internet has cut out the middleman (i.e. the Latter Day Saints) and allowed the home researcher even greater unfettered access to voluminous vital statistics. Once people could find out where their great aunt died, the next logical step was to hunt up the grave; and nothing spurs interest in cleaning up a graveyard like a personal visit. There has also been in the latter half of the 20th century a large increase in interest in preservation in general of both the natural and built environments, largely, I would imagine, as a reaction to the demolitions and modernizations of the postwar era and as an attempt to maintain ones identity in a rapidly changing and globalizing world. In any event, the cemetery revival has run parallel with the broader folk and vernacular preservation revivals. (Steve Mayes of the Oregonian did an extended piece in 2005 on the revival of the Gribble Family Cemetery near Canby which well illustrates the turn-around process in reviving a heritage cemetery.)

Gribble Family Cemetery

Moehnke Cemetery

Wilbur Cemetery

The movement to take back the cemeteries is wide spread. Mr. Ducke lives in Massachusetts and I report from the Northwest corner of the country. And the movement reaches all corners of the region, not stopping at a few favorite cemeteries. If one were to count revival by new signs, new fences, and new flag poles alone, the numbers would be staggering. Few have been left untouched these recent years. Everybody’s lawn is getting mowed (except for those contrarians in Eugene!). And not just individual cemeteries. Whole cemetery districts are witnessing solid support every time a cemetery referendum appears on the ballot. These days of severe belt tightening might change that, but up until recently there was no sure bet like a cemetery levy. School levies are always chancy, but cemetery levies fly though unscathed. We may not all have kids, but we all die.

Applegate Family Cemetery

Civil Bend Cemetery

A few examples, if you will:

Wilbur Cemetery down in Douglas County has new benches adorned with hand cut metal animal figures at their feet. The four-family Moehnke Cemetery in Clackamas County likewise offers a row of four new benches. Cove scattered stone/concrete benches through its cemetery, but you’d be hard pressed to notice them, being overwhelmed by arguably the most awesome entrance arch to any cemetery in Oregon. Gates are popular. Myrtle Creek may have the pièce de resistance, but not far away in Yoncolla the venerable Applegate Family Cemetery also sports a new entrance. Sometimes cemeteries are resuscitated in multiples. The small, paired Washington cemeteries of Amboy and Chelatchie have new fencing, new benches, new flag poles, and freshly planted cherry trees, yet. The folks in Estacada maintain nine pioneer cemeteries and recently passed another support levy. The Rainier Cemetery District smartly maintains ten cemeteries, making mega-Portland with but fourteen cemeteries a piker in the pioneer business. The ironically named Civil Bend Cemetery in Winston, once out of the way and somewhat forgotten, newly greets one with a large boulder incised with the cemetery name, founding date, and image of a horse-drawn hearse. Ever cute, hyper-Western Echo put in, not only new fencing, but greatly expanded parking to accommodate increased traffic. It’s a tourist destination, as is every right-thinking cemetery these days.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park

The list continues as far as the cemeteries stretch. No region is immune. It’s more than a fad; it’s a sea change. If lawn cemeteries are struggling, traditional cemeteries are booming. (Some lawn cemeteries, it should be noted, have made strong moves to recapture the upright market, curtailing in the process their lawn tendencies. Forest Lawn in Gresham has devoted a large percentage of its turf to uprights; while Lincoln Memorial Park, which began as a “rural” cemetery before transforming itself, as was common, into a lawn cemetery, is innovatively approaching many areas of the market at once, from building an upright pagoda garden to allowing full new sections of uprights and creating landscaped cremains grounds.) There are more pleasant places to die than ever before. A little advertising, and the cremation business could take a significant hit. The future of the cemetery business is not written in stone. The glory days are still to come: the Boomers have yet to fade away.

Just you wait!

Lincoln Memorial Park

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The New Asians

Sunnyside Chimes Memorial Garden

Before taking care of business, I want to introduce you to Betty Blade. Betty lives somewhere in Gotham and keeps tab on the cultural geography of her city through her camera. That should be credit enough, but Betty busies herself by filling in the gaps and rounding out the corners of most of my Flickr entries. She adds all the tags I should be adding but don’t, thanks to incurable laziness (you can laugh, but it’s a deadly disease). More importantly, she often adds tidbits of information or excerpts from poems or song, etc., that speak to whatever photo she is amending. Her far-ranging intellect pulls gems from all over the cultural canon, and without her, my site would be much the poorer. I have no idea for how many people she provides this service, but her efforts on my behalf are prodigious. I jokingly call her my “Boswell,” but she’s nothing of the sort. She’s not chronicling me, she’s augmenting the collection. I owe her big time.

Sunnyside Chimes Memorial Garden

It was Betty who sent me the link to The Buddhist Channel with the story about Oregon’s first Vietnamese Buddhist cemetery, complete with a new statue of a Buddha (which doesn’t, I warn you, look like our traditional vision of a rotund Buddha). That I should first hear of a Portland cemetery story via New York City amazes me, but I thank her for it, nonetheless.

Sunnyside Chimes Memorial Garden

The Buddhist cemetery is not, strictly speaking, an independent cemetery; it is a designated section of a commercial cemetery operation: Sunnyside Chimes Memorial Garden (one of several different tags it hangs upon itself). Across the road from Sunnyside is Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery which supports a SE Asian section of its own.

Being a cemetery within a cemetery is not uncommon here in Portland; besides these examples of SE Asians, there are Jewish cemeteries within two of Metro’s fourteen pioneer cemeteries. (Metro is a local government agency which handles a lot of our civic housekeeping duties.) The Portland Japanese Cemetery is surrounded by Rose City Cemetery, but in that case the two cemeteries are independent of each other.

While its significance may be lost on the rest of the continent, we in the Pacific Northwest pride ourselves on being the doorway to America. Without a doubt, if not the first, then the ample majority of the early immigrants to North and South America came through the Fraser and Columbia River valleys after slinking down the coast from Alaska. That there should be a continuing steady influx here of immigrants from Asia should not be surprising. And the silver lining of our disastrous military foray into SE Asia has been a healthy wave of newcomers from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Once again, their loss is our gain, and consequently we have better restaurants than we ever had. (Me, I’m all for invading Italy. Preëmptive strike against the Mafia. Think of the gastronomic gains!)

Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery

Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery

The colored hand-etched stone face from Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery has no inscription of any kind and is not a part of its SE Asian section, though it clearly has SE Asian elements in its design. The racial composition of the vast crowd is intriguing. This upright is the only upright in the cemetery, though they are being allowed in the Buddhist venture across the road. Almost all the stones in the Catholic cemetery have laser-etched portraits or photoceramic cameos. The Buddhist cemetery is too new to have a track record, but it looks like it will be dominated by portraits, as well.

Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery

On the secular side, the largest Asian “cemeteries” are parts of Lincoln Memorial Park, an old “rural” cemetery on Portland’s East Side, which contains a traditional Chinese cemetery; another Vietnamese Catholic section; a new upright section used, not exclusively but heavily, by Asians; and an even newer pagoda cemetery with preset, identical headstones. I’ve seen a similar arrangement being constructed in a Seattle cemetery and presume it’s following an existing Asian pattern, but that’s merely a guess. The Lincoln Park burial spaces far outnumber the combined totals for Gethsemani and Sunnyside.

Lincoln Memorial Park