Wednesday, May 20, 2009


You may think I'm odd, and you wouldn't be the first, but I love to walk through cemeteries. By walking I do not mean taking a casual stroll and enjoying the breeze through the trees. I mean spending hours tramping up and down looking at the tombstones. It isn't out of a sense of morbid fascination with death. Rather it is a fascination with people. When I go to a cemetery, I don't so much see markers and tombs, I wonder about the people who were laid to rest beneath them.

A dear friend and I have been exploring the older cemeteries in the area. The oldest cemeteries here only go back to the mid-1800s and, thus, are relatively new as cemeteries go. There are local notables from the founding of Oregon in the pioneer cemeteries, even a few folks that are known further afield. Those are interesting to search for. But I much prefer wandering among the unknown, lesser lights and speculating about their lives. And, on occasion, I'll do research on my findings, if the tombstone provides an interesting tidbit to follow up on.

Several years ago, I was on a kick of reading about the so-called Wild West and noticed that Wyatt Earp's brother Virgil was buried here in Portland. That piqued my curiosity. How in the world did he end up way up here? I researched Mr. Earp to a fare-thee-well and made a mental note to track down his grave someday. Much later the topic came up, somehow, and I babbled on about it as I am wont to do when I learn something that fascinates me. My friend suggested that we go find him and we were off within a few weeks. And find him we did, in the largest cemetery in the area. We had to walk all over the place looking for him on a hot day. We had a general idea of where to go, but if we hadn't stopped at the cemetery offices, we would have never found him. Now the gravestone wasn't all that interesting, but it was kind of neat that we found it. During however many hours we spent there, we found many interesting names which led to some reflection, some confusion and some research. All in all, a very worthwhile trip. So worthwhile, in fact, that we planned on another one.

Next we traipsed up to a smaller, old cemetery in Vancouver, Washington. We weren't hunting up anyone in particular, but we do keep track of which date on the stones is the oldest. Now into a comfortable routine of poking around, clearing off moss and looking for interesting things, we wandered around for a couple of hours. I had the find of the day not long before we were planning to leave. I almost walked on a nondescript stone that was flush to the ground. On it read: Edward Gallagher, (dates) and "executed by legal hanging." I made note of it for further research. My friend and I then spent a little while wondering if there had been any 'illegal hangings" up there. I found out later that day that we'd found the only person to be executed in Vancouver. His attorney attempted an insanity defense, and truth to tell the records certainly read like Mr. Gallagher had some screws loose. But such a defense was pretty hard to establish back in 1890 and he was executed about 8 months after the murder had been committed. Alright, I'll admit that one did grab the less noble parts of my curiosity, but it was fascinating.

Most recently we investigated one of the pioneer cemeteries here in town. It was beautiful with over a thousand trees and dated back to 1846. It houses the resting places of most of the families whose names grace the streets around town. The place was so interesting that we were surprised when we realized that we'd been there for four hours. We found children and their families, a madam and a prostitute, firemen, Masons and Odd Fellows, new Russian graves and old Japanese ones. Every bit of it provoking speculation. There is the corner where the Chinese workers from the turn of the century "used to" be buried. There had been a government building erected over it and when the building was razed, they discovered that there were still many graves there. There is an entire section of tombstones written in Japanese. And, being me, I can't stop wondering how Seizo Furukawa, aged 22 came to be buried here in 1900. I also find myself smiling when I think about the big stone with the proud name James Gray Flowerdew. He just HAD to be a very nice gentleman with a name like that. Or, at least, that's what I want to believe.

For me, the cemeteries are the historical record for the average person. I want to recognize them and learn about them. When I read the stones, I give voice to names that have not been spoken in 100 years. I make note of the interesting epitaphs and touch history with a small 'h', connecting with those who have gone before. I notice the contrast of recent stones nestled up beside stones that are 100 years old and wonder what I think about that. Does it mar the historical continuity? Or is it just a reflection of the reality of it making no difference to the dead who they lie beside?

Oddly enough, all this tromping about doesn't make me dwell on death itself. But rather on life. And although I don't much care what happens to my body when I'm no longer using it, when the time comes I very much hope someone puts up a stone. I kind of like the idea of someone reading my name a hundred years hence and wondering about me for a moment.

The explorations will continue with Pere Lachaise in Paris definitely on the agenda. And while the people and the people who knew them are long gone, their names have been heard and may turn up in one of my stories someday.


Carmen said...

Lachaise is my favourite cemetary. I spent several hours photographing headstones....From Jim Morrison to Baudelaire--I was lost in the history of the place.

Knitman said...

I don't think it's odd. I have been fascinated by the burials I see in Cathedrals, the heavy tombs, knowing there are centuries old remains in them. I too wonder about the people.

yarnpiggy said...

I don't think it is odd at all; I share your interest in cemeteries and the stories they hold, and love to wander through them. :-)

Lorien said...

I don't remember if I commented to you on plurk about this one, but you MUST explore the cemetaries in New Orleans. And if you ever get out to Natchez, Mississippi, there is a beautiful old one there with the graves or the earliest founders--religious from Ireland --with beautiful Celtic crosses.