When I moved to SE Portland last autumn, I loosely knew the area around my apartment. Local theater. Park. Whole Foods. That thai place on the corner. Little markers that I had stuck firmly into my imagined map, that oriented me within my new neighborhood. It wasn’t until I was venturing out on Belmont toward a brunch spot that I had realized how very close I was to the Lone Fir.
It was only just a few months before that I had first stepped into the historic cemetery for a modern staging of Macbeth. Modern, as in the script was considerably shortened to match the short attention span of its audience. But here I was, on a particularly rainy day, facing 31 acres of quiet abandon. That was the day The graveyard on 26th inexplicably entered my weekly rotation.
There’s an unspoken mysticism to a cemetery. Like a library of finished books, pages aching to be reread. In that same sense, there’s also a profound sadness. Chapters closed, plot lines buried six feet deep. Whether practical or purely fantastical, I had begun chronicalling the people I met. You see, one of the beauties of a graveyard lies in its inherent proximity. The wealthy Oregon elite rub shoulders with the poor migrant workers. Historical founders buddy up with the modern departed. When we die, we all go to the same place. The playing field is as leveled as the plot you lie in.
When I visit, I walk all corners and inners of the site. I allow myself to take on the heaviness of the place, and seek out grave markers that look particularly lonely. I carefully walk the backs of headstones so as to not step over the dead, and then sit with the silence of the person. Some stones are emblazoned with familial descriptors; Father. Wife. Child. All end with a date of death. I squat down, capturing the grave from dirt-level with my iPhone camera.
At first, I would fantasize about their life, that time period. What they must have looked and acted like given what little I knew of them. My curiosity eventually evolved into full on research. A quick side note: Modern technology makes it eerily easy to find old records, census data, and next of kin. Googling names alongside date of death yields pages of photos, scanned patents, newspaper articles dating back a century. The graves before me were suddenly filled with people, personality. Books with battered bindings and earmarked epilogues. Reams of dreams dreamt, and lives lived.
Admittedly, I’m not a spiritual person. Nor do I follow a particular religious text, which leads me to sometimes question my own motivations in this effort. Is my weekend ritual a way for me to preserve the lives and learnings of the past? Or is the practice a perverse way of ensuring my own life after death? Whether selfish or selfless, I’ll be there. Every weekend. At the graveyard on 26th. Tiptoeing mortality, and paging through the book of bones.