I’ve loved graveyards since I was six years old, playing house on the flat stones of the cemetery near our country house in Craig, Colorado, the small town on the western slope of the Rockies where I grew up. I felt right at home in my playground in the high desert sagebrush, and was surprised when a girl my own age asked if it was true dead people walked around at night – a thought that had never occurred to me. Now my aunt and uncle and a young cousin who died in a car accident are guests there, and if they do walk around at night I hope they enjoy the place as much as I did.
As a young married woman living in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, I would take my toddler son Scott for walks in a colonial-era graveyard across the street. As a new mother I mooned over the beautiful old stones that told stories of the short and sad lives of the many young women who died in childbirth in the 18th and 19th century. “Here lies buried Eliza with her twin infants.”
Later, living in rural Vermont, I discovered gravestone rubbing, and when my sisters and I went off to Europe in 1968 I traveled with rice paper, round black crayon and masking tape. I was recently divorced and immersed in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, for reasons I no longer remember. But I knew I wanted to go to Ireland and make a rubbing of the lovely words on Yeats’ gravestone in the country churchyard of County Sligo: “Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death/ Horseman pass by,” lines from one of Yeats’ final poems. I dutifully rubbed the stone and carried the rolled-up rice paper through Europe to hang on the wall in my apartment in Boulder, where I was in school. It is long-lost and not lamented.
Fast forward several decades (during which I visited and photographed many graveyards) to Portland, where to my delight we ended up living four blocks from historic Lone Fir Cemetery, the first of the city’s pioneer cemeteries. A beautiful place full of trees on the city’s east side, Lone Fir goes back over 150 years, when a local farmer named James Stephens buried his father on the farm, as was the custom then.
Stephens sold the land with the proviso that his father not be disturbed, and when the new owner’s steamboat blew up on the Willamette River, he buried his partner and a passenger there. Thus Lone Fir cemetery was born, and the fir tree planted in 1866 still stands. I can see its top from our upstairs bathroom window. When James Stephens and his wife Elizabeth passed on, they took up residence there too. Here, they are today, still holding hands.
I’ve been visiting and photographing Lone Fir for twenty years now, my lens always drawn to the ephemeral “messages” left by the living for the dead – notes, liquor, cards, photos letters, messages in bottles – and to quirky stones such as this one of Paul Lind, a loving testament to a Scrabble fan:
But I leave the last word to our good friend, the late, lamented “famous publisher” and art critic Joel Weinstein, too soon a resident of Lone Fir. It’s a comfort to have him close by, and I always visit his gravesite to say hello and see what’s been left by his many fans.
Joel loved bikes, coffee, books and Mexico, and last winter someone left this memento mori with a Mexican theme, which says, “For the dead there is no future.”
Joel would have enjoyed the image and the humor, but I think I prefer the Russian proverb: “We live as long as we are remembered.”