When my husband told me we’d been invited to his childhood best friend’s wedding in Portland, Oregon, my first thought was about what cemeteries I’d visit. It’s a cemetery hopper’s first instinct.
We only had a weekend so I quickly settled on Lone Fir Cemetery, the jewel in the crown of the 14 cemeteries managed by Metro (the regional governmental agency for the Portland metro area).
I can safely say that Lone Fir is just as quirky as the town it’s located in. And in a good way.
Located in Southeast Portland, the 30 acres that make up Lone Fir are well tended. Much of that is due to the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, a group dedicated to education, preservation and restoration efforts. They not only give monthly tours but hold special events such as headstone cleaning workshops and a Halloween Tour of Untimely Departures.
According to Friends of Lone Fir’s web site, the cemetery’s first human occupant was Emmor Stephens. His burial was in 1846 in what was then privately owned land, which was later platted as Mount Crawford Cemetery in 1855. Then, Portland existed only on the west side of the Willamette River. Because of the marshy ground, several city graveyards were closed and many bodies were then re-interred at Mount Crawford.
Mount Crawford was renamed Lone Fir in 1866, for the once solitary tree in its northwest corner. Lone Fir is Portland’s oldest continuously used cemetery and is now a de facto arboretum, with 500 trees representing 67 species. More than 25,000 people are buried there.
Reflective of the real trees is the large number of Woodman of the World tree-shaped monuments sprinkled throughout the cemetery. You’ve probably seen them before but never knew what they were. The symbol of the cut tree signifies a life cut short.
In its early days, Woodman of the World insurance policies provided a death and monument benefit. That means they provided gravestones to members for free and later for those who bought a $100 rider.
In the 1920s, the Society stopped doing this when the costs got to be too great and some cemeteries began to not allow above-ground markers for maintenance reasons. But for several years after that, members and lodges arranged for markers and monuments on their own.
Lone Fir also has many examples of one of my favorite type of monument, white bronze. In reality, white bronze is actually zinc. If you tap one, you can hear a hollow metallic sound. I could do an entire blog piece on this style of monument alone but for now, visit A Grave Interest to learn more about these hardy markers.
Later, I had the pleasure of encountering a fellow Find a Grave volunteer who also happens to be a Friends of Lone Fir member. She was washing a gravestone to get a better idea of the woman’s name. I rarely meet fellow Find a Grave members in person so it was a treat to do so that far away from home!
Linda was very helpful in explaining the history of the cemetery since she’s also a tour guide. She talked about the large open corner of the cemetery that is devoid of trees or markers, known as Block 14.
This unassuming plot has a great deal of history. At one time, it was not only where the Chinese workers who had come East to work on the railroad and in the mines were once buried but also patients of the former Oregon Hospital for the Insane.
According to Chinese custom, immigrants were buried here for a short time, with their remains later dug up and returned to China, to be reunited with their ancestors. This went on until Multnomah County (the land’s owner) wanted to use it as a maintenance building/yard for the highway department. In 1948, this block was excavated with a bulldozer. All remains found were packed off to China and the building was built shortly thereafter.
In 2004, Multnomah County made plans to raze the maintenance building on the land and sell the property to the highest bidder (mostly likely for condos). Many locals who knew the history of that space fought the move.
Ground-penetrating radar showed that two graves were still buried on the property, which meant it was still very much a cemetery. While the building was razed as planned, the land was deeded to Metro to be part of Lone Fir as a historic landmark. Plans are now in the works to turn it into a memorial garden to remember those who were originally buried here.
Linda also told us about the striking black monuments with recent dates on them. Portland is home to a large Russian immigrant population. Some years ago, a few of the local Russian churches bought up a number of cemetery spaces at Lone Fir for their congregants to purchase.
When I saw these very life-like faces staring back at me, I almost felt as if I were in a different country. The Cyrillic print made it even more vivid. Most of the expressions are rather solemn. The one of an infant grave was incredibly poignant.
At the same time, some of the modern markers I encountered were inventive and more lighthearted. The best example of this would have to be Joel Weinstein’s grave. A long-time publisher of a Portland magazine called Mississippi Mud, Joel was a huge fan of Puerto Rican art. His marker reflects his colorful life perfectly.
Another eye-catching monument is the one for Dr. Minh Van Tran. I’m not sure if EJ and PJ Dragonhorn are the artists who created it.
The last example I will share is a sad story in that what was once a beautiful monument has been vandalized to the point it’s now a shadow of what it was once intended to be.
Paul Lind loved to play Scrabble. He died at the young age of 31. His fiance, Heather, wanted to create a monument that reflected his personality. Along with Paul’s father, she came up with this. She said, “He was a big time scrabble fanatic. I never was able to beat him on one-on-one.”
Unfortunately, by the time I was able to see it, vandals had torn the colorful tiles off to leave the shell behind. I read an article that said a Scrabble tournament was held in 2013 to raise funds to help restore it to its former glory but that hasn’t happened yet.
One thing I noticed while we were there is that Lone Fir, in some ways like Oakland in Atlanta, is regarded as a valuable greenspace that many locals use. We saw several joggers. Linda said that the nearby high school’s track team uses the cemetery for running practice during the week.
Another bit of information she passed along to me is that in some cases, when students are given detention at the high school, they must draw from a jar containing the names of selected people buried at Lone Fir. The student then researches that person and write up a report about them. That’s certainly different!
As always, visiting cemeteries in a different state opens my eyes to the variety of grave stones, wildlife, and flora/fauna that exists outside my small world of Atlanta, Ga. Lone Fir provides that in spades, probably more than most cemeteries do.
I’d like to come back and see it again some day.