The unofficial caretaker of Portland's oldest and largest pioneer cemetery is a young guy named Frank Schaefer whose hair is bleached blond, whose nose sports a thin silver ring nose and whose license plate reads "SHRIEK". That license plate, by the way, is attached to the back of a vintage hearse whose backseats are currently full of zombie baby mannequins.
"People are afraid of cemeteries because they're full of death, but look, there's trees in bloom. There's birds and bees," says Schaefer, gesturing the the red and yellow leaves covering Southeast Portland's Lone Fir Cemetery on a crisp Saturday morning. Though Schaefer spends his free time poring over files stuffed with death records and newspaper clippings, this morning he turned up at Lone Fir to lead a dress rehearsal for the graveyard's busiest night of the year: Halloween. Nealy 1,000 Portlanders lined up outside Lone Fir's chain link fence last Halloween to take the bloody-but-educational Tour of Untimely Departures. This year, Schaefer's thinking big. Instead of just one tour, two tours will head in opposite directions, each stopping at a mix of historically-relevant and satisfyingly gory graves. Lone Fir houses the bones of some of Portland's most well-known founders, as well as dozens of unmarked graves whose residents who remain nameless both in death and in the history books.
"It's pretty gnarly to hear the story. There were apparently body parts all over the docks," says Schaefer, stopping at the grave of the creators of Lone Fir, James and Elizabeth Stephens. The couple, who ran ferry service across the Willamette back in the 1830s and 40s, owned a giant eastside farm (stretching from the river to SE 28th and Stark to Division) and turned a few acres into the graveyard after the tragic steamboat accident Schaefer described. The couple stare out at cemetery-goers from their tombstone, facing the tall fir tree for which the cemetery is named. The back of their stone is carved with a poetic but chilling paragraph: "Here we lie by consent after 57 years, 2 months and 2 days sojourning through life awaiting nature's immature laws to return us back to the elements of the universe of which we were composed."
Nearby, a white stone obelisk rises to honor Dr. Hawthorne, who ran an insane asylum on the site of the current southeast Lucky Lab back in the 1800s. Though he was renowned for taking good care of his patients, according to Schaefer, who combed newspaper archives for information about the doctor, the patients' families did not always give them too much thought. When families would not claim their bodies, Hawthorne buried 132 of his patients in the cemetery on his own dime. No one knows exactly where the 132 forgotten souls are buried, but Schaefer believes some were entombed in what's known as "Block 14"—the southeast corner of the cemetery where the unmarked graves of Chinese railroad workers also lie.
Near Hawthorne's grave is an arbor of 23 roses originally planted in the 1800s. According to Schaefer, Portland pioneers hauled the first Lone Fir roses out from the east coast in covered wagons. And just over the path is the grave of Asa Lovejoy, the man who lost the coin flip to name Portland (Lovejoy wanted to name the new town after Boston). Like the roses, Lovejoy came to Portland on the Oregon Trail. "He endured the adversity of the plains and the mountains and here," reads his grave.
Around the graveyard, shiny new black granite stones surrounded by fresh flowers stick out amidst the older gray monuments. Most are laser-etched with portraits of the deceased above Cyrillic writing. Two babushkas raked leaves off of one such grave near the Stephens. "Here's a perfect example of our community freaking out about death," says Schaefer. "With the Russian community, someone comes by either daily or weekly to maintain the grave." The Eastern Europeans have so increased foot traffic in the cemetery, says Schaefer, that they bugged Metro to pave Lone Fir's old gravel roads and fix its patchy water main. "They've brought life back into the cemetery," he says, gratefully.
The Tour of Untimely Departures runs 6-9PM rain or shine on Halloween. $5 suggested donation and it's kid-friendly, too. More details here!
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