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Friday, October 29, 2010

Metro's Tale of the Twice Sold Graves

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Fri, Oct 29, 2010 at 3:41 PM

Frank Schaefer and the founders of Lone Fir Cemetery.
  • Frank Schaefer and the founders of Lone Fir Cemetery.
Back in the distant years before 1980, Portland area cemeteries didn't have to keep standardized records of who was buried where exactly on their property. That has let to an epic—and creepy—land sales screwup, Metro told reporters today, in which 640 local graves were sold twice.

Metro took over 14 local cemeteries in 1996, including several historic "pioneer cemeteries" whose records from the 1800s are spotty, having gone through floods, fires, and in some cases were originally written on individual reeds. Most of the twice-sold graves were purchased before 1880 and have been resold over the past century, unbeknownst to the current owners or Metro itself.

The regional government discovered the problem in 2007, when a man who bought a gravesite when down to visit it and found—whoops—it was already occupied. Metro hired an auditing agency to look through their records and when the agency found 640 twice-sold gravesites, Metro shut down grave sales at Lone Fir Cemetery, the oldest pioneer cemetery in Portland and the location home to most of the errors.

Photos of the records and more on unmarked graves in Lone Fir below the cut.

Metros Michael Jordan holds photocopies of the old cemetery records
  • Metro's Michael Jordan holds photocopies of the old cemetery records
Metro has spent the last two years "probing" the twice-sold graves to figure out whether any are occupied by two people; luckily, so far, they haven't found any twice-sold graves with double bodies. The agency has also contacted as many families that they could find who own the grave sites and are currently trying to figure out a legal process to get the land or money spent on graves back into the right hands.

In the past, cemeteries in the city were rather malleable—the city moved many residents of westside cemeteries to Lone Fir as the city grew. Lone Fir Cemetery has other issues with unmarked graves: the entire SW corner of the cemetery on SE 20th and Morrison is called Block 14, it was (and still is) home to unmarked graves of Chinese immigrants who were buried at Lone Fir and listed in records only as "Chinaman" "Chinaman" "Chinaman." Metro, the nonprofit Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, and the local Chinese Benevolent Association are working together to build a memorial on the site.

Metro Chief Operating Officer Michael Jordan apologized for the Halloween-ish timing of the announcement. The decision to go public on the case was made after KATU news asked for the records on the issue. "There are individuals and families who bought these things in good faith and when they go to exercise their rights, it's at one of the most traumatic times of their life," noted Jordan.

For people interested in learning more about the history of Lone Fir (spoooky spoooky history!) the cemetery is hosting its annual Tour of Untimely Departures this Sunday night. Get advance tickets here.

Also, check out this tour of Lone Fir I took last year.

Records originally written on reeds!
  • Records originally written on reeds!

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