WEST END PLACES FEATURE
Western Cemetery in Need of Love & Attention
One could consider the western cemetery the poor relation of the public cemeteries in Portland
By Harlan Baker
One recent afternoon walking through the Western Cemetery, I spotted a man snapping pictures of the gravestones. He was visibly upset at the condition of the many broken and upended headstones. He continued photographing a family plot commenting on the intricate designs on the stone, wishing something could be done to preserve the stones.
One could consider the Western Cemetery the poor relative of the public cemeteries in Portland. The Eastern Cemetery is cared for by Sprits Alive, a nonprofit, which does restoration work and sponsors a “Walk Among the Shadows” tour every October drawing hundreds of people. The Evergreen Cemetery is well maintained and plays host to the annual Memorial Day ceremonies in the Deering neighborhood. But while the Western Cemetery is periodically maintained by City staff, many of the aging gravestones are in need of repair.
From Portland’s Primary Cemetery to Official Dog Park
The City of Portland established the cemetery in 1829. It was expanded to its current size of 12 acres in 1841, and was Portland’s primary cemetery until the Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1852. It ceased being an active cemetery in 1910. Then over time it fell into a state of neglect.
It was reported that between July 1988 to August 1989 a total of 1,942 tombs were desecrated.
The cemetery became an unofficial dog park in the 1980s. According to the January 1st Religious News service blog, “Before the dogs arrived, the neglected 12-acre plot was notorious for drug deals, vandalism, and homosexual encounters between strangers.” The city council made it official policy for dogs to run free through the cemetery in 1993.
While dog walkers loved the use of the space, many people felt it was an insult to the memory of those buried there. It was particularly offensive to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, where a section of the cemetery known as “The Catholic Ground” contains the graves of many Irish refugees who fled the potato famine in the 1840s.
In a blog post dated June 23rd, 2000, Paul O’Neill, president of the Division 1 Ancient Order of Hibernians, wrote that, “The cemetery has not been simply neglected, it is being deliberately, actively, systematically, and ruthlessly desecrated with the city’s blessing.”
After much indecision, the city council voted 9-0 to ban dogs from the cemetery in 2001.
Restoration of the Western Cemetery Begins … then Ends
Restoration projects were begun by the Stewards of the Western Cemetery, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 2004 to care for and maintain the cemetery’s twelve acres. In a 2012 video made through public access television, Former mayor Ann Pringle and president of the Stewards, Linda Graffam, unveiled a plaque on a new entrance to the cemetery in recognition of its historic significance. In the video Graffam states,
“We have repaired and have all new granite curb stones, we have removed trees, cleaned up paths, new pathways have gone through are really nice because they had been totally decimated over the years.
We’d love to have enough money to restore some graves. You see so many stones that have been broken over the years. Some have been actually been stolen and taken from the cemetery. There are still many that are lying on the ground.”
The new fence that was erected on the Vaughn Street side of the cemetery cost $30,000. The entire coast was raised through private donations by the organization.
Today one will find that the grounds are periodically well maintained. But, since the cemetery is inactive, it does not receive perpetual care.
According to city staff, the association which had been responsible for improvements to the cemetery “has been defunct for a number of years.”
Will the organization be reactivated? There is no reason that the Western Cemetery should not receive the attention it deserves. This is especially timely given the planned restoration work on the Western Promenade.
Calling for a New Life for the Western Cemetery
The Western Cemetery could host a program that would complement Spirits Alive in the Eastern Cemetery. It could be an outdoor theater performance of Edgar Lee Master’s “Spoon River Anthology.” This oft performed anthology, first published in 1915, is a collection of free verse poems. It contains short descriptions of the deceased in a small Midwestern town telling their stories.
The cemetery would make a perfect setting for this. It could be performed in the late spring on the pathways in the cemetery, perhaps in the late afternoon daylight. Lightning would not be needed. The set is the cemetery and donations to the performance could be used to help maintain the cemetery and restore the gravestones.
It would be nice to see a reactivated organization continue the work begun in 2003.
Local historian Herb Adams has observed, “The western cemetery needs what the Eastern Cemetery has, lots of T.L.C., and a watchdog ‘Friends’ group to keep an eye on it. So many of Portland’s greats rest there in the Western. They made our city what it is, and we owe it to them—and to ourselves, to show some self–respect there.”
Harlan Baker has been active in Portland’s theatre community for over 45 years as an actor and director. Harlan teaches classes in Public Speaking at USM and is a former writer for The West End News.