Without context, Saturday evening's festivities outside of the Lone Fir Cemetery probably looked like some kind of morbid carnival—a churro cart stood by the graveyard's entrance as costumed volunteers offered candy to hundreds of visitors of all ages. Lone Fir is open to the public every day from dawn 'til dusk, but Saturday these crowds anxiously awaited entry for the Tour of Untimely Departures, an annual event presented by Portland Metro, Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, and the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation.
The graveyard's first burial was in 1846, and was officially established as the Mount Crawford Cemetery in 1855, which was renamed the Lone Fir Cemetery in 1866. It's one of Portland's oldest cemeteries, and is the city's second largest arboretum with over 700 trees. Though it's filled with dead people (including 16 mayors!), I'd argue that Lone Fir is the most magnificent park in Portland—its 30 acres are dotted with these grand arboreal monuments, and its headstones and gothic mausoleums are things of remarkable beauty.
I entered the cemetery's gates Saturday night at sunset, and was shepherded into a tour group of about 20 visitors. Our guide led us down candlelit paths, past the Portland Sacred Harp choir and the unholy trill of a bagpipe, as they excitedly shared facts about the Lone Fir's history. One attendee asked about all of those headstones shaped like tree stumps—though they look like tributes to the region's fallen lumberjacks, apparently they're the actualization of a promise made by the local Woodmen of the World insurance company that none of their customers would rest in unmarked graves.
When another asked if some of the fresher graves were from the past couple of decades, with a toothy grin our guide replied, "More like the past week." The cemetery hosts over 25,000 graves, 10,000 of which are unmarked. Though there's still room for incoming burials, this is on a tentative basis, since the Lone Fir's undertakers are still discovering the locations of these unmarked graves.
Our first stop was at the grave of a former parachuter named Arthur Cosgrove, who was impersonated by an actor named Ygal Kaufman. Dressed in goggles and a pink one-piece, he described Cosgrove's untimely demise: Distressed that his wife Bertha was in love with another aeronaut, Professor Phinneus Redmond, Cosgrove jumped from a hot air balloon, didn't deploy his parachute, and plummeted to his death over Albina. We also met Bertha and Redmond at following headstones, as well as a young man named Constant McMillen who was killed in an elevator accident.
The most interesting Lone Fir resident we met was Emma Merlotin, AKA Ane Tingly-LeCoz—a French courtesan killed in 1885 in her home at SE 3rd & Yamhill by an axe-wielding robber. Scientists at this time believed that the last image a person saw was preserved in their eyes, so one of Merlotin's was removed to be studied by photographers. But the true identity of the murderer was never revealed (though a few confessed before their execution for other unrelated crimes).
Even if you missed this year's Tour of Untimely Departures, the Lone Fir hosts similar historic tours year-round. I'd highly suggest going—it was strangely comforting of acquaint myself with some of Portland's ghosts as the city continues to transform.