Most people don’t give a lot of thought to Halloween. For some it is an annoying holiday where grubby faced children show up at your door and demand candy. For others, it is a fun time to dress up oneself or one’s house, be different and celebrate the macabre. For still others, it is a time to celebrate the transition between seasons, and enjoy the harvest and unique fall flavors, colors, and changes.
The word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day. It is the night before the day of celebration and remembrance of those who have passed on before us. Some believe the veil between the living and the dead is thinner on Halloween, and that is where we get our imagery of ghouls and ghosts.
No matter what your beliefs on the afterlife, I think it is important to occasionally ponder the lives of those who have gone before us, and I feel there is hardly a more appropriate time of year to do so. Death is the biggest change in our life, one that we try not to think about, but fall is all about death. As the leaves fall to the ground, what better place to honor those before us than your local cemetery?
The first cemetery I visited the day before Halloween was the Sunset Pioneer Cemetery. I used to work across the busy freeway from where it was located, but even then I didn’t know it existed. I only discovered it one day because I biked to work and wondered what was up the little dirt road next to the stoplight. To my surprise, tucked away right beside this busy four lane road was a tranquil, tiny pioneer cemetery. Light filters thinly through a dense tree cover. Crumbled and mossy tombstones are scattered sparsely, and there are hardly any paths to speak of. The atmosphere is very calming and peaceful, and it almost seems like a forest glen more than a graveyard. The tall, column-like evergreens do give the space a cathedral like air, and there is an unnatural quiet to the place, unlike a “normal” forest clearing.
My second visit was on Halloween night, when I participated in the Lone Fir Cemetery’s Tour of Untimely Departures. The Lone fir is Portland’s oldest cemetery, established in 1846. It has had a checkered past, including an doomed office building project over a mass grave of Chinese workers.
The tour was organized by the Friends of the Lone Fir, to raise funds to restore and repair tombstones ravaged by time and vandals. Our tour guide was dressed as one of the “residents” of the cemetery, and along our tour we stopped at four graves where actors played the part of the person buried there and told the story of their life and death.
I arrived at the cemetery at dusk, and enjoyed the almost celebratory air put on by the friends of the Lone Fir. Luminaries were placed along the path, jack-o-lanterns were perched in the crooks of trees and atop tombstones, and a musician played a haunting melody from a gazebo. Figures in black stood about conversing, or sweeping leaves. It felt like a true city of the dead.
I hope you will venture out to the cemeteries in your local community, and learn a little about those who have gone before us.