Nicolle Wynia-Eide and Stephen Eide are Halloween people. Serious Halloween people. No, it’s not about the candy haul. They’re not Samhain scholars or Día de los Muertos adherents. That’s not what led them to start a tradition, more than a decade ago, of honoring the recently departed on custom fake headstones in their front yard in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood.
“We’re giant nerds,” Eide says.
“We're the type that will spend months creating a Totoro costume,” Wynia-Eide offers as an example of their nerdery, as a fake pumpkin showing the forest spirit from the Hayao Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro glows in the window behind her. Compared to their annual missions to Atlanta’s DragonCon and similar festivals, throwing some names on some graves might be small potatoes.
“Science fiction, music, scientists, writers that might have meant something to us," she says of the people in their annual graveyard, chosen from those who have died since the last Halloween. “We occasionally make lists throughout the year, but then come October we just start researching. There's a Google Doc.” Eide says they pick people who “tug at [their] heartstrings.”
The eight headstones in their yard—which now bear the names of Sesame Street performer Caroll Spinney (Big Bird), legendary Rush drummer Neil Peart, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Black Panther portrayor Chadwick Boseman, Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher, British stage and screen legends Diana Rigg and Ian Holm, and Monty Python comedian Terry Jones—were originally a work perk. At Banfield Pet Hospital’s old corporate headquarters on 82nd, where Eide worked in the 2000s, different departments treated Halloween like an Olympic sport or even an arms race, trying to outdo each other with the most over-the-top shows of Halloween spirit. Eide volunteered to craft gravestones with his coworkers’ names on them, provided his employer pay for the materials and he get to keep the creations afterward.
The next year, he and Wynia-Eide painted over the coworkers’ names with the names of people who meant something to the couple. While the choices often veer toward science and science fiction, the range has widened as the years have gone on. Justice Ginsburg’s large stone has in past Halloween graveyards held the names of actor John Hurt (Alien, 1984), Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, Groundhog Day director and Ghostbuster Harold Ramis, Babylon 5 actor and talk radio host Jerry Doyle, and Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister—sorry, that’s Ian Fraser Kilmister. Full names, titles, distinctive fonts, and a personalized quote from the person or a character they played are part of the tribute. This year’s British actors are actually Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg and Sir Ian Holm Cuthbert. When young actor Anton Yelchin died in 2016, his gravestone had Cyrillic letters.
“Not everybody’s going to get the name, so I try to get quotes that people can look up, or at least twig on,” says Eide. Spinney’s stone mentions “Mr. Looper,” which is what Big Bird would call Mr. Hooper, the Sesame Street grocer.
Friends had wondered if they'd follow their tradition this year, and they say they did think about skipping it—for about two minutes. “Death has been such a part of this year," Wynia-Eide says, “and this could feel a bit like celebrating it.”
They did make some adjustments to their annual pre-Halloween retreat “at a giant cabin in the middle of nowhere,” where the tombstones always make their debuts. They had nine guests instead of 25, and everyone had to agree to a full quarantine for two weeks before—not even grocery trips were allowed.
There were second thoughts, too, about the rest of the usual decorations, a major lure for neighborhood trick-or-treaters who speak of the house with reverence, for its elaborate displays and full-size candy bars handed out by fully costumed adults. “I was a little concerned that we're putting up lights and decorations, essentially saying, “Yes, still trick-or-treat,’ and that’s not recommended right now,” says Eide, who notes their household has been pretty locked down through the pandemic. “But I don’t want to not decorate, and I don’t want to punish kids.”
While I interview the couple on their porch, a couple with a toddler walk by and admire the graveyard, the orange lights, the horse skeleton, the ravens, the ghoulish figure in a tree. They liken the scene to Disneyland. At this point, though, a few days before Halloween, only a fraction of decorations had been put out. Among the items still to come was the candy chute with a skull at the end, and there were plans for disinfectant, distanced waiting spots marked with X's, and one-way arrows. “We’re taking [safety precautions] as seriously as we can,” says Eide, who says they get about 30 to 45 trick-or-treaters in a normal year at their house a couple of blocks north of Green Zebra Grocery.
When some new neighbors moved in across the street just before Halloween one year, they were excited to see what the couple would do for other holidays, like Christmas. Eide had to explain: "This is not about decorating. This is about Halloween."