People often build their friendships off of a shared love of things like music, movies, coffee, or beer. For Heide Davis and Teresa Bergen, they started their friendship about a decade ago with a shared love of cemeteries.
The two met at an informal “art club,” and once they realized they shared an interest in the macabre, they started exploring nearby cemeteries like Lone Fir and old pioneer cemeteries, enamored by the headstones and monuments, then ventured further afield. They’d walk among the gravestones and imagine the people underneath, what lives they led and what stories they told, theorizing about how they might have died. Pretty soon they dubbed themselves “the Gruesome Twosome,” Bergen says with a laugh.
Now, the Gruesome Twosome have turned that long-held interest into a book, Historic Cemeteries of Portland, Oregon, released September 6. Published by the History Press, an imprint of Arcadia Publishing, the book takes a deep dive into 25 historic Portland cemeteries, exploring the real-life history of folks whose gravestones lie within what they feel are some of the most beautiful and overlooked cultural treasures of the Rose City.
With Davis’s interest in people and genealogy and Bergen’s experience as a travel writer, the pair immersed themselves in research, talking with volunteers who work at the cemeteries, connecting with local historians and historical societies, and scouring Oregonian archives at the library.
Much of the book was written in 2020, when COVID had shut down in-person visits at both the library system and the Oregon Historical Society, so besides visiting the cemeteries and taking photos, a good portion of the research was conducted from home. In eerie flat-circle-esque moments, Bergen and Davis say they often came across tombstones with resting dates in 1918, the year of the Spanish Flu, an influenza epidemic that killed about 50,000,000 people worldwide.
“I thought so many times, ‘I wish people who didn't think vaccines were a good thing would just do a little bit of research and find out why all these children died,’ you know, and [maybe they’d] realize that vaccines are a great thing,” Davis says.
The two argue that cemeteries are undervalued, but with volunteers and community support, cemeteries can be places of mourning and beauty.
“If people don't have an interest in them, and help to keep them up in some way, they fall into disrepair, and they become neighborhood eyesores and overgrown, and the people don't like them,” Davis says. “If you don't have a sort of beneficial presence in them, like people who are just enjoying the markers and thinking about the people or learning about the graves, then they fall prey to vandals a lot. So cemeteries need us.”
5 Portland Cemeteries to Visit
We asked Bergen and Davis to share five of their favorite cemeteries for sleuthing. But before you go, “We do want to be respectful to the mourners,” Bergen says. “If you see someone mourning and you're just there to go learn about something, give them lots of space…. but it's still good to go and be there. And it helps the cemeteries to have the public interested and engaged.”
649 Southeast 26th Avenue, Portland
It’s where the idea for the book began, it’s where the book starts off, and its arguably Portland’s most famous cemeteries. The Southeast 30-acre park began in 1855 as Mount Crawford Cemetery and was later named Lone Fir in 1866 after the one fir tree left standing. Back then “it was the place to be buried in Portland” the authors write. Now owned by Metro, the park is preserved by a group of volunteers who help keep up the area.
300 South Taylors Ferry Road, Portland
Set on a hill overlooking the Willamette River, River View is one of Davis’s favorites as it “has great monuments and it has some really interesting people,” she says. Among them: Lawman Virgil Earp, the older brother of Wyatt Earp, who served with the Union army during the Civil War. At River View you’ll find gorgeous obelisks, monuments, crosses, and more—and the view ain’t so bad either.
426 Southwest Taylors Ferry Road, Portland
The nation’s oldest continuously operating Jewish cemetery, Beth Israel has beautiful marble monuments. Visitors are likely to be “blown away by the workmanship and the high-quality maintenance” the authors write. It’s also a great location to see fall colors. As a bonus, Torah scrolls that survived the Nazi occupation in Simferopol are buried underneath one marker.
5625 Northeast Fremont Street, Portland
Easily one of Bergen’s favorite cemeteries, Rose City features one of the most ethnically diverse tombstones in Portland. “It also has really nice paths, and these crazy trimmed trees that look like little mushrooms,” Bergen says. “It’s really nice in fall. So that's a good one to visit and honor because there's a lot of good color change.”
Mountain View, Oregon City
500 Hilda Street, Oregon City
This Oregon City cemetery, just 15 miles southeast of Portland, is home to early 1800s pioneers, a Parents of Murdered Children Memorial, and a Veterans Memorial Plaza. There’s also been a significant amount of upkeep at Mountain View, making it one of the best-maintained cemeteries in the area. “We've seen a lot of stones that are knocked over or that are broken, and they got some grants to repair them,” Bergen says. “So you'll see these old stones and you see the cracks and you're like ‘That was in like eight pieces. How did they do it?’ But they have it all back up and put together.”