My sister and I would hold our breath. Somewhere we got the notion that holding our breath as we drove past a cemetery that we could cheat death. My grandfather would say “Those people, out there, they’re saying I was once as you are now. I am now as you soon shall be.” The idea that people were talking to me from their graves was a bit unnerving, and some of the headstones that resembled pillows made me think that maybe death was a lot like a deep sleep. I wouldn’t have known my grandfather at all had he not narrowly escaped death the first time cancer came for him. It was before I was born and even though he made it through, cancer, and death, were constant household companions for him as I grew up. I was spared from loss throughout my childhood and his was the first funeral that I ever attended when cancer came back for him while I was in my twenties.
My experience up to that point had been the drive-by’s— the old City Cemetery in Vancouver, Forest Lawn and Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles, Lone Fir in Portland. I was able to visit my grandfather’s family cemetery in southern Illinois soon after his death. His family name was on every stone dating back to the early 19th century and others were obscured by vegetation and time. The first time I went to a graveyard as tourist was Pere Lachaise in Paris, and then after visiting the burying grounds in Boston it would become a hobby.
The title for this series comes from something my niece said when she was very young. After losing a few family members and having to make trips to a funeral home, she mentioned having been to the quiet store. It seemed profound and fitting of the nature of the place.
The earliest customers at Portland Memorial Funeral Home are housed in handsome sealed glass compartments in bronze urns and often are surrounded with mementos— ambrotypes, books and other items relating to their time on earth. As time has progressed and their families have moved on, they become home to spiders and dust, and are cleaned infrequently. With every expansion, due to changing fashions and cheaper materials, the place takes on a different feel and style. The stateliness of the early rooms with marble floors, beautiful metalwork and stained glass windows by Tiffany Studios and the Povey Bothers give way to fluorescent lighting and shabby furnishings. Unheated in the winter and with no air-conditioning in the summer, the rooms become insufferable during extremes of weather.
In prior decades Portland Memorial had a large staff, with maintenance people on each floor and a woman stationed in each cutting room to help with placement of flowers. Due to high costs and not much demand, it now has a skeleton staff and not many visitors, except on Memorial Day. Flowers remain withered in vases from floor to ceiling, and any that are brightly colored are usually plastic. Visits to Riverview Mausoleum across the Willamette and Lincoln Memorial revealed a similar history.
Still these are important places in the community. A child’s note and drawing left for his recently deceased father brought it home to me in a way I did not expect. Despite the effort to provide some comfort to the loved ones, there is an unspoken admission that the facility can’t offer much more than a tissue to help families through their grief.