What did you do last night?

I hung out in a cemetery and watched the nearly full moon rise. No, seriously, I did.

Brian and I got to Lone Fir (on SE Stark, between 20th and 26th) almost perfectly in time to watch Buddhist masters from Hui Lin Temple perform a cleaning ceremony for Block 14. It was very beautiful to watch on a summer evening, and I wish I had pictures, but I inevitably lean towards being respectful rather than getting the picture I want.

Lone Fir is a pretty old cemetery in the middle of Portland. Some of our more notable citizens are buried there: Couch, MacLeay, Dr. Hawthorne, poets, city-builders. Some of our more notorious citizens have also been buried there – a madam whose “suitors” gathered money after her death to bury her and build a monument to her, a beloved bar-owner who decided that the annual Tom-And-Jerry bowl should be placed on his grave after he died (and apparently his friends would come and borrow it during the holidays, carefully replacing it on his grave afterwards), robbers, ax-murderers.

But Block 14 is where people who immigrated from China were buried. The tradition was that you would be buried there, but eventually, you would be dug up and sent back to your homeland, where your town or village would find a spot for you and re-bury you there.

Portland at one point had the second-largest Chinatown in the United States; it also had a shameful history of racism. When you look at the county records for Lone Fir, there are many details about the other parts of the cemetery but for Block 14, nearly each person buried in a plot was listed as “Chinaman” or a ditto mark. In the 1940s, the city decided to build a county building there and told the Portland Chinese-American community that the buried folks had to be moved. And supposedly they all were and the city built a municipal building on their former graves.

Except it turns out they weren’t all moved. So really what the city did (not intentionally) was literally build a building on their graves.

And then there’s the other part – Dr. Hawthorne, a well-renown early mental-health doctor, paid for many of his patients (who often were too poor or had no family who would recognize them) to be buried in Lone Fir. A good number of them are buried around Dr. Hawthorne’s grave, but it turns out that probably a number of them are still under the driveway that the city built in Block 14.

So last night, in addition to the cleansing ceremony for Block 14, there was some fundraising for the memorial being built on Block 14 (the city building has been torn down). Friends of Lone Fir sell a CD called Dearly Departed (which Brian and I have owned for a while) and some of the musicians were there and played. The songs on here are about people buried in the graveyard. You can read their stories here (a zip file of a PDF, hosted by Friends of Lone Fir).

The commissioner of Parks in Portland also dedicated three Heritage Trees (specifically the Lone Fir for which the cemetary is named).

At 9, they showed a movie I’ve been trying to catch for a while. It was made by a woman named Ivy Lin, and it is about the Chinese immigrants who were buried in Block 14. In 1949, Communist China closed its doors. The people whose bones had been shipped back to Hong Kong (where they’d stay until a spot in their town or village was found) were no longer allowed to be shipped back to their villages. The movie, called Come Together Home, follows her as she tries to find out what happened to them.

A fair amount of the movie is about the history of Lone Fir, so what a perfect place to finally get to see it. It was a fun night – there was a beautiful breeze blowing among the hundreds-of-years-old trees, and we were facing Block 14. Really, really cool.

So that’s how I spent my night in a cemetery, perfectly happy.

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