Evergreen Cemetery

The Evergreen Cemetery, a historic Portland landmark, bridges the poignant gulf between life and death


On any day, in any season, this sacred place brims with signs of the living. Fifth-graders shortcut through paths lined with autumn-red maples. Skiing parties whisk across the whiteness, oblivious of the coyote’s icy call. Birdwatchers gather in springtime flocks, and summer bridesmaids burst from the chapel doors, their dresses rustling like applause.

This is Evergreen, an urban refuge of hill and dale and great, gorgeous trees. Bordered by a low stone wall along Stevens Avenue in the Deering Center neighborhood of Portland, it harbors owls, bullfrogs, deer, rabbits — and people. People like us, who use this verdant land as an extended backyard, pushing our strollers, riding our thin whirring bikes, walking our dogs, standing behind easels, running our circuitous laps. We chat and laugh, we sun ourselves, we settle alone on shaded benches to read our letters, write our poems. Completing our living paces, we fulfill an essential element of Evergreen’s original intention: a century-and-a-half old, this graveyard was laid out for the living.

Evergreen’s first walkers and letter writers — imagine their long skirts, their bonneted babies — now lie as dust beneath grassy rises on which they once spread out wool blankets and unpacked tins of marshmallows bought at a nearby confectioner’s. Like us, they ambled beneath wide-armed maples as the tweezing call of the vireo filtered down through the branches. They admired the obelisks and plinths and statues of weeping maidens, whose granite drapery seemed to shiver in the breeze.

Sixty-five thousand souls now slumber here, beneath marble benches made for lingering; inside crypts built into hills; below elaborate statuary and simple plaques; in metal urns choked with flowers; under markers eroded to the shape of a broken tooth. Some have lost their own names, the rain-pocked letters no longer legible; others are so freshly gone that the first roses laid at their graves have yet to curl.

Sometimes they speak to us, their etched words preserved as a fragment of poetry, a record of service, a note of warning, comfort, regret. I tried, I lost. They tell us the history of our city, the nineteenth-century Pitts and Fessendens and Wadsworths now joined by twenty-first-century Abshirs and Chins and Ahmads. They vanish beneath us as we walk and run, our voices vivid and strange on this hallowed air.

At times, the brilliant line between dead and living seems to thin and fade. I rest on the sun-warmed steps of the Chisholm mausoleum, forgetting to be haunted, until I remember to thank its occupant for founding the paper mill that employed my father. I watch chipping sparrows pick moss from a necklace of century-old stones, forgetting to be haunted, until I catch the ghostly names: Mother, Father, Jane, Mabel, Fred. I pedal my bicycle, forgetting to be haunted, until the child I am with asks, “Where is heaven?”

And once — a twilight in late May — the line disappears altogether. Memorial Day, and my husband — a distance away, downhill, obscured by a knoll of grass — plays “Taps” for his dad, buried eighty miles north of here. The birds go quiet. A runner in lime-green Spandex stops between two pines and waits with his hand on his heart. He does not see me perched in the shadow of a granite slab like one of the weeping maidens. The notes that flood these acres could be coming from anywhere: sky, leaves, ground, the lips of the dead.

For a single, stopped minute, we are one: the musician, the listening woman, the motionless stranger, and the 65,000. Then it is over; the runner resumes his rounds, my husband returns from his spot, bugle tucked under his arm. We walk the familiar path to the gate, full dusk gathering now between the moon-colored stones. I imagine the soundless dead, the nameless and the named, awaiting the morrow, when once again we — all of us, with our strollers and bicycles and binoculars and bright running clothes — will return to animate their spirit with nothing more remarkable than our living selves.