Greenwood Cemetery in Astoria, Oregon, is home to early pioneers to this, the first American settlement west of the Rockies. It opened in the late 1800s, quite a number of years after the city of Astoria was founded. Sitting on a sloping hill looking out over Young’s Bay, it’s a beautiful spot to visit. Were I living locally, I think I’d be a fixture on the swing seat.
The original land deed was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant himself back in the day when cemeteries were seen as romantic spots rather than convenient repositories of soulless bones. I was reminded a little of Varaždin Cemetery in Croatia even though it’s not nearly as obviously landscaped. It is a garden cemetery though, following a style that was popular in the USA and indeed in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. Imagine a rural cemetery as a village for the dead; an urban cemetery as a city. That said, some urban cemeteries are more rural in their make-up, like the lovely Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. It was once considered rural, but over the years, the city spread out to envelop it.
The Rural Cemetery Movement was a deliberate attempt to reflect a more hopeful attitude towards death and immortality compared to the rather depressing thought of dead being simply dead. Statues of weeping widows and grieving girls are notable by their absence, replaced by motifs of the various natural representations of memory (ivy), immortality (oak leaves), sleep (poppies), and life (acorns).
Think back to a time when public parks weren’t yet in fashion. The cemetery would be the obvious choice for a solitary walk or a quiet picnic, something still very much happening in Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings) or Cimetière de Plainpalais as it is also known, in Geneva. But in the early twentieth century, and the onset of the lawn cemetery in the USA, these oases of peace and tranquillity became something to be preserved.
By far the most interesting marker in Greenwood Cemetery is a family monument to the deceased members of the Comcomly tribe who died in the late 1890s. [Chief Comcomly, a Chinook chief, famously helped shelter Lewis and Clark when there were here exploring.]
Comcomly died in 1830 when a fever epidemic struck his tribe. His remains were interred in a canoe, per Chinook custom, in the family burial ground. In 1835, Comcomly’s skull was stolen from his grave by a Hudson’s Bay Company physician and sent to England for display in the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar Museum. Although damaged in The Blitz during World War II, the skull was eventually sent to the Clatsop County Historical Society in Astoria in 1953, and then to the Smithsonian Institution in 1956. In 1972, it was finally repatriated to Chinook tribal members for reburial.
Known as a talented diplomat, Comcomly was friendly with both the British and the Americans. On the base, the inscription reads John Williams but I’ve been unable to find out anything about him.
Like many pioneer cemeteries, the names of those interred read like an EU Christmas card list. Yet again I stopped to marvel at the furore caused today by issues around migration. It’s been going on for centuries. And I’m sure then, as now, religion played its part in the fracas. But with new territories like the America west of the Rockies, all white settlers were united in their newness.
This lovely quotation I lifted from the Greenwood Cemetery website by Johan Mathiesen, author of Mad as the Mist and the Snow:
Their bodies and their souls have long since slipped into starlight, but their memories linger like fog around their names. Cemeteries are not where people go when they die. It’s where they go to stay alive.
What a lovely sentiment. And this, from Lori Joy Durheim, will make sure people continue to visit.
Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Chinook Indians: Traders of the Lower Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 194-96.