eugene masonic cemetery
At first glance The Eugene Masonic Cemetery looks like one more cemetery given over to rack and ruin, headstones disappearing beneath a tangle of wild plants; but upon closer inspection one finds strange goings on, such as paths to various tombstones mowed through the weeds and signs here and there identifying the riot of plants you see before you as not weeds, but rather as native plant species; and other signs offering short biographies of some of the people interred here. In fact, the more one looks, the more paths and signs one sees. And the more people, as a constant flow of visitors and dog walkers passes through the grounds. Under close inspection it’s revealed that the cemetery is a nature park and a wildlife preserve as well as a cemetery; truly a case of being more than what meets the eye. In the time-honored Eugene tradition, when the town decides to do something, they do it the Sinatra way: their own. It’s the least one can expect from the town that gave us Vietnam War protests, the salad days of hippiedom, Animal House, and Rich Brooks, not to mention Dick Harter. The Eugene Masonic Cemetery is unique to the state of Oregon; there’s nothing else like it.


It didn’t, naturally, start out that way. It was from its inception in 1859 until 1993, as its name implies, a Masonic cemetery in the typical mode of fraternal order cemeteries which sprang up to service the dying needs of so many fledgling Oregon communities in the later half of the 19th century. Its beginnings were auspicious, with the city building a streetcar to its very door, bringing throngs of visitors and picnickers, as the cemetery served as a park as well as a final resting ground. Many of Eugene’s early luminaries chose to spend eternity on this hill west of the university, and its to their tombstones which many of the signs and paths lead one. While not a direct descendent of the “rural” or “garden” cemetery movement (River View in Portland being the only Oregon example) where cemeteries were often founded by horticultural societies, the Eugene Masonic Cemetery served the same function as being a precursor to genuine parks, and for a time was the pride of the community.

But, like many fraternal order cemeteries, this one fell into disrepair and disuse as operating funds dried up. Vandalism, neglect, and Mother Nature took their toll. The famed mausoleum on the grounds, the Hope Abbey, began leaking, had its windows bricked up, and had started to have relatives of people interred there come and remove the bodies of the deceased for reinterrment elsewhere. The ten-and-a-half-acre cemetery had become a home for the homeless along with the dead.

In 1993 ownership of the property transferred to the nonprofit Eugene Masonic Cemetery Association and the restoration of the cemetery began. But rather than take the standard approach of restoring the cemetery to its original condition, the association decided to bring the cemetery back to life as a nature preserve as well as a burying ground; in many ways a return to the original intent of the rural cemetery movement, which was to bring an idealized version of the countryside into the city—or next-door, as the case may be. In many ways it’s also a nod to the “green” cemetery movement where the dead are buried without markers in a natural setting. Eugene Masonic makes compromises with that ideal, but it’s probable that the Eugene cemetery began its shift towards a nature preserve without having heard of the green cemetery movement. In any event, the cemetery was already rife with headstones, so banning them would be an impracticality.

David Lynch, the fluffy-haired, full-bearded site manager of the cemetery explained how the cemetery is not left completely untouched, that it’s mowed once a year; “Otherwise it would revert totally to forest and the variety of wild plants would be lost. We let it grow up in the spring and then cut it in the fall,” he said.

Hope Abbey has been restored, as well. The leaks have been stopped up and the windows returned; and as a consequence, people have begun to buy the vacated slots. The rest of the cemetery has also seen an upsurge in use with the erection of a scatter garden overlook and a set-aside burial ground for Temple Beth Israel. New stones sprout among the old.

“Vandalism is down, now that they see we’re taking care of the place,” Lynch said. “I used to be able to pick up bags-full of beer cans when we started, but now they’ve almost disappeared. We had some stones vandalized recently, but it’s been years since that happened.”

There are very few cemeteries in Oregon on the “must see” list. We’re a humble state without grandiose expectations, and our cemeteries reflect that. If you want pizzazz, you’d better try New Orleans, Colma, or Cambridge. But if you want to show your aunt from Wichita something they probably don’t have back home, this is the place.

Directions:

At the southern terminus to University Ave. in Eugene.
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