willamette national cemetery
Willamette National is as close to Arlington as you’re going to get in these parts, without the uprights. If you have a whisper of a patriotic bone in your body, and even if you don’t, you should make the pilgrimage. These people put it all on the line for you. And some of them paid dearly.

With some 120,000 interments, Willamette National is the largest (I believe) cemetery in the region, while being one of the youngest. The military, which may hoodwink young people into senseless wars and treat them shabbily through the VA, takes care of their dead. Military stones and markers are ubiquitous in almost all Oregon cemeteries. The record of our military engagements has been written on the stones of the dead. But it is at Willamette National where the toll weighs most heavily. Even now (2004) markers are being added bearing the word “Iraq.” The full price has not yet been extracted.

Willamette National occupies the crest and a flank of Mt. Scott, Portland’s other Boot Hill, with Lincoln Memorial Park and the Portland Chinese cemeteries sharing the space. It has some wonderful specimen trees, but the overall experience is one of sweeping vistas and broad lawns. One can see forever from up here, a perfect place for a cemetery.

There is an immense amount of activity here on a daily basis. Several funeral are performed every day and a steady stream of visitors’ cars trickles through the front gates. The VA is going through a major period of expansion and renovation of the cemeteries under their administration, and the handsome results are on display at Willamette in the new entrance and administration buildings and the open-air amphitheater higher on the hill; but the crême de la crême is columbarium number 3, their newest, and the adjacent committal shelter (their term for the small buildings where ceremonies are performed, as they’re not allowed on the grounds proper). The shelter is easily one of the finest pieces of modern architecture in the Portland area, and the columbarium facing the woods is an emotionally powerful place where survivors of the deceased have hung memorials to their loved ones. The cemetery, as a rule, doesn’t permit personal memorials left on the grounds, but they’ve made an exception at columbarium sites, and the evidence can be wrenching. Be prepared to spend some time among the spirits, if you go.

As significant as the renovation efforts are at Willamette, perhaps more important is a policy change implemented in 2001. Prior to that time the VA would only pay to have one’s marker inscribed with one’s name, rank, dates, and conflict, if relevant. Any further epitaph was at the survivors’ expense; but noticing their increased popularity, in 2001 the VA began covering the costs of short epitaphs; the result being a flowering of sentiment where there otherwise might have been nothing. For the most part, of course, the sentiments are banal and ordinary—there’s no end of “beloved grandpas” and “gone fishings”—but with hundreds of epitaphs to chose from there are, inevitably, scores of imaginative and interesting ones. I have a database of over 120 epitaphs from columbarium 3 alone: some are touching, some are amusing, and some are downright inscrutable.

Directions:

From SE Foster Rd. take 110 Dr. south; it will become 112th and pass the cemetery entrance. Or take Flavel east from 82nd Ave., which will become SE Mt. Scott Blvd., and which will terminate at the cemetery entrance.
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