“Well, imagine how it all could be among us if we began to understand all the talk about dying and the news about dying and the visits to the hospital and the deathbed and the grave side and the memorial service, and all the sorrows and grief of life, as our initiation into personhood.” – Stephen Jenkinson
I went solo for my second time to the once-a-year open house at the giant mausoleum known as Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial. The mausoleum is eight stories of stone vaults made for caskets and metal and glass vaults made for urns. Each vault is marked with a vase filled with fake flowers or real flowers or nothing. This maze of hallways and nooks is filled floor-to-ceiling with the dead. Last year I went with my sister, but I wanted to come alone this time so I could move methodically from one floor to the next and read some of the names of some of the bodies who used to be people.
I left the bright sunshine and entered the main building just in front of a bearded, sporty looking man with a backpack and real camera. Within seconds we found ourselves pausing at all the same stained-glass windows. The two of us moved into one dim room, our eyes rolling up and down the walls carved with names and dates.
His voice came from behind me. I come every year and this is the first time I’ve smelled embalming fluid. I inhale deeply and decide that I smell nothing but a place closed to the breath of the general public 364 days a year. They must do the embalming somewhere nearby, he said.
It was just my imagination, but for a second this felt like a weird pickup line. Hey baby, you come to this tomb every year? Then it felt like a brag. You know, I started coming here back in 2008 before all the crowds. It was cooler back then. I nodded and smiled. Could be, I said. My sense of smell isn’t very good right now.
I drifted away from him, reciting names to myself: Clara and Anna and Herbert and Marguerite. Just first names, like they were familiars. Frank and Vida and Alfred and June. I paid special attention to the vaults with empty flower vases, people who died in 1934 or 1957 or 1972.
I stopped at one simple stone vault with an empty handmade mosaic vase sitting at its base. Clara A. Cliff. 1862 – 1950. Did Clara’s grandchild make that vase in the sixties? Maybe she was a woman with grown kids of her own who’d taken up pottery, finding some calm in her afternoons as she pieced together bits of broken ceramics into a water-tight shape. Maybe she moved from Portland twenty years ago, the vase at her grandmother’s vault sitting empty ever since.
When one gray stone room emptied out, I took a seat in the momentary silence. Six columns of bodies stretched upward. All but a couple of the vases sat empty. Florence and William, Effie and Angelo. I didn’t think my silent recitation mattered. Or rather, I wasn’t sure why it mattered. Not yet. It was something about ritual that I was just starting to tiptoe my way around. It was something about death that I was mucking through. It was something about cultural and planetary doom that periodically knocked me flat, like a spray of buckshot.
The last room I visited had the slightly grungy feel of an unfinished patio. It was the only room in the mausoleum open to the outside. Fresh air slipped in through the rectangle of an unframed window where an owl statue was mounted to scare away birds. At the window, my eyes lifted as they had for the last 90 minutes, toward the names on the vaults at the ceiling. Ruth L. Burkholder 1914-1997. Leonard S. Burkholder 1907-1987. Side by side in dirt-smudged crypts.
Ruth and Leonard are not my relatives, at least not that I know of, but there was my last name carved twice into stone. There were two lives, measured and marked. There were two bodies rotted in coffins near the chipped ceiling of a faded and fading city of rotted and rotting bodies. There they were covered over in carved marble. And I had accidentally found them.
I knew nothing of these particular Burkholders, but I suddenly wished I’d come with a fistful of wildflowers from my front yard. I wanted to climb up on the open ledge of the window and fill their empty vases — magenta cornflowers for Ruth, blue ones for Leonard. I wanted fresh flowers that some attendant, maybe weeks or even months from now would pluck from the vases with a long pole and toss into a garbage bag. I wanted flowers that would be gone when I arrived next Memorial Day with a new, humble bouquet in my outstretched hand.
Tracy Burkholder is a writer living in Portland, OR. Her debut book, I Want More is a lyric hybrid of memoir, poetry and image published by Summerbear Press. Available here.