Here’s how to raise the dead tonight

Strangers Ground
The nameless dead

Greetings from Portland. Sweater weather is here. Every day this month I’m telling a story that bridges the gap between this world, and the next. I’m resurrecting the memory of Portlanders who’ve crossed over to the other side by posting one video each day, relating the tale of one, interesting “permanent Portlander.”

Well, this is it.

I’ve spent the last 31 days wandering around cemeteries, talking into this camera, telling stories of Portland’s dead.

It’s been an honor to resurrect their ghosts, to be a medium for their voices from beyond. By listening to my words, you, out there — looking at your smartphone, or sitting in front of your computer — have helped them live again and walk among us, too.

Every time we remember someone, reading their stone out loud in a cemetery, it’s a kind of magic. Suddenly they’re right back here, with us, if only for a moment.

More than a dozen beer cans lie strewn about Portland's Western Cemetery on Thursday. Though joggers and schoolchildren play in it during the day, it is still frequented by public drinkers, vandals and drug users after dark. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

More than a dozen beer cans lie strewn about Portland’s Western Cemetery on Thursday. Though joggers and schoolchildren play in it during the day, it is still frequented by public drinkers, vandals and drug users after dark. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

But what about the strangers?

In the Western Cemetery, there are hundreds of unmarked graves. As sad and decrepit as this place is, with broken and toppled stones, it only hints at the number of people in the ground.

As early as 1853, they were burying the friendless and penniless under the lanes here, with no stones to mark them. It’s the same in Eastern Cemetery, too. At one point they were burying strangers, two to a hole.

Those people had hopes and dreams, too. But it’s hard to know their stories without tombstones or burial records.

But if this really is the time of year when the wall between this world and the next comes down, if we walk these lanes, listening to the wind whisper through the pines, if we touch the earth that they sleep in, if we sit, very still, and wait for them to come to us, we might just hear them.

Portland's Western Cemetery bears the scars of decades of neglect and abuse. Hundreds of stones lie broken and scattered about. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Portland’s Western Cemetery bears the scars of decades of neglect and abuse. Hundreds of stones lie broken and scattered about. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

These stories have been brought to you, in part, by all the generous writers, guides, historians and meticulous record keepers I’ve leaned on heavily while making these 31 videos.

In particular, I should thank Ron Romano and Spirits Alive, the folks at Friends of Evergreen Cemetery, Debbie Keiter Moore at Calvary Cemetery in South Portland, Elaine Spring at Portland’s city cemetery office on Stevens Avenue, Matthew Jude Barker and his Maine Irish History Trail and William David Barry at the Maine Historical Society library.

I also owe much to the book authors mentioned at the end of some stories, especially William B. Jordan and his cemetery records. I wish I could have met him.

Finally, big thanks to my overseers at the BDN for letting me follow this exhausting yet fulfilling project — and thanks to you, dear viewer/reader, for watching.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

There are probably more unmarked graves in Portland's Western Cemetery than marked ones. As early as the 1850s, paupers were being laid to rest under its lanes in anonymous graves. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

There are probably more unmarked graves in Portland’s Western Cemetery than marked ones. As early as the 1850s, paupers were being laid to rest under its lanes in anonymous graves. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The Western Cemetery in Portland is home to countless remains, most graves are unmarked or vandalized. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The Western Cemetery in Portland is home to countless remains, most graves are unmarked or vandalized. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

 

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.