How does one become interested in cemeteries, of all things? In this Q&A, Johan Mathiesen, author of Mad as the Mist and Snow: Exploring Oregon Through Its Cemeteries, talks about his interest in cemeteries, how he went about researching this book, and where he himself wants to be buried…
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Basically, the book is an extension of an avocation: visiting cemeteries. It’s an activity my wife and I have engaged in for decades. It’s one of the things we do when we visit a new town; we go find their cemeteries. And then some years ago the idea simply popped into my head: Well, I could do a guide to the cemeteries of Oregon; no one has done that yet. To an extent it was an extension of Ralph Friedman’s work on documenting what’s interesting in Oregon. My concept was to isolate one part of what he was looking at and look at it in depth. Another part of me wanted to give a gift to my state. My own personal ethos says I should try as hard as I can to advance the culture of the human race. Simply put, I felt it my duty to make a contribution. Cemeteries was it.
Once I settled on the project of photographing all the cemeteries in the state, I began the long process of locating and visiting them. I began in 2004. I’m not done. I’ve shot more than 600 Oregon cemeteries. I’ve driven countless thousands of miles and spent many a night sleeping in the front seat of my car off some logging road or in the vast expanse of the high desert waiting for the sun. I’ll drive for hours and never play the radio or slip in a CD. Just me and the two-lane or less.
Why cemeteries? What made you interested in cemeteries in the first place?
I blame it on my dad. He had hip ailments and couldn’t walk well, but he was a trained geographer and loved to take long drives through the countryside. I learned to love them, too, and so did my wife. Cemeteries are a natural place to stop and poke around, if you’re in the boondocks. Doing this book was an excuse to pursue my hobby seriously.
How did you choose the cemeteries to include in this book?
They chose themselves. Either they were interesting cemeteries in their own right, or they had an interesting story connected to them.
What are you favorite cemeteries?
Any cemetery that has a lot going on. I don’t like cemeteries that discourage personalization. I like cemeteries that encourage people to decorate the graves of their loved ones. I like cemeteries that invite people to use them.
How are cemeteries adapting to the modern world?
Many ways. Like everything else, cemeteries are living institutions; they either go forward or they die. The biggest hurdle cemeteries currently face is cremation and the discontinuance of using cemeteries. They’ve combated that by devoting increasing space to columbaria, and by integrating cremain depositories within highly landscaped settings. Other cemeteries have incorporated virtual memory displays, either at grave sites or central locations. Cemetery memorials have gone online. Green cemeteries are encroaching on the business. On the opposite end, the extreme income disparity in this country has given rise to a rebirth in elaborate and expensive monuments, while at the same time many have cut back operations or scope.
Any lessons to be learned?
It’s probably too late, but the invention of the lawn cemetery was a major contributor to the death of the mega-cemetery as we know them. We can see that in hindsight, but there was no way to see it going in.
Ever see any ghosts?
Nope. I think there are spirits in a graveyard, but they’re spirits you bring with you. I’m pretty convinced evolution happens, and I don’t see exactly when ghosts would have appeared in the process. In any event, if they’re out there, I’m blind to them.
Where are you going to be buried?
Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland. My wife and I were among the last people to secure plots there before they curtailed sales. If I had my druthers, they’d prop my body under a tree and let the critters eat me, but that’s frowned on in this society. I guess I’ll let the little critters of the soil have me. My most important goal is to remain part of the life cycle. The idea of being sealed in an impermeable coffin scares the beejeebiz out of me.
Learn more about Johan Mathiesen’s book, Mad as the Mist and Snow: Exploring Oregon Through Its Cemeteries, at Ashland Creek Press. The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and your favorite bookstore.