Walks through City's Oldest Graveyard Allows Portlanders to Face the Dead, Protect History

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PORTLAND, Maine -- A series of guided theatrical walks through Portland's oldest graveyard is wrapping up this weekend, and organizers know some people will attend expecting Halloween-style scares and surprises.

But what spooks members of the Eastern Cemetery caretaker group Spirits Alive isn't the old property's reputation for strange noises or ghostly sightings.

The nearly 350-year-old graveyard is best known as the final resting place of the captains of the Enterprise and the Boxer, warships that famously battled off the coast of Maine during the War of 1812. But Spirits Alive President Martha Zimicki said the cemetery isn't known much at all as being a haunted space, despite all the assumed necessary ingredients such as shadowy spaces, stories of trauma and, of course, dead bodies.

Instead, what scares the volunteers for Spirits Alive is what might happen if the graveyard continues to fall into disrepair, and the Portland history on display in what has become a kind of city museum is lost to the ages.

When Greater Portland Landmarks announced its inaugural "Places in Peril" rankings last month, the Eastern Cemetery made the seven- site list.

"[T]ime and weather have not been kind to Eastern: stones have toppled over, broken and sunk into the ground," the historic preservation group announced at the time. "Photographs from the 1960s and 1970s disclose that scores of stones have been lost. Others are badly in need of conservation. Numerous family tombs require repair against the threat of collapse."

Zimicki said Spirits Alive finds itself in a race against time, with the group recently completing a massive effort to transcribe and map all of the grave markers still legible, and now in the process of organizing that information in a database. Such a database could be useful not only to descendents of Portland's founding fathers, she said, but also to anthropologists seeking to track religious movements or death and disease patterns.

"We're very concerned about the state of the gravestones," Zimicki said. "These are the last things available that tell us something about these peoples' lives. Not just the dates when they were born and died, but some stones include epitaphs, and there is iconography here that can tell us about the religions people practiced. …