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.
“The problem is, every year that passes, especially with the marble ones, they wear down so you can’t read them any more,” she continued. “The slate ones are more resilient, but as they lean, they’re more likely to collapse.”
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, members of the public will have chances to interact on a more personal level with the fruits of the caretaker group’s efforts during the final three nights of its “Walk Among The Shadows” event.
Spirits Alive members researched the backgrounds of some of the individuals whose gravestones are found in the cemetery, and actors of the Westbrook theatre troupe Acorn Productions will take on those roles in period costumes while attendees are led through the property by silent, black-robed “spectres.”
The theme of the walks, which take place between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. all three nights, is the effect of the War of 1812 on the city of Portland, a nod to the 200th anniversary of the second dustup between Great Britain and the fledgling United States. The “Walk Among the Shadows” event began over three nights last week, and organizers say the walks represent their largest fundraising effort of the year.
“It’s not just a big fright night,” Zimicki said. “It’s about history and the lives of real people.”
Zimicki said she hopes if Portland area residents become more aware of the individuals buried in the Eastern Cemetery — which was largely closed to new graves as long ago as the 1850s — they may be motivated to support her organization’s efforts to rehabilitate gravestones and keep the grounds maintained.
“These are sea captains and wives of soldiers,” she said. “These are touching stories because life was really hard back then. It wasn’t an easy thing to be a soldier during the War of 1812. It was hard to be a sea captain during the embargo, when you saw your life savings dwindle down to nothing.”
Tickets for a walk, for which groups leave the Congress Street gate every 15 minutes starting at 6:30 p.m., cost $10 each for adults and $5 each for children under 12.