Historic Portland cemetery needs expansion to keep up with demand, city officials say

Posted April 07, 2014, at 2:28 p.m.
Last modified April 08, 2014, at 5:15 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Many of the biggest names in Maine politics and history can be found on markers and monuments in Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery, but unless the storied graveyard undergoes an expansion, there soon won’t be room for any others.

Facing an aging Maine population that promises to drive up demand for burial spaces in the coming years, city officials are proposing a project that would add between 800 and 1,000 grave sites and a columbarium structure where between 300 and 600 additional cremated remains can be kept.

Portland Cemetery Superintendent Joe Dumais said Evergreen sees approximately 125 burials each year. He said that his team has planned to stagger work on the upcoming expansion to keep ahead of demand in the short term, but said without the project, the cemetery could be filled to its current capacity within six months.

“We won’t run out [before more spaces are made], but it was close,” he said.

The project would cost an estimated $500,000, and would be paid for with money from the city’s capital improvements budget.

“We know that, statistically, people tend to die between the ages of 60 and 100,” Dumais continued. “We’re now seeing more and more of our baby boomers [born between 1946 and 1964] entering that category, so the number of deaths is going to increase. … but we don’t know by how much yet.”

Evergreen Cemetery was founded in 1854 in part to replace the earlier Eastern and Western cemeteries, which were nearing full capacity at the time.

Among the notable Mainers buried in Evergreen are Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War Treasury Secretary William Fessenden, former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Nathan Clifford, and influential 19th century U.S. House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed.

Famed architects Francis Fassett and John Calvin Stevens are also buried there, and just more than two years ago, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt brought a camera crew to Evergreen as part of the then-NBC genealogy show “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Hunt was visiting the grave of her great-great-grandmother, Augusta Hunt, an early leader in Maine’s women’s rights movement and one of an estimated 70,000 people now buried at the cemetery.

“About the same population as the living in Portland are interred here,” Dumais said.

Evergreen Cemetery is one of only two active cemeteries still owned by the city of Portland, and the only one within city limits — Forest City Cemetery is owned by Portland, but located in South Portland. Another 14 cemeteries under the city’s ownership, including the aforementioned Eastern and Western, are inactive.

Initially 55 acres, the Evergreen property over the years has been expanded to nearly 240 acres, but although that acreage makes it the second largest cemetery on the East Coast, less than half of the space is used for burials.

Much of the property is protected against development and used as park space by area hikers and walkers.

“A lot of it is not going to be appropriate for burial space because of the wetlands and ledge,” Dumais said.

That makes maximizing the developable space all the more important, he said. The currently proposed expansion is considered the second phase of a project started in 2006.

The work would take place in the approximately rectangular area at the corner of Stevens Avenue and the cemetery’s North Entrance Road, and would involve the development of new roads, grave spaces, landscaping and the semicircular columbarium.

The city is hosting a public meeting on the project on at 6:30 p.m. April 15, at the cemetery’s Wilde Memorial Chapel.