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Collecting words from beyond the grave

Johan Mathiesen knows what he'd like to have etched on his tombstone after he springs from this mortal coil.

"What I want is, 'Your name here,' but my wife says I can't do that," he lamented in jest. "We have debated it."

Mathiesen, 71, of Portland, is an aficionado of tombstone epitaphs — be they funny, quirky or touching — in the Pacific Northwest. He has just published "Hey Darlin': Epitaphs of the Oregon Territory," which includes 1,100 epitaphs from 400 cemeteries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Included are the last words carved in stone from 18 final resting places in Jackson and Josephine counties, including the Jacksonville Cemetery, the Hargadine Cemetery in Ashland, Antioch Cemetery in Sams Valley, Logtown Cemetery in Ruch, Pioneer Cemetery in Phoenix, Rocky Point Cemetery in Gold Hill, Woodville Cemetery in Rogue River, Sparlin Cemetery in Williams and Laurel Cemetery in Cave Junction.

Self-published by DeadManTalking late in November, the 32-page paperback is chock full of photographs taken by Mathiesen.

This marks his third book on what he calls haiku for the dead. One is "Mad As the Mist and Snow," a traveler's guide to Oregon's most celebrated and unique cemeteries, including the Jacksonville Cemetery. His other book already published is "Lone Fir: The Cemetery," a historic burial site in Portland where he has a plot waiting for him.

With tongue securely in cheek, Mathiesen likes to call his interest in the cemeteries of the Pacific Northwest a pre-emptive strike.

"Actually, I got interested in cemeteries when my wife and I started driving around Oregon, and we would often end up in cemeteries," he said. He and Kay have been married for 36 years.

A former restaurant cook who had been writing cookbooks, the writer and photographer decided to capture in print the feelings he had visiting some 650 of Oregon's cemeteries. He wanted to illustrate through words and photographs — he has some 17,000 cemetery photographs — the feeling of peace, empathy and humor he found while visiting the sites and reading messages from beyond the veil.

"Epitaphs written back in the 1800s were often well-known sayings," he said. "A funeral home would have hundreds of sayings they would offer a family. But, later, the epitaphs were created by the person and told about their life."

For instance, he noted that Margaret Iman buried in the Iman Cemetery in Stevenson, Wash., literally told her life story after she was buried in 1924.

"Born in Tippecanoe County, Ind. 1852 Missouri to the Dalles on horseback carried motherless babe 500 miles. Took raft down river to Cascades. 1853 met and married Felix G. Iman. Survived Indian War of Mar. 26, 1856. Indians burned home. Had 16 children, nine boys, seven girls."

Mathiesen later learned that she had run away from home as a young teenager after her father remarried following the death of her mother.

"We didn't have founding fathers in the West — we had founding mothers," he observed. "There are so many strong women out here."

One chapter, "Stop — you are killing me," has epitaphs guaranteed to give readers a chuckle.

Consider the unusual eternal comments: "I once had a girlfriend like that," found in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Dayton. Then there are the final words found on a tombstone in Union Cemetery in Union in northeastern Oregon, "Plop, plop. Fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it is."

And some folks give eternal advice from the grave. "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first," observed the tombstone of Richard Dohrn, 1940-2005, in Warrenton's Ocean View Cemetery.

The book also includes epitaphs that will put a lump in your throat. Perhaps one of the most moving is the tombstone of a little girl who died in the early part of the 20th century.

"Olive Wren, age 10. Do the girls know I'm going away?" reads her headstone in the Cornelius Cemetery near Portland.

Mathiesen also has found interesting last words in Southern Oregon.

Over in the Mountain View Cemetery in Ashland, John C. Westerfield, 1952-2008, left his concern about all nonhuman creatures, great and small.

"This stone is in tribute to all living creatures that have suffered and endured man in his quest to control," reads his permanent memorial.

Mathiesen found four epitaphs for his book in the Jacksonville Cemetery, including "The Legendary Gertrude Pollack, 1918-2005. Sweet dreams, Mumsie."

"There are a bunch of cemeteries down in Southern Oregon that I haven't been to yet," he said. "And there are some in Central Oregon I'd like to see. It seems like there is always another cemetery out there to visit."

His $22 book is expected to be in bookstores early in the new year. For an additional $4 for shipping, it can also be ordered by mail from Johan Mathiesen, DeadManTalking, 3044 S.E. Ninth Ave., Portland, OR 97202. He can be reached by email at johan.mathiesen@gmail.com.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Collecting words from beyond the grave