Cemeteries didn’t always creep people out.
Before the 20th century, the presence of the dead didn’t fill the living with fear and disquiet, according to McAndrew Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society.
“We’ve seen too many scary thriller movies,” he said. “Once upon a time, cemeteries were parks — they’re outdoors — and it was a place where families would go to picnic and reminisce and reconnect with a lost loved one.”
The Historical Society hopes to resurrect that old feeling of fondness with Talking Tombstones, an annual living-history event where volunteers bring the dearly departed back to life in a noncreepy way: by portraying the people buried underfoot.
“Talking Tombstones XII: A Serious Undertaking” will be held 1 p.m. to dusk Sunday at the Clatsop Plains Pioneer Cemetery. Viewers move from gravesite to gravesite and watch as approximately 10 re-enactors, dressed in period clothing and aided by props, “become” the deceased for about five minutes — a transformation borne of serious research and a playful imagination.
The chosen historical figures in years past — whether soldiers or pioneers, housewives or business folk, famous names or unsung commoners — took different journeys and met different fates. Some died of old age, others contracted influenza in 1918; some dropped dead after crossing the plains, others perished during World War II. Gimres and Shivelys, Flavels and Van Dusens are often mixed in with families who left no local legacy.
As few as 400 and as many as 700 have attended the free event, which is sponsored by Astoria Granite Works. It takes about 70 minutes for attendees to rotate through the presentations, including the Q-and-A segment with the actor (who must answer as the character).
“If it’s raining on us, we don’t reschedule. We go no matter what,” Burns said. “On a rainy, windy, cold afternoon in October, it’s pretty amazing to have that many people standing in a cemetery.”
David Reid, an Astoria resident preparing for his 10th-straight year as a Talking Tombstones actor, said it is rewarding to tell the story of someone who cannot tell it themselves — especially when it’s a story few others have heard.
“There’s no other way for that person to reach out and tell their story,” he said.
Come Sunday, Reid — armed with information compiled by Liisa Penner, the Historical Society’s archivist — gets to tell the story of a judge.
“I’m told he was a bit of a scoundrel. He married well — twice — into the same family. Married two daughters of a very wealthy man,” Reid said. “These are the fun ones, the ones where you get to dig through and sort of tease their story out of a lot of different information.”
Some years, the museum hands its actors reams of archival information. Other years, the actors have to build a life story around something as simple as a newspaper clipping.
One year, Reid was given the obituary of a tinsmith and nothing more. Because Reid didn’t have much information on his assigned role, “What I had to do was say, ‘OK, in 1860, why would a tinsmith have come to Astoria in the first place? And then, what would their job look like? And what might they have faced?”
In Steve Nurding’s experience as a longtime Talking Tombstones veteran, “nobody cares what (the deceased’s) birthday was. Nobody cares (about) the day they died. They don’t really care about who they were married to or what their work was like,” he said. Rather, “it’s, ‘What was that person’s experience?’ So I always try to bring that out and have the people at Talking Tombstones understand that person’s life.
“I want the people who come to Talking Tombstones to know how that person felt, what that person was thinking,” he said.
Nurding, an Astoria resident, chose not to join the cast this year. But let it be known that he takes his Talking Tombstones roles very seriously.
The year he played a cannery worker who fell through an outhouse and drowned in the Columbia River, he built a prop porta-potty and climbed out of it for the show, while a recording of barking sea lions rolled in the background. Two years ago, he played Thaddeus Trullinger, the electrician who wired up an electrified gallows for Astoria’s last hanging — so, naturally, Nurding built a gallows.
“If you want more facts, go to the library. Go to the Internet. If you really care about where that person went to school, that’s where you go get that information,” he said. “But you come to Talking Tombstones to be more entertained and get a flavor for the history at the same time.”
Burns has dubbed Talking Tombstones an exercise in family “edu-tainment.”
“We tend to forget that these cemeteries ... People are buried there, they led lives, and they have stories,” Burns said, “and this is a way to remember that.”