Death + Art / Architecture Funeral Industry

Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home


I spent Memorial Day not so much remembering the dead as being introduced to the dead. You see, I spent the day at Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home, the first and oldest crematory west of the Mississippi. Located in Portland, Oregon, Wilhelm’s is a funeral home, mausoleum and crematory — a large operation and one that’s been in business for over 100 years. Portland Memorial Funeral Home merged just last year with Wilhelm’s Funeral Home. And, in an interesting turn of events, there are plans to convert the former Portland Memorial Funeral Home into a folk music venue serving wine and beer as reported by the local neighborhood newspaper, The Bee.

Each year on Memorial Day, for one day only, the buildings and grounds are open to the public. There was an article in the Oregonian that profiled one of the private and most elaborate family tombs containing the Rae family sarcophagi — which is only opened for 90 minutes each year, on Memorial Day. The Rae’s were a prominent family in turn of the century Portland that made their money from the timber industry. The “Rae Room”, as it is known, is the most elaborate of the tombs on the grounds. It has its own private entrance, ornate wrought iron gates, imported Italian marble and solid bronze sarcophagi.

I spent a few hours on the grounds and in the vast network of buildings exploring the labyrinthine levels and myriad, never-ending corridors. It’s really quite impressive and the blend of old and new makes it an especially interesting place to explore. New construction blends well with original architecture, although there is certainly a feeling of distinct and discreet change in tone and style as one enters a new section. One of the highlights of my visit was seeing the various urns in their “niches” as they are called. The variety is pretty astounding — from humble and plain to ornate and fancy, with the standing of Portland’s wealthiest and middle-class in evidence. In death, it seems, we are all still not equal. As a librarian, I was especially taken with the urns that take the form of books on a shelf. Whole families have been memorialized in this way with mother, father, son, daughter “bound” together and held upright by bookends on either side. Since I forgot my camera that day, I was only able to take pictures with the camera on my phone — and they unfortunately didn’t turn out very well. Plus, I think you had to get the permision of management to take photos anyway. Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about. It’s an image from the Oakland Columbarium.

I highly recommend visiting this unique Portland landmark if you get the chance — and as a member of the living if you can.

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