Kanji Tombstones – The Photo Project

Our most recent project is the creation of a photo catalog of the kanji tombstones in the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery. This is an important project—because so many of these stones (over 100) were poured from the same mold, it is difficult to tell them apart. They all, of course, have individual inscriptions, but to those of us who are not Japanese speakers, it’s difficult to distinguish these stones by their inscriptions. Add eight or nine decades of weathering, and the stones start to lose almost all sense of identity.

To remedy this situation, we invited a friend and professional photographer—Cherie Renae of Monmouth, Oregon—to visit the cemetery last year to create a photo record of each stone’s inscription. Using special lighting and computer enhancements, Cherie was able to create a set of high definition photographs that, in almost all cases, are far more legible than even the stones themselves when viewed in situ.

Our vision is to create a catalog page for each stone including a large reproduction of its high-definition photograph (a sample page appears below). The page will also include a “row detail” across the top of the page that illustrates the stone’s location relative to the English-language tombstones in its vicinity. A box for the translation is included along the side, followed by any notes regarding the individual (or their family) that we might know from sources beyond the tombstone inscription itself.

We envision providing a copy of the finished catalog to the office at the Auburn Mountainview Cemetery (which administers the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery) as well as the White River Buddhist Temple, which has historically represented Auburn’s Japanese community. Both are called upon regularly to field genealogy-related requests, and this catalog should assist them in fulfilling that role, as well as helping descendants in locating an ancestor’s specific tombstone.

Our final purpose is one we hope will never be needed: to help identify and/or restore stones that are stolen or vandalized—a situation that occurs in cemeteries far too frequently. As of this date, if a set of these kanji tombstones—displaced for any reason—had to be restored to their original positions, there would be little documentation available to assist in accomplishing this task. This catalog should provide cemetery personnel with a tool to aid in their restoration efforts should such a sad eventuality ever come to pass.

In summary the goals of this photo catalog project are:

1. To provide translations of kanji inscriptions on these tombstones

2. To provide the most legible record possible of untranslated elements for possible future translation (kaimyo names, primarily)

3. To preserve the information from the inscriptions beyond the life spans of the stones themselves (most are now over 80 years old and exhibit various stages of erosion)

4. To provide a tool for non-Japanese speakers to locate specific stones in situ at the cemetery

5. To preserve the historical elements of the inscriptions (nengo date notations, old-style kanji, warashi/mizuko designations) that reflect the culture of Auburn’s historic Japanese community at the time the cemetery developed

6. To provide a tool to assist cemetery personnel to repatriate or restore these tombstones if such a project ever becomes necessary

7. To instill an appreciation for the unique community that these stones represent by more tangibly associating them with the individuals and families who uniquely contributed to Auburn’s culture and history

Although the project is in progress at this point, we would be happy to hear from any descendant of the families represented among these graves if they would like to have a copy of the page featuring their family’s tombstone(s) for their own records. Please contact kristy@lommen.org for further information.