Nights of Living with the Dead
The caretaker of Eugene Pioneer Cemetery
by Dante Zuñiga-West
|Photo by Todd Cooper
Eugene Pioneer Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in the city. Founded in 1872 and resting on 16 acres, the cemetery (visible from 18th Avenue if you’re cruising towards UO) has been tended to by one man for the last 20 years — George Dull.
“The old caretaker was an alcoholic who used to get drunk and hauled off to jail for fighting with people that came through the property,” Dull pauses, then motions to the trailer he lives in which is located in the center of the cemetery. “I been here since ‘91.”
Dull, who is employed by Bethel School District during the day, estimates that he spends about 16 hours a week mowing the cemetery grass both by push mower and gas-powered riding mower. Add that to another 17 hours he spends weed-whacking, as well as clipping trees and general cleanup, and you could say he has a pretty full plate. I tell him it sounds like he has busy weeks. He says the rent is cheap.
Though Dull spends every night sleeping among the dead, he is not a superstitious man. He doesn’t believe in spirits, ghouls, zombies or anything like that. He doesn’t have any good stories about bizarre hauntings, strange sounds or levitating disembodied phantoms — which is most likely a plus for anyone in his line of work. “Haven’t had a ghost come into the trailer yet,” he says, grinning.
But it’s not like Dull hasn’t seen his fair share of things that go bump in the night. He recalls when a group of “moron kids” bombarded his trailer with beer cans. Dull suspects these degenerates were drunk, given that the beer cans were full.
“Oh, back in 2002 someone stole the head off that tomb over there,” Dull says in regards to the 25-foot statue of a Union soldier presiding over the historic graves of 51 Civil War veterans in the area of the cemetery known as the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) plot. Dull says the headless tombs-man remained that way for more than a year, until a new head was made and attached.
Just because Dull isn’t a believer in the supernatural doesn’t mean he won’t take certain precautions in his residence after the sun goes down. “I won’t walk through here after dark, there are parts of this place where something could happen, and you could scream all you want but no one would hear,” he says.
There is a somber cognizance that comes from being in the midst of human remains at the strike of midnight. If one were a story-chasing writer who perhaps didn’t know that it is technically illegal to be in Eugene Pioneer Cemetery after ten o’clock in the evening, one could attest to this.
And maybe some cemeteries are traversed by specters from another world. But in Dull’s cemetery, as he will tell you, it’s the living one should be more afraid of. “Anything can happen out here,” the caretaker says with arms folded, gazing out across headstones and shadows.