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Burying My Dead

Recipient 2019 IPPY Bronze Award for Regional Fiction

Selected by the Library Writers Project

It is Halloween. The crowd that gathered for the Tour of Untimely Departures has dispersed. But reporter Murphy Gardiner finds herself returning to the pioneer cemetery, chasing a runaway cat. There she meets Anji Lee, a native Oregonian of Chinese descent who is fulfilling an old family tradition to lay three white roses upon the grave of Simeon Small, paying homage to this unknown man who is revered like an ancestor. Murphy is intrigued by the mystery. Before long, she embarks upon a yearlong adventure that takes the reader on an absorbing ride – from contemporary genealogical research to Portland’s early years as a growing town.


It’s odd that men feel they must protect women, since for the most part, they must be protected from men.

Abigail Scott Duniway

At the book’s historic heart are three characters struggling for a measure of freedom. Born in Pennsylvania with a name ripe for ridicule and a body to match, Simeon Small is sexton at East Portland’s Lone Fir cemetery, making daily visits to the nearby Asylum to see his wife. Emerson Asher is an aspiring writer and suffragist, finding her way in the world despite loss and hardship. Sold by her parents in Guangdong, Zhou Zhen is an innocent fighting to maintain her inner dignity on the streets of Portland’s Chinatown. Their lives collide in unconventional ways, hidden from future generations.

Their story is an intricate puzzle rich in historic detail, but at its core, it is a tale of human connection.


“If you dig through the layers of time, the dead still speak, if only in a whisper.”

-Murphy Gardiner, Burying My Dead


The Voices of Burying My Dead

Excerpt: Simeon Small

Crows squawked unseen inside a dense Douglas fir, gathering for a party or, perhaps, a funeral. The tree stood as sentinel, a single thrust heavenward in the midst of East Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery. Simeon Small rammed a shovel into the packed Oregon clay, dripping and heavy with the relentless November rain. He stripped off his flannel shirt and let the water wash over him like an ancient cleansing ritual.

The task before him was a child’s grave, and he approached the labor with a delicacy reserved for the young, sculpting the sides wide and true so there would be no awkward moment when the tiny coffin was lowered. The family, he knew, needed no extra burdens, however trivial. The journey across the Willamette River from the booming city of Portland would be bone-chilling on such a damp day, and though the Stark Street Ferry landing was only a mile or so due west of the cemetery, the grief-stricken would be weary.



Excerpt: Emerson Asher

Impudent? Impudent? Abigail Scott Duniway is right. Sometimes it seems we meet more resistance from our sisters than our brothers. It makes me furious when I speak to a woman, face to face, who does not debate me nor dispute my claims but spews insidious remarks in the safety of her cocoon. How can a woman who has braved the Oregon Trail, who has toiled alongside her husband in equal measure, not warrant that women are deserving of the right of suffrage? How can she refute the right of a woman to possess her own property, to preserve earnings born of her own hands and mind without fear that her husband’s creditors will confiscate her belongings? Why must she suffer the outrages created by drink and debauchery that she surely would stop if only she had the financial power?

Dear me. How can I assail a patient of the asylum? I rage like a woman unchecked by reason or compassion. My affinity for the Temperance Movement leaves me, at times, without temperance of the tongue. Mrs. Duniway has a way with words that puts me to shame, for she can deliver an acerbic, sarcastic blow to the unfettered authority of men with the gentle voice of a devoted wife.

Women suffrage working to get the vote, 1912.   Photo Courtesy : Oregon Historical Society by Oregon State University, via Flickr

Women suffrage working to get the vote, 1912. Photo Courtesy: Oregon Historical Society by Oregon State University, via Flickr

Chinese exclusion imagery from the late 19th century— Burying My Dead

Excerpt: Zhou Zhen

Mr. Wu is pleased that he has success with my body. A portly man in strange dress and bunches of coarse hair on either side of his chin, paid $2 for the privilege of being the one who broke me. Mr. Wu snarled at me because I cried out, but he soon forgot his anger. Stand up and smile, he said. You have another customer.

And so it goes now, day and night. Some Chinese will not come to me because I have soiled myself with the Barbarian, but the launderers do not care. The railroad workers do not care. Ten, twenty men come to me each day. Barbarians or countrymen: what is the difference? Mr. Wu collects 40 cents each time. If no man strikes me, it is a good day.



Excerpt: Murphy Gardiner

I roamed through the rest of Lone Fir solo. Grams asked me to try to find a long-lost relative buried there, so I used that excuse to wander among the graves, reading the etched names and dates and imagining their lives. Tiny headstones mark the remains of infants and children who never had a chance to make their own mistakes, memories of their existence half-buried under a century of dirt and neglect. Their number is sobering. I stepped upon a few unknowingly and excused myself aloud, hoping no one would hear or think me mad. I would expect as much from those who tread on the grave of my stillborn son, left to fend for himself in Montana.

When I arrived home, Deanna was sitting on the front porch, clad in furry boots and a heavy flannel shirt to keep her warm.

“Piece of cake?” she offered.

 She had just turned fifty, old enough to be my mother but so very different that my mind doesn’t even go there.

“No thanks. What are you working on?”

“Cleaning up this old typewriter. Interested?”

“No expendable income yet, but it’s beautiful.”

“What have you been up to?” It didn’t feel like prying – just easy conversation.

By the time I relayed Anji’s story, I realized I had made up my mind. I want to help Anji in her quest to find a link between Zhou Zhen and the mysterious Simeon Small. After all, I’m a reporter. I make my living gathering facts. Untangling concepts. Solving puzzles.

It’s in my genes.

Main character Murphy Gardiner cleans up a vintage typewriter— Burying My Dead

Reader’s  Guide

Are you a curious reader or member of a book club?
Find thought-provoking discussion questions in the Burying My Dead reader’s guide.