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portland maine cemetery tombstoneHistoric Western Cemetery To Be Restored With Respect and Dignity

By Paul O'Neil, May 23, 2001

This is the third and final article in a series describing the situation between dog-owners and the protection of Western Cemetery in Portland, Maine.

[Editor's note, see Paul's first article, and his second article.]

On Wednesday February 21 the Portland Maine City Council took a final vote on the issue of the use of the historic Western Cemetery as an off-leash dog run. By a vote of 9 votes to zero they voted to ban dogs from the cemetery altogether. This vote will clear the way for its restoration as a historic cemetery rather than a dog park.

They arrived at this decision after a very long and often controversial and emotional campaign and debate. The councilors agreed that no issue had ever generated such controversy and debate. The dog owners argued that they had made many improvements, created a sense of community and had driven rampant crime and the powers of darkness from the cemetery. Although they may have created a sense of community and friendship among their "dog community", the fact is they made very few improvements, they were extremely disrespectful, and the cemetery suffered serious deterioration under their use. The Western Cemetery has never been a dangerous crime area. Portland policemen and former Portland policemen are hard pressed to recall any crime within the cemetery beyond the unfortunate vandalism and an occasional teenage drinking party. There was a period in the 1970's when homeless people set up camp in the cemetery and vandalized some of the tomes to find shelter. Those homeless people could hardly be considered the powers of evil and darkness and it was the Portland Police who evicted them. One of the few if any renovations the dog owners made to the cemetery was to install doggy poo poo bag dispensers. These dispensers were flanked on each side by barrels full of "whatever" to greet visitors at all three entrances. These contraptions are not what most people would consider an improvement.

portland maine dog park
These lovely doggy poo poo bag dispensers will be history after June 1

Last year the Portland City Council hired Victor Walker a consultant from the Boston based Walker-Kluesing Design Group to create a master plan for the restoration of the Western Cemetery. Mr. Walker's recommendations were for a restoration as a cemetery allowing dogs on leash only. The City Council however was overwhelmed by the outrage over the cemeteries current use and abuse as a dog park and by the very deep and nationwide respect and reverence for cemeteries. The result was an absolute ban of dogs in the cemetery.

When the Ancient Order of Hibernians originally planned their campaign to return dignity and respect to the cemetery they embarked with mixed feelings. Many Hibernians were dog owners and almost all had been dog owners at some point in their lives and they could understand how wonderful it must be to have the use of an appropriate dog park. All however agreed that a cemetery could not possibly ever under any circumstances be an appropriate site for an off leash dog run.

It was very difficult for dog owners to argue in favor of, or try to justify the degradation, disrespect and desecration that takes place when a cemetery is used as an off leash dog run. While attending the first public meeting held on the "dog run" issue the Hibernians listened to the absolutely and utterly absurd excuses being offered and the inaccurate and exaggerated statements being made about the cemetery's recent history. It was that point in time that it became obvious they would be involved in this campaign until a resolution to this issue was found that was favorable to the cemetery.

Although there may have been some severe criticism of the dog's owners and the city council nobody ever tried to place any blame on the dogs or suggest that an appropriate dog park was not a good idea. The message through this whole campaign was "it's a cemetery not a dog park" and with the help of the readers of this web site and the literally hundreds and hundreds of e-mails and letters you sent, we in no small way got that message across. We let the city know that a cemetery, especially the Western Cemetery was not an appropriate site for an off-leash dog run. There was no compromise as far as the cemetery is concerned. As of the first day of June, The Western Cemetery will once again be a dignified cemetery and a fitting place for our forefathers to rest. There is a master plan in place for the cemetery's restoration and grass will once again be able to grow over the graves in the part of the cemetery now used as a doggy Frisbee field.

We should all be pleased and look at what we have been able to accomplish with pride because it is not very often during this type of effort that everybody can come out ahead. On February 21 the city council not only banned dogs from the cemetery but also agreed to appoint an off-leash area committee to search for alternative dog park sites and as of this writing they have narrowed it down to the two best possibilities.

portland maine cemetery tombstoneThis campaign has had some extra significance for the Ancient Order of Hibernians because many of their ancestors are buried in the "Catholic Ground" of the Western Cemetery. They were immigrant survivors of the "Great Hunger" in Ireland during the 1840's. Many of these Irish immigrants found it very difficult to find peace, rest and security in life but now at least they may rest in peace after death.

We would again like to thank you all for your support and ask that everyone who sent an e-mail to the city council take the time to write another one to thank, congratulate and praise the Portland City Council for making the right decision. We must remember the city council was under extreme pressure. The dog owners were able to post fliers on the cemetery gates and up to two hundred of their friends could read them each day. This made it easy to have a very strong turn out at all of the public hearings. The dog owners would get up and say "we're dog owners, the Western Cemetery is our dog park and we vote!" The Portland City Council in spite of this and other pressure made the right decision and plan to do what is right. To this day the Portland Press Herald and the dog owners just can't seem to understand that "it's a cemetery not a dog park!"

- Paul O'Neil

Paul is the President of Division 1 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Portland Maine, Contact Paul at: Galway376@cs.com

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