The mysterious carillon at Memory Memorial

While visiting the Wilson Bridge and Memory Memorial cemeteries in Vancouver Washington, I noticed an unusual (for the area) feature: a carillon, or chime tower. It is located in a section of Memory Memorial charmingly called the “Garden of Chimes.”

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Naming gardens, sections or areas of cemeteries seems to be a mid-twentieth century phenomenon (note the vintage-looking sign) that I appreciate as there is usually some corresponding grotto, sculpture garden, flower bed, bench or other feature that is particularly scenic and invites contemplation.

The defunct, crumbling carillon struck me as spooky, but also unusual as carillons are more common in large lawn cemeteries, especially in California, or in military cemeteries. I’ve visited hundreds of cemeteries in the Pacific Northwest and have never seen a carillon anywhere else. So I decided to find out more.

Google searches revealed that carillons — real carillons, with real bells and real people to play them — are super upscale and unbelievably expensive. Over the decades, real carillons were replaced with electronic carillons, and then with digital ones, programmed to play seasonal tunes such as Christmas carols or timed chimes such as on the hour.

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So that was interesting about carillons, but it didn’t explain why a small local cemetery in Washington State has one. I emailed the cemetery management and they told me that the carillon was built when the cemetery was established in the 1960s, and that was really all they knew about it. Here’s more about the history of the two neighboring cemeteries and a link to the Memory Memorial home page .

I told my boyfriend about my curiosity and he wanted to see the thing. So one day we drove by and stopped to take a look at the carillon. The door to the carillon turned out to be a painted sheet of plywood held in place by one screw and some rocks. So we figured it wouldn’t hurt if we just took a quick look inside. This is what we saw.

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The speaker for what was probably an electronic carillon is still installed at the top, under a decaying wooden roof, but the electronic controls have been removed from a small roofed area framed with 2x4s that protected the electronics from the weather. So there was not much to see although I found the construction interesting.

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Once I saw how the speaker was secured inside the tower, it occurred to me that it would be possible to suspend one or more ordinary wind chimes inside the tower. There would be just enough breeze through the breeze blocks to tickle the wind chime and make the tower ring out again.

I still don’t know why Memory Memorial has a carillon when no other cemeteries in the area do. My best guess is that it was built in the optimism and enthusiasm of the cemetery’s construction in the 1960s, emulating practices of larger and more metropolitan cemeteries. It would be nice to hear the carillon chime again through some sustainable method.

Stump and Lamb explores personal growth and meaning via travels to pioneer cemeteries of the West.

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