I am a Tombstone Tourist: someone who loves to wander cemeteries. I find it akin to visiting a museum: an opportunity to enjoy rarely seen sculpture, intricate carvings, and amazing architecture, all in a tranquil outdoor setting. This blog is about cemetery culture, art, history, issues of death, and genealogy - subjects of current relevance. I usually find something that intrigues me and makes me want to dig deeper. Care to join me? Read on...
From the moment you
arrive, you can feel that things are a bit off kilter. Of course, the look of
the place does nothing to dispel this thought.
Welcome to Eastern
Cemetery, 28-acres located next to the famous and well-groomed Cave Hill Cemetery
where Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali are laid to rest. But across the concertina wire, Eastern Cemetery lies in tatters, abused by the elements, and vandals, for over thirty years.
The Wake House
Eastern Cemetery was
founded in the 1844 by two Methodist churches. At that time, it was known as The
Methodist Cemetery and was one of the earliest burial grounds in the city to
allow people of different races and religions to be interred together. The
cemetery is home to some of the movers and shakers of early Louisville along with regular citizens.
This includes state officials, mayors, soldiers, slaves, and musicians. Charles
Clarke and Arthur Lommis designed the original Richardsonian Romanesque wake
house in 1891. And Eastern was also the first cemetery in Kentucky to have a
But Eastern Cemetery
has a decidedly dark past. Records from as early as the late 1850s indicate
that bodies were being buried in graves already occupied. The New York Times
did an article on the cemetery back in 1989 describing how the graves were
being resold after the remains and headstones had been removed – at least most
of the time. There were also indications that bodies were stacked on top of one
another – some buried only a foot or so deep – in order to maximize that burial
space, and make more money. In a cemetery with room for 16,000 burials, experts
estimated close to 50,000 people have been “laid to rest” here.
Records shows that
of the four grave maps made of the cemetery, covering the years 1880, 1907,
1962 and 1984 – all are inconsistent in grave placement from time period to time
period. Sections have been redivided and renamed, all in keeping with the
reburial of bodies.
About ten years ago, an unlocked building was
discovered to contain dozens of cremated remains And state investigators
reported that more than 90% of infant burials were done in a foot or less of
Today, the graveyard
is a tangle of weeds, downed trees and toppled stones. Vandalism is apparent
but not as rampant as might be expected. Maybe the negative vibe of the place
is off-putting even to those miscreants.
When you enter the
cemetery, the air is oppressive and you feel watched from
every corner. This is not a cemetery that encourages wandering, or even
loitering. This is an in-and-out cemetery: in for photos and out as fast as
possible. Rumor has it that a nineteenth century lady wanders the cemetery
trying to care for the infants graves. Footsteps and voices can be heard, and ghostly
figures have been seen in the chapel, and wandering the grounds. But knowing
the story, is it any wonder that this City of the Dead is restless?
Today, a non-profit
organization made up of a caring group of volunteers are working to take back
the cemetery. Friends of Eastern Cemetery do what they can to keep the cemetery grass cut, downed trees cut up, and
stones repaired. But it seems to be a never-ending job. If you’d like to
volunteer, visit their web page for more information.
My new book The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide is now available at bookstores across the country. Click
here for book information.