It seems contradictory to think of visiting a cemetery as a way to appreciate life, but that’s just what we did on a recent in-service day for Memphis City Schools.
When I find myself with my four kids at home (they having invaded the sanctity of my office), my mind naturally goes to the outdoors and activities to keep them entertained.
My oldest had a school project due and would need to be taken to Elmwood Cemetery to work on a documentary he and some classmates were producing for his class at White Station High.
Their topic was the Yellow Fever Epidemic and the cemetery has entire sections filled with victims and the nuns who cared for them.
Spirits with the Spirits, Elmwood's big fundraiser, happens Saturday, October 20th, at 7 p.m.
The other three kids tagged along with me and we strolled the hilly grounds. From their offices at the 146-year-old Phillips Cottage that acts as Elmwood’s headquarters, a detailed map or self-guided audio tour can be had for nominal fees ($5 and $10, respectively), or a docent-led tour ($15/person) can be arranged.
There are also themed tours – Civil War history, African American history, arboretum – available. We, being adventurous and of short attention spans, opted for a hastily printed free map and our own, aimless wanderings to see what we could discover.
What we found was a monumental number of monuments to fallen soldiers from nearly every war, civic leaders, authors, mothers, fathers and, to my children’s surprise, children.
The headstones along the winding paths and grassy knolls are ornate and beautiful in their own right, and etched with the names of our city, its streets, neighborhoods, and buildings.
The cemetery, founded in 1852, was among a wave of garden cemeteries developed in the U.S. for the living as well as the dead. It was a popular tradition for families to picnic in these park-like settings on Sunday afternoons during the Victorian era. Today, Elmwood holds more than 75,000 grave sites that include generals and senators, mayors and millionaires, governors and paupers.
It’s a place where familiar family names stand out big and bold – Snowden, Church, Crump, Porter, and Overton. A walk through historic Elmwood, or any cemetery, offers the opportunity to teach our kids a little something about life and death, and something, too, about respecting our history.
824 S. Dudley, Memphis, TN 38104 • (901) 774-3212
Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon, closed on Sunday. Admission is free.