“Memphis at rest since 1852.” That is the tagline for Elmwood cemetery, a place established as one of the first rural garden cemeteries in the south. It began with fifty men who drew names from a hat to determine what to call the land they had just purchased (originally 40 acres total). “They came up with the name Elmwood,” says the park’s historian, Kelly Sowell, “They liked the name but realized we didn’t have any Elm trees here so they had to get them imported from New York.” Sowell states, “There are sixty species of trees at Elmwood, some older than the park, but if you spot an Elm, you’ll know it’s not older than the cemetery.”
The first burial is dated in August of 1853 and currently you will find approximately seventy-five thousand burials at Elmwood. Bob Barnett, assistant director, tells us they coordinate about 200 a year. But don’t fret, there is plenty more space to accommodate more than fifteen thousand more if interested. And why wouldn’t you be interested? This cemetery has become much more than a final resting place. It is also a place for family outings, picnics, and social gatherings. Step inside the house/office stationed at the front entrance and you’ll discover a quaint gift shop which once served as the original vault for records. Inside is also a collection of information on the cemetery and a list of events they hold annually.
Because there is so much history on this land, you’ll find such a diverse arrangement of burials. You’ll discover veterans from American wars, starting with the Revolutionary war, as well as generals, senators and governors, mayors, madams and murderers, and all sorts of regular citizens. You’ll discover fascinating sculptures and artwork among the headstones. Mausoleums still stand proudly, and believe it or not, you can still purchase one. Barnett can pull out a catalog of mausoleums, but you’d have to be willing to spend “$350,000 to $400,000 or even some of them cost 1 million dollars,” he says. Though, just as you might expect, people aren’t buying them. Currently, the most expensive monument that stands at Elmwood is an obelisk which, above its base, is one single piece of granite and 65 feet tall, “It was installed in the 1920s and it cost $29,000,” Barnett says, “and today that would be about $450,000.” The company that made that obelisk said they couldn’t reproduce it today. They wouldn’t know what it would cost.
The bell atop the office building was donated by a women’s college and installed in the 1870s, though was originally located in a different entrance of the park. Without the aid of a mobile phone or even pager technology, the purpose of ringing the bell was to notify the superintendent of a funeral’s arrival. The tradition of ringing the bell every time a funeral crosses the bridge through the entrance has remained alive since the beginning.
To view a listing of events the cemetery holds, including October’s well known Annual Costume Twilight Tour, in which costumed characters portray different Elmwood residents and introduce you to its great history, visit.. elmwoodcemetery.org/events/
Thanks to Kelly Sowell and Bob Barnett for being so warm and welcoming in sharing the park’s history.
All photographs were taken by the talented Breezy Lucia.