The Story of America in Twelve Cemeteries

Gate_House,_Cemetery,_GettysburgGate House, Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Mathew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons)

1) Granary Burial Ground (Boston, Massachusetts)

Occupying just a city block in downtown Boston, the Granary Burying ground is a walking tour of colonial and Revolutionary Era America. Like most early American graveyards, Granary was built more for storage than posterity. Though there are as many as 8,000 burials on the grounds, just over 2,000 are marked. Those headstones generally belong to the upper crust of Boston society: political figures, religious figures, silversmiths and merchants. Many names are lost, a reminder of the holes that still exist in our understanding of the colonial period. The hero-making of the American Revolution reformed Granary: larger markers to figures like Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, along with the graves of the victims of the Boston Massacre, pointed to a growing sense of nationalism in American public memorial.

2) The Graveyards of Monticello (Charlottesville, Virginia)

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello sits atop a hill in Charlottesville, Virginia. For years it existed as a monument to the intellectual history of America the way it has traditionally been taught: a nation of ideas, of liberty, of equality; the home of the Declaration of Independence; land of American liberty and freedom. The family burial ground down the road from the main house contains more than 200 graves, the majority descendants or relatives of Jefferson himself. More recently, however, a new view of history has emerged at Monticello. Attention is being paid to those Jefferson descendants who are not buried alongside him: his children with Sally Hemmings and their descendants. The Monticello family graveyard is no longer the only marked cemetery on the grounds, either: a burial ground unearthed in 2001 is now known to be the resting place of many of Monticello’s enslaved residents. In this case, our understanding of “history from below” is growing both figuratively and literally as we publicly remember those whose labor was all too forgotten.

3) Worcester Cemetery (Park Hill, Oklahoma)

The trials and tragedies of the forced Native American migrations of the early nineteenth century can be read into the history of Park Hill, Oklahoma’s Worcester Cemetery, the burial place of many of the area’s early Cherokee inhabitants. Missionary Samuel Worcester established the cemetery in 1836, the year before federal troops rounded up the majority of the Cherokee and led them on a deadly forced march, now known as the “Trail of Tears,” across the southeast to Oklahoma. The first resident of the cemetery, Elias Boudinot, was assassinated by Cherokee who viewed him as a traitor: he had been an architect of the Treaty of New Echota, which had unlawfully signed away Cherokee land in 1835. Boudinot’s actions are indicative of the terrible choices American “divide and conquer” policy forced upon native peoples. The cemetery fell into disrepair over the first half of the twentieth century, but has been restored and is now preserved as a historical site.

4) The Displaced Cemeteries of San Francisco (San Francisco and Colma, California)

Colma, California lies just to the south of San Francisco. Though its official population is just over 1,200, it could claim over two million because of its status as the Bay Area’s premier cemetery location. At the turn of the twentieth century, city officials in San Francisco decided that with space at a premium in a modernizing city it was time to move the cramped and overcrowded graveyards that housed some of the city’s earliest American inhabitants. Cemetery owners bought up land in Colma and moved every grave in the city, save a few (such as graves of Californios – Mexican inhabitants predating American rule). Colma is now the destination for burials in San Francisco, and houses the graves of a tremendous number of Forty Niners and early Chinese, Italian, Irish, and other immigrants who helped build both San Francisco and nineteenth-century California.

5) Gettysburg National Cemetery (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) and Hollywood Cemetery (Richmond, Virginia)

When the smoke cleared outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, burial was a top priority: around eight thousand dead had to be cleared from the battlefield in the hot summer sun. Temporary mass graves were the first solution, but almost immediately the state of Pennsylvania, with help from the federal government, began to plan a national cemetery to honor those who gave “the last full measure of devotion.” Gettysburg began the egalitarian tradition of soldier’s graves, with each headstone the same, all facing a central monument. However, Gettysburg also pointed to the deep division that defined the Civil War, as only Union troops were interred there. Confederate bodies were reburied in several southern cemeteries, most notably Richmond Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery where several Confederate leaders are also buried.

6) Mount Moriah Cemetery (Deadwood, South Dakota)

No single place is more emblematic of the post-Civil War West than the South Dakota town of Deadwood, a mining town in the famous Black Hills region. Mount Moriah Cemetery replaced two earlier and smaller cemeteries in the city center, and its roster demonstrates the dangers of frontier life. Deadwood was one outpost in a violent push by the American government into Native American land in the west in the 1860s and 1870s; those conflicts are responsible for many of the earliest burials in Mount Moriah. Victims of fires, mine accidents, and deadly frontier disease are common there as well. Mount Moriah also shows the surprising diversity of labor in mining towns: there are two Chinese graves, showing the presence of Chinese labor in Deadwood, and a Jewish section. What history often remembers most about the “Wild West,” however, are the larger than life personalities, and Mount Moriah delivers those as well, with the graves of “Wild Bill” Hickock and “Calamity Jane.”

7) Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Sleepy Hollow, New York)

No cemetery highlights the excesses and contradictions of the Gilded Age better than the one in Sleepy Hollow. The cemetery is located just down the road from the Rockefeller estate at Kykuit, and contains the remains of major industrialists of the era: automobile executive Walter Chrysler, John Dustin Archbold and William Rockefeller of Standard Oil, banker Darius Ogden Mills, and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. The mausoleums these captains of industry inhabit are ostentatious monuments to wealth (with the exception of Carnegie’s simple Celtic cross). Yet in the same cemetery are powerful critics of the wealth and power of industry: labor leader Samuel Gompers’s grave is just yards from Carnegie’s, and social reformer and political organizer Belle Moskowitz’s grave hides on the side of a hill overlooking fellow resident Washington Irving’s famous Headless Horseman Bridge.

8) Oak Woods Cemetery (Chicago, Illinois)

Recently scholars have highlighted one of the most important demographic trends in American history: the movement of southern African Americans to northern cities in the early decades of the twentieth century. Oak Woods Cemetery – the southernmost of Chicago’s great cemeteries – highlights this transformative Great Migration and its impact on Chicago’s existing immigrant communities. Older graves in the cemetery bear Irish, German, and Jewish names. However, the majority of the cemetery’s residents were southern refugees and their children, from blues legend Junior Wells to anti-lynching Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells. The amazing gallery of black politicians, reformers, artists and musicians interred here points to Chicago’s central place in African American history and culture in the North over the course of the twentieth century.

9) Bakers Forge Memorial Cemetery (Demory, Tennessee)

No single area of the United States was more deeply reshaped by the Great Depression and the relief and reform programs of the New Deal than the Tennessee River Valley. It had been among the poorest and least developed parts of the United States in the 1920s, prone to flooding and lacking electricity and running water in many places. The Tennessee Valley Authority changed that, building dams to harness and control the flow of the unpredictable Tennessee River system and provide power and trade to nearby communities. Thousands of families had to move to accommodate the new dams, however. Several active cemeteries had to be moved, as well. Many of the remains were reburied nearby, and according to TVA records, no single cemetery received more re-interments than Bakers Forge Memorial Cemetery in Demory, created during completion of the Norris Dam on the Clinch River. Bakers Forge is a reminder that the relentless modernization of the mid-twentieth century did inestimable good, but not without a share of displacement.

10) Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington, Virginia)

In some ways, Arlington National Cemetery could tell the story of America all on its own. Arlington sits across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial; its highest point is Arlington House, the former home of Robert E. Lee. Arlington houses the remains of two US Presidents, twelve Justices of the United States Supreme Court, and more than 400,000 active duty servicemen and women. It also contains several memorials to military events, including the mast of the USS Maine, whose explosion in 1898 sparked the Spanish-American War. Arlington itself is a national symbol of sacrifice and service, as well as a constant demonstration of the martial nationalism that, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, has become an important part of American identity.

11) Ferncliff Cemetery (Hartsdale, New York)

Unlike many of the cemeteries often associated with famous or influential historical figures, Ferncliff is not a museum cemetery; it is an active cemetery with regular interments and cremations. Located in upper Westchester County, it has served New York City for decades and has become a cemetery of choice for celebrities and public figures who reflect the complexities of post-WWII America. There are few better places to visit for graves of important figures in entertainment, from Judy Garland and Joan Crawford to Ed Sullivan to Thelonious Monk and Cab Calloway. It also holds the remains of several crucial figures in the Civil Rights movements of the 1940s, 50s and 60s: Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz are buried at Ferncliff, as is author James Baldwin, singer and activist Paul Robeson, and organizer Whitney Young Jr. Former Chinese first lady Soong Mei-Ling (aka Madame Chiang) is also interred here, a reminder of the complicated client state relationships of the Cold War.

12) Cadillac Ranch (Amarillo, Texas)

While not really a cemetery, in many ways Amarillo Texas’s Cadillac Ranch is a memorial to a lost piece of Americana. Situated on the Mother Road, US Route 66, Cadillac Ranch is made up of a series of vintage cars buried front-down in the earth, their trunks resembling headstones. The cars have been covered with art and graffiti, making it a perfect roadside attraction of the kind that has all but disappeared in the age of the Interstate Highway. In its heyday, Route 66 was the beating heart of the western United States, the symbol of the Sun Belt and of 1950s America. Today it’s a living museum, kept alive by a commercial nostalgia that yearns for a mythic “simpler time.” Cadillac Ranch, too, tells America’s story: constantly moving, constantly replacing, yet constantly yearning for a past remembered only through the mist.

About the Author

Andrew Lipsett

Andrew Lipsett teaches United States History at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA. His interests include race, identity, and membership, and he blogs about history, memory, and memorialization at Graves of Note.

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