An attraction to die for.
Most people who know anything about Memphis know that it has a rich and colorful history. From Elvis to the Blues, Beale Street to the Grizzlies, Memphis has been making news for years. However, there are parts of Memphis which are just as intriguing as Graceland and Beale Street, but don't get attention like these tourist attractions. One such hidden gem is Elmwood Cemetery.
Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest active cemetery in Memphis. In it lie former city mayors, yellow fever victims, slaves, notorious eccentrics and Civil War soldiers. And that just scratches the surface of this remarkable place.
Buried among warehouses and railroad cars, Elmwood Cemetery is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the working world. As you cross under its wrought iron arch, peace envelops you. You are greeted by an unassuming building near the gate, the Welcome Center. Inside the welcome center is a wealth of information about everything from available burial plots to the complete history of the cemetery. Here, you can pay for the privilege of a guided tour of the grounds, or you can wander about at your leisure for no charge.
If you do wander about, you will, at some point in your exploration, notice headstones shaped like tree stumps. These stumps will have varying numbers of cut off "branches". Also, an axe is usually perched atop each one. Aesthetically pleasing, but more than that. You see, each stump is the grave marker of a Woodman of the World who came to Memphis during the yellow fever epidemics and offered assistance, often sacrificing their own lives in the process. Each stubby cut off branch indicates a child of the person buried there. A broken stub indicates a child who died before the father. Some stumps have ten or more stubby cut off branches. Few have none. The axe, of course, like the stump itself, indicates their affiliation with the Woodmen. So, from this one stone monument, you are given a sense of the person buried there and the family left behind.
The grave markers tell the stories of the people buried at Elmwood. It is both a history lesson and a creative tryst. This is only the beginning. Wander a bit further and you come to what appears to be a field of white marble markers with numbers on them. Hundreds of these dot the the landscape under the great oak trees of Elmwood Cemetery. These are the graves of Civil War soldiers. Many of the markers now have plaques with names and birth and death dates below them. These lucky men have been claimed and recognized by their families. Many are unknown - the number on their grave markers the only identification. Over the years, weather and wear have erased some of the numbers. Now, we may never know who was buried where. A sad legacy for so many men who gave so much for the country they loved, Confederate and Union.
Some of Memphis' more colorful characters are also buried at Elmwood Cemetery. Among them is E.H. Crump. He ran Memphis politics from the early 1900's until his death in 1954. During that time, he was said to have almost absolute control of the local political scene and much of state politics. He served two two-year terms as Mayor of Memphis, but he was powerful enough to be the one to name his successors.
In the back of the cemetery, near a family grave site, is a simple swing hanging from a wooden frame. This swing was put there so the child of the deceased person could visit and remember the good times they had on a similar swing at their home. Even today, visitors sit on the wooden plank suspended from two ropes and are touched by the action of an ill parent.
Unlike most historical cemeteries, Elmwood still has spaces for burials. It is the oldest active cemetery in Memphis. And the most colorful. From the characters buried under its grasses and headstones to the oak trees shading those same headstones, stories abound at Elmwood, stories worth telling and stories worth hearing.
Like the larger, better known attractions in Memphis, Elmwood Cemetery gives visitors a glimpse into the colorful past of the city and a greater appreciation for how far it has come. The city is as individual as those resting under the headstones. Next time you are looking for an historical attraction to die for, remember Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
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