Elmwood Cemetery

Elmwood Cemetery

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Elmwood Cemetery was established in 1852 when 50 Memphis gentlemen each contributed $500 to purchase land for a new cemetery 2.5 miles from town. It was expanded to 80 acres after the Civil War, and is now the final resting place for 75,000 people (with space for 15,000 more). Elmwood's design followed the rural cemetery movement, and it reminded me of other grand, beautiful cemeteries from that time period, including Green-Wood and Woodlawn here in New York. 

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At the entrance to Elmwood is the Carpenter Gothic Cottage, built in 1866. It is topped by a bell that has rung for every funeral service since it was installed in 1870. It's free to roam the grounds of Elmwood, but like Hollywood Forever Cemetery, you can buy a map for $5. There's also an audio guide available, but I opted to just follow the map on my own, loosely following the audio guide markers. I enjoy exploring historic cemeteries from a purely visual standpoint, but knowing more about the people interred always adds to the experience. 

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Beginning in 1831, cemeteries began to be relocated outside of city centers and church yards due to overcrowding and health concerns. This rural cemetery movement created expansive, manicured grounds with a focus on nature. It was not uncommon for people to use these new outdoor spaces as they use parks today—families would picnic in the cemetery on a Sunday or couples would meet up for a romantic walk of the grounds (sounds like the ideal date to me). 

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I'm always a bit surprised in Southern cemeteries to see so many monuments to the Confederate dead. It makes sense, of course, but I haven't spent enough time in the South to feel anything but uncomfortable when I see a Confederate flag. Elmwood contains the graves of veterans from all American conflicts, starting with the Revolutionary War, as well as a monument to the more than 300 enslaved Africans buried here between 1852 and 1865.

After Captain Kit Dalton fought for the Confederacy, he rode with Frank and Jesse James, resulting in the offer of $50,000 for his capture, dead or alive. He alluded capture for so long that he was eventually pardoned, promising that he would lead an exemplary life going forward, which, according to his headstone, he did. Virginia "Miss Ginny" Bethel Moon was a Confederate spy, known as an "active and dangerous rebel," who maintained her fierce (aka stubborn) allegiance to the South until her death in 1925.

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Other famous inhabitants include politicians, local celebrities and notorious criminals. A marker labeled "No Man's Land," marks a public lot that contains the graves of 14,000 victims of several Yellow Fever epidemics. The Tennessee Children's Home Society has a marker at Elmwood to mark the unknown graves of 19 children, who died "under the cold hard hand" of the adoption agency that was also operating as a black market for babies.  

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The two candidates for my favorite headstone at Elmwood are William Eastman Spandow's and Lillie Mae Glover's. Spandow's stone throws some major shade, explaining that he was "killed in chemical laboratory of Columbia University by an explosion due to the carelessness of others." Glover was known as the "Mother of Beale Street," but she referred to herself as Ma Rainey #2, after the blues singer she admired. Her obelisk headstone is inscribed with a very relatable epitaph, presumably said by Glover herself, "I'm 78 years old ain't never had enough of nothing and it's too damn late now." 


Elmwood Cemetery
824 S. Dudley Street
Memphis, Tennessee 38104
Grounds: Mon-Sun, 8 AM-4:30 PM
Office: Mon– Fri, 8 AM–4:30 PM, Sat, 8 AM– noon, Closed Sun

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Happy Friday!

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