This is the third article in a series that highlights places to visit while in Memphis for the IBC. Jimmi Langemo of Jimmi and the Band of Souls used to spend 12 to 15 weeks of the year in Memphis doing diversity and leadership development work.
Anyone who knows me knows I love cemeteries. Each person resting in a cemetery is a reminder to me of the sacredness of this life. Each one of these people loved, worked, felt lonely, and laughed. Our lives are so short. For all we know, we have this one chance to learn how to love . . . to drink deeply from this human experience. When I walk through a cemetery, the community of souls by which I am surrounded inspire me. I wonder about their stories. I’m curious about how they lived and what they learned.
Elmwood is a particularly remarkable cemetery. It started in 1852 and sprawls across 80 acres. It’s not just a cemetery either. There is beautiful architectural and sculpture here and deep history – both local and national. It’s also an official bird sanctuary and arboretum. The beauty of the place is something to behold.
But it’s not all beauty.
There is a section for people who died during a yellow fever epidemic. This is touching area that includes a section for people who died trying to help others. It includes priests, nuns, doctors and prostitutes. There is also a large, unmarked section called “No Man’s Land” that contains the remains of 2500 people who died of the disease.
Even more touching and transformative is the slave cemetery. There are more than 300 men and women buried on a hill in unmarked graves. It stands in striking contrast to the tall obelisks and monuments that mark the graves of wealthy, European-American men and women. To me this section has been a good reminder that my story is different from many others. I know where my ancestors come from. I know that when they arrived they were free to marry, buy land and find jobs. Others have had to fight much harder to earn those freedoms. Things are better today, but the struggle isn’t over yet. May we continue to work toward a day where each person feels safe, is fairly challenged, and has similar opportunities to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
Other sites to see included visiting the graves of over 1000 Confederate soldiers who rest in an area called Confederate Soldiers Rest. There is also a section for the victims of a riverboat explosion. There are famous people buried here too, including Robert Church, the first African American millionaire; Kit Dalton of the James-Younger gang; Benjamin Hooks, NAACP leader; and Ginny Moon, a confederate spy.
There is one tombstone that is a must see. I have never seen the like in any cemetery I have visited. The grave rests on a low hill shaded by one tree. The tombstone reads:
Seduced and pregnant by her father’s friend, unwed, she died from abortion, her only choice.
Abandoned in life and death by family with but a simple rose from her mother. Buried only
through the kindness of unknown benefactors.
Died Feb. 1876, age 21
Victim of an unforgiving society,
Have mercy on us
I have so many questions about Kate and her situation. What is her story? Who is the benefactor? Was her mother present at the burial? What happened to her father’s friend? I could go on for hours about her.
As you can see, Elmwood cemetery is a treasure. I highly recommend it. You’ll never see anything else like it.
For more information, go to http://www.elmwoodcemetery.org/