Kevin J. Elliott
I am often confused when I recommend a cemetery as a place for a leisurely trip– especially at a time when death is on the minds of many. But since I acquired an Ancestry account several years ago, I’ve often found myself in a long-forgotten cemetery in a place like New Vienna, Ohio, looking for my great-great-grandfather on a Saturday. at random, to find a five times deleted grandfather. Or, in defiance of my loyal traveling companion, travel for miles to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave and drop a pen, or Sun Ra’s grave to drop existential vibrations. Communicating with the dead, wandering the sacred and unknown life of people you will never know, is, to some extent, a morbid fascination, of course. But it is also a chance for mediation, reflection and delight in being alive.
After all, you have a captive audience and social distancing hits differently.
TOGreen lawn cemetery on the south side of Columbus, with 360 acres and over 154,000 burials, you hear much of our city’s rich history. It is, in retrospect, Columbus’s first park, and a place where you can spend hours walking aimlessly or attentively, absorbing history, admiring art, and identifying the natural elements that abound.
âAt the time of Green Lawn’s founding, attitudes toward death were more influenced by the Romantics and the arts. Death was no longer seen as dark, âsaid Randy Rogers, president of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association. âThese cemeteries just outside of town were part of the rural cemetery movement. You wanted a cemetery with green spaces, a natural topography and old woods. Green Lawn came before the first city park of Columbus, which wasGoodalein 1850.
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In his sturdy but worn John Deere golf cart, Rogers traveled the narrow trails of the vast expanse of Green Lawn.The place has seen flooding, pandemics, grave looting and the rise of urban sprawl around it, making it a respite less removed from the noise and bustle of the city than when it was created. On every other lap Rogers took, it showed a Medal of Honor recipient, an associate of Wyatt Earp, a Civil War veteran, a nurse stricken with treating patients with the 1918 Spanish flu, famous botanists, abolitionists and a murderous mistress. Olympic pistol champion who invented a still commonly used veterinary tool. Cemeteries are simply the best museums, if you know where to look.
âWe tell people we have 154,000 stories and I know about 1,200,â Rogers said. âBut these are just people stories. We also have stories about the markers themselves; how they were built and designed. Stories about trees.
On this tour, I was specifically looking for lesser known Columbusonians: Billy southworth, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame that has coached the St. Louis Cardinals to several World Series; andAlice schille, a modernist watercolorist. And with that, Rogers was on the move. He knew exactly where each stone was placed.
In the past, I had seen the cemetery’s most famous residents, includingPrescott Bush (patriarch of a presidential monarchy), but today I was also looking for the grave of Marion Tinsley.Tinsley, a doctor from combinatorial at Ohio State University, is universally regarded as the greatest checkers player who ever lived. His gaming genius was so complete that he lost just seven games, and he defeated the Chinook computer after retiring as the world champion in 1992 at age 64. Its small ground away is engraved with a checkerboard. Until today, Rogers did not know that Tinsley was a resident.
“There is a new story that I just learned, so that’s 1,201.”
To think that Rogers has just heard of Tinsley is a testament to the evolution of the cemetery, as well as a reminder that a cemetery is not a place of finality or stasis, but something that is constantly changing.
In fact, there is always something new or to be fixed at the cemetery. Just a few weeks ago, Green Lawn unveiled the monument of the “deceased”, which commemorates the anonymous graves of pioneers displaced from the razed city cemeteries of the city center. Soon there will be a sculpture ofMuggs the dog, to better locate the unpretentious stone of Muggs’ most famous owner, writer and designer, James Thurber. The biggest question mark the cemetery will face is how to find the $ 2.5 million in funding needed to rehabilitate the magnificent 1920s mausoleum of industrialist Charles Hayden, which has a Tiffany glass dome,Haydenville tiled floors and four large Italian murals in an interior that the public rarely gets to see. It is such a grandiose grave that Hayden has been said to have spent his children’s inheritance there.
These giantsOzymandian the monuments to fortunes built at the beginning of Columbus are a stark but sumptuous contrast to those lost stories that Green Lawn also tries to preserve. Like that ofElliott Blaine Henderson, a forgotten African-American poet who was buried far behind Green Lawn in an unmarked grave. In 2019, the Green Lawn Association gave his resting place a beautiful marker, including one of his poems of fire and brimstone as an epitaph.
For the pleasure of traveling and going out, the cemetery is always a fundamental opposite to urban life. Besides the many stories of the Sullivant family, or the curious story ofEmil Ambos’ brass fish, Rogersreport a hive of wild bees or migrating birds (the cemetery is a designated site in Audubon). With the creaking of the leaves and the chill of the air in early October, this creates a tranquil environment that still has plenty of life to do.
This is certainly a dilemma for any mortal walking through a cemetery. Where will i be– other than dust in the wind– In 500 years? I often think of this, not of myself, but of someone like the irreplaceable icon of Columbus Rahsaan Roland Kirk, buried in a poorly maintained part of town with few visitors. Maybe he needs to move to Green Lawn? With a festive statue? They have a lot of space. Rogers predicts that with the remaining acreage, they have room for the next 100 years. And they’re good at staying there, with their usual meticulous maintenance, for centuries to come.
But when it comes to ghosts, which is certainly the reason why I chose this destination in the middle of October, this is just pure rumor. There are no ghosts in Green Lawn. There are certainly hauntings at the immaculately restored Greenlawn Abbey next door (at one time a fierce competitor of Green Lawn). But at Green Lawn? It’s only in our imagination.
âYou usually don’t find ghost stories haunting the place where they were buried,â Rogers said. âObviously cemeteries have a reputation for being a scary place, but we don’t have any stories here. They usually hang out where they lived or where they were killed.