Until the faux-Beaux-arts crowd put their stranglehold on American urban planning with the City Beautiful movement in the late 19th century, green space in the crowded cities of the Industrial Revolution was, by and large, dead space. Literally.
Before there were parks, there were cemeteries. Rolling vales dotted by monuments majestic and meager. Places to spend a pleasant afternoon with loved ones — on both sides of the ground.
In the ensuing centuries, American attitudes towards death have changed. Visiting Aunt Sally is now as obligatory and unpleasant as it was when she was alive. By the same token, people who want to spend free time in cemeteries are seen as just a bit creepy — or worse, as goth kids.
That's unfortunate, really, because cemeteries have advantages parks don't have. Their treatment of history is never forced. Parking is almost never an issue. It's usually pretty quiet, and there's almost no chance you'll get smacked in the head with a Frisbee. And because we haven't quite unlocked the key to immortality yet — despite the best efforts of our scientists and George Hamilton — there's always something new to see.
And so, as Halloween nears and the frost is on the pumpkin and whatnot, the city's cemeteries deserve to be reconsidered as a destination — or more to the point, as something besides a final destination. Each has a unique character, a rich and varied history, and a population that is perpetually growing yet rouses little complaint.
Nashville City Cemetery opened in 1820 and in its first 30 years grew to 11,000 residents. (It's up to about 20,000 now.) Located on Fourth Avenue South, it's not in the finest part of town — largely a district of train tracks and light industry. But City has undergone a remarkable turnaround in the past decade or so. There's some explanatory signage, and headstones have been repaired. The lawn now gets a mow, which was once all too rare.
Because there are few new burials there — interments are rare to the level of newsworthiness — it's more frozen in time than other cemeteries, which is saying something. As a public good, City is the final resting place of everyone from Nashville's founder and parkway namesake James Robertson and his family (who lie behind a surprisingly well-kept iron gate, frequently beset with wreaths from the Daughters of the American Revolution) to dozens of inmates and indigent disease victims, who have their own decidedly less ornate plot right in the middle of the whole operation.
When cholera struck the city in the 1840s, the city stopped selling plots in the burial ground as a sanitation necessity, restricting new graves to folks whose families had already purchased a plot. You wanna know who the real old money is in this town? Check the obits for a City internment. The most recent was in 2002, when country songwriting great Harlan Howard joined the rest of his family just south of the inmates and diseased.
Among the beneficiaries of the sanitation decision was Mt. Olivet on Lebanon Road, two miles east of downtown and spread across 250 acres on a daunting hill. When it opened in 1856, it was limited to white Protestants. Even still, for reasons of tradition surely, it remains a pretty WASP-y place. The centerpiece is Confederate Circle, where 1,500 Boys in Gray rest for eternity. Put off by the Stars and Bars? Maybe not the best place for you. If the South rises again, the bellicose zombies will surely originate here.
The Acklens of Belmont fame rest nearby in one of the creepiest — and most beautiful — mausoleums in Nashville. With Adelicia and her kin packed inside (and her more recently born descendants in the soil around it), the mausoleum's dominant feature is a statue, presumably of an angel, holding a glass of wine and what appears to be pills in the palm of her hand.
This has given rise to a number of urban legends — most notably that the lovely Mrs. Acklen committed suicide with a combination of booze and sleeping pills. That's a pretty Nashville way to go out, but she actually died from pneumonia while on a New York shopping trip. (Sorry, ghost-story lovers.)
Also at Mt. Olivet is Vernon Stevenson's tomb, modeled on Napoleon's. Stevenson was the president of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad and clearly thought conquering the Cumberland Plateau with rail was as impressive as being the Emperor of France.
Another railroad man — Eugene C. Lewis — is buried in a pyramid near the front of the cemetery. No one is really sure why Lewis opted for his Egyptian Revival crypt, but as one of the first directors of the Nashville Parks Department, maybe his experience with The Parthenon gave him a taste for the classical.
Mt. Olivet tells broader stories too. The pre-income-tax ostentatiousness of the rich is on full display, with one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as real in death as they were in life. It's also something of a metaphor for the divisions of race and religion. Just a few steps west of the aforementioned pyramid is a plot dedicated to the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy, the first sign (along with the obviously Irish names on the headstones nearby) that Protestant Mt. Olivet abuts the Catholic Cavalry. Separated, but not separate. A bird's eye view will show that Mt. Olivet also neighbors Greenwood Cemetery, where many prominent African-Americans rest, but one will never accidentally stumble into Greenwood as one almost always will into Cavalry.
Mt. Olivet is still a living cemetery, for lack of a better term, as there are still regular burials. But the attention to the newer residents looks like it may be to the detriment of the older folks. Cenotaphs lay tipped over and broken, and the headstones they take with them on their fall crumble too.
One mausoleum — that of the J.H. branch of the powerful Bradford family — is, and has been for years, in notably terrible condition. The frontis holding the coffins in place has been dislodged. It's held up now by incongruous and anachronistic neon yellow bungee cords, but it was possible in the not-so-recent past to see straight into the caskets. It's a sad fact of life that "perpetual care" is frequently anything but, and often those older burials have families that are either ignorant or don't care that their antecedents aren't being treated well in the great hereafter.
On the other side of that coin is Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison, which started taking burials in 1785. The names and the tombs themselves there are less prominent than at City or Mt. Olivet — no Lipscombs or Acklens or Overtons — just as one might expect from a graveyard in Madison. The layout, though, is far more interesting.
Most of the older graves are in the corner nearest Briley Parkway, but they aren't as separate from the newer vintage as they are at Mt. Olivet, where the prominent names sit on the hill like the lords they no doubt imagined they were. At Spring Hill, a stroll takes you from the 1800s to the 1980s and back without noticing.
What's more, the oldest graves are cared for as well as the newer ones. Spring Hill also has massive indoor crypts, all marble and wrought iron — which are more than a little creepy, if that's your thing. Especially if you want to see photos of the deceased taped to walls — and yes, that includes the deceased when they weren't ... and when they were.
Nashville, of course, has hundreds of cemeteries, in churchyards and backyards. Davidson County was once, after all, largely rural. The Davidson County Cemetery Survey (davidsoncocemeterysurvey.com) has recorded nearly 600 of them — including ones inundated by Percy Priest Lake. Visits to these are not recommended without scuba gear or gills.
All of them tell stories — sad and maudlin, happy and heartwarming. ("This guy lived for 102 years in the 1880s? Good for him!") To make sure they remain legible for others who follow, veteran cemetery enthusiasts know to always be polite and don't trespass. Clean up a mess. Don't make a lot of noise.
But don't fall into the American trap of seeing death as something to be avoided and cemeteries as an obligation. Enjoy these first great public spaces. You might learn something. As any real estate agent will tell you, "location, location, location" is as important in death as it is in life. After all, that last land buy is the one you'll have to live with the longest.
UPDATE, 3 p.m. Oct. 27: On Saturday, Nov. 5, from 1 to 5 p.m., the Nashville City Cemetery will host its annual Nashville Living History Tour, in which reenactors bring to life (or undeath) fascinating figures from the city's past. Don't take our word for it — ask the people playing personages such as former U.S. Sen. and Secretary of the Treasury George Washington Campbell, land developer and East Nashville founding father Moses W. Wetmore, African-American herbal physician Jack Macon, former Mayor Powhattan W. Maxey, and poet-author Mary Middleton Rutledge Fogg, granddaughter of two signers of the American Declaration of Independence.
Cost is $5 per person or $10 per family, and the event will provide free parking and shuttle bus service to and from the parking lots at Greer Stadium, 534 Chestnut Street. Period music will be played and sung during the afternoon. The event is sponsored by the Metropolitan Historical Commission and the Nashville City Cemetery Association Board.
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