Story by Linda Kissam
The small Southern town of Lynchburg, Virginia is steeped in rich history. Much of that history can be revealed by visiting the Old City Cemetery which is located in the very heart of Lynchburg. I sense some eye rolling out there and a sarcastic note or two of “Really…?” is ringing in my ears. I know. Cemeteries are considered by many to be eerie places, full of ghosts and bad memories, but I find them sort of fascinating – especially the ones that are loved and supported by the local community. By reading old grave markers, you can find out so much about family lineage and how old or young people were when they passed away, or even how a society tended to treat its citizens.
Some people make a hobby out of visiting graves. I am not one, but I can see their point. They’re called gravers. A graver is someone who visits cemeteries for fun. The graving hobby encompasses a range of activities. There are tombstone tourists who plan vacations around the resting places of Hollywood stars and military gravers who track down Civil War soldiers. Genealogical gravers fill blank spots in their family tree with information collected from headstones. Preservationist gravers use special compounds to clean moss from 100-year-old markers. Many gravers just like to hang out in cemeteries and look at the stones.
On a recent trip, I came to explore the emerging Virginia wine scene, but left fascinated with the dearly departed. I didn’t purposely set out to immerse myself in cemetery matters, but I did and I am better for it.
My visit was to the Old City Cemetery. Not so long ago the Old City Cemetery was totally overgrown. But through the efforts of the Southern Memorial Association under the direction of Jane White combined with the efforts of the dedicated volunteers and the Lynchburg Public Works department it has been reclaimed as a well-kept park honoring the lives of the people buried there and those that keep the flame alive.
The Old City Cemetery is a registered historic landmark opened in 1806 as a public burying ground. It is the oldest public cemetery in Virginia still in use today. It has been estimated that over 90% of Lynchburg’s enslaved and free African American population are buried in the Old City Cemetery, the primary burial site for African Americans from 1806 to 1865. Since 1806, Lynchburg’s indigent citizens have also been buried in the Cemetery. An area known as Old Potters’ Field was used from 1960 to 1994 and is now enclosed as a memorial. In another part of the cemetery a distinctive bottle tree is part of a display created at the Cemetery to interpret centuries-old African burial customs.
The 26-acre site features more than 2000 historic gravestones, monuments, and ironwork enclosures; Butterfly Garden & Lotus Pond; garden of 19th-century shrubs and local architectural relics; Pest House Medical Museum, depicting conditions in a Civil War quarantine hospital; Cemetery Center, housing an office and small museum of mourning customs; Hearse House & Caretakers’ Museum, featuring an original 1900 horse-drawn hearse and grave markers exhibit; Station House Museum–an 1898 C&O Railway depot that interprets local railroad history; and Confederate Section containing 2200 graves of Civil War soldiers from 14 states.
It can be a bit much to take in if you have just experienced the loss of a loved one, but all in all this cemetery celebrates the lives of those who came before us and those that are just starting out in life. The Old Cemetery keeps up with the times by offering space for meetings, recitals, lectures, and weddings. All occasions are easily accommodated in the charming little Chapel at the Old City Cemetery. Small groups of 50 adults can be seated in the 100-year-old handmade pews. The Chapel is also the perfect setting for a traditional wedding ceremony.
One of the things I especially enjoyed about this special place is how it engages the community and visitors. The 26-acre site is an arboretum of 19th-century trees, shrubs, and flowers. Before you visit, plan ahead. You can plan by Seasons in the Cemetery. Peak of bloom for antique roses is the last two weeks of May. The peak of bloom for the Lotus Pond is July and August. And especially impressive is the peak of Fall Foliage the last two weeks of October. The peak of the bird population is the first week of June. The peak of the butterfly population is August.
Of particular note are the hundreds of antique roses which reach their peak of bloom in mid-May. If you plan to visit in May think about attending the Annual Antique Rose Festival where you can enjoy the Cemetery’s famous antique rose collection near its peak of bloom. Quite a sight. There is also a special free Mother’s Day Rose Walk. Or if you’re a history buff check out the Confederate Memorial Day Ceremony (“Decoration Day), an annual Lynchburg tradition since 1866.
Fall brings its own unique opportunities to interact with the Cemetery. The Bawdy Ladies of 19th-Century Lynchburg is held in late September. Historian Nancy Weiland leads a tour to the graves of some of Lynchburg’s famous “sporting ladies.” It’s Free. Candlelight Tours in October is always SOLD OUT, so call ahead and book early. I am told tickets go it a matter of a couple of hours. However, you can call or visit the Cemetery office after 9:00 a.m. on the morning of each performance night to check for extra tickets. If the weather forecast is good, extra tickets will be made available for each tour that night. Actors in period costume portray true stories of Cemetery residents. Six tours each night begin at 6:10. Tickets must be purchased in advance, at the Cemetery office, by phone (434-847-1465), or online: www.lynchburgtickets.com/candlelight.
Perhaps one of the most touching events is held in December. Wreaths Across America begins with a
brief ceremony where attendees lay evergreen wreaths on hundreds of veterans’ graves in the Cemetery. Visit http://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/ for more information.
Family fun can be found just prior to Christmas. The Holiday Open House encourages locals and visitors to stop by the Cemetery Center for hot cider and cookies and last-minute gifts before going to the Chapel for a special holiday concert.
I suggest you consider including a tour of the Old City Cemetery in your tourist plans when visiting Lynchburg Virginia. Expect to see the grounds filled with people of all ages and interests – from the Civil War Buff to the antique flower enthusiast to school children on a history field trip. Plan an hour or two to stroll around the property. A guided tour or attending an event will make your time there even more memorable. And while you’re there, stop by the gift shop and pick up a copy of the award-winning cookbook, Food to Die For: A book of funeral food, tips and tales. Talk about a unique souvenir.