70,000 Stories, Six Feet Apart
April 10th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
I have a lot of things wrong with me, but none of them are St. Anthony’s Fire.
I came to that grateful conclusion in a phone conversation with Kim Bearden, executive director of Elmwood Cemetery, as we were discussing the 70,000-plus residents outside her office window and how they got there.
If you don’t know what St. Anthony’s Fire is, it’s another name for erysipelas. No help? Okay, it’s caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. Still nothing? Well, it’s characterized by nasty patches on the skin and people used to die regularly from it.
A number of people at Elmwood did.
They died from things you’ve heard of – like the Spanish flu, diphtheria, smallpox, and tuberculosis when it was called consumption – and things you may not have heard of – like apoplexy and marasmus and every other sort of morbidity of their time and ours.
And several thousand died from Yellow Fever alone – and 1,500 of those are buried in a mass unmarked grave in No Man’s Land, buried for expediency in a time of ubiquitous death.
And many died from the horrors of war, and in fact, veterans of every American war rest here, including the Revolutionary War.
Elmwood provides perspective now and always.
When it opened in 1852, Elmwood was out in the country, almost three miles from town, and families would take carriage rides to picnic there among the newly planted trees, to stroll the landscaped grounds, to admire the statuary.
Today, this is the oldest active cemetery and most storied ground in Shelby County. Sacred ground.
This is an outdoor museum, art gallery, sculpture garden, official bird sanctuary and arboretum – and a public park full of our most public figures and private losses. The arched entry bridge and Carpenter-Gothic cottage are one-of-a-kind architectural finds in Memphis. All 80 acres are on the National Register.
And it’s open.
Even as we struggle with Covid-19 and the need to distance ourselves one from another, the place that’s seen all of our struggles can still invite you to visit, to pause, and to reflect. And to just enjoy. It’s spring, these 80 acres wear the season well, and the residents are fascinating.
Former mayor, congressman and political puppeteer E.H. Crump and 20 other Memphis mayors await, as does Shelby Foote and Ben Hooks and Robert Church Sr. and Jr., as do all the governors, senators, generals, privates, scions of society and scallywags beneath the shade of champion trees. Patrick Henry isn’t here, but his daughter is. Jefferson Davis isn’t here, but his son is. Helen Keller isn’t here, but her grandfather is.
And here Overton, Lee and Church aren’t parks, McKellar isn’t a lake, Snowden, Treadwell and Bolton aren’t schools, and Winchester, Goodlet, Buntyn, McLemore, Mendenhall, Goodbar, Rembert, Vinton, Willett and Walker aren’t streets. They’re residents.
Full disclosure. I’m a trustee at Elmwood and the place is personal. My family owns a bit of real estate here. Nora and I used to bring the kids when they were little and explore, and I’m extending a personal invitation for you to do the same.
The office is closed but self-guided digital audio tours are available online here, and you can do it on foot, from your car, or a combination.
Or you can just spend some quality time outside with history, easily distancing yourself from other visitors. I did just that this week in a quiet celebration of life.
More than 70,000 people already here have stories to tell, and they’re all, quite literally, six feet away.
I’m a Memphian, and we are not alone in our experience, past and present.
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