Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Old City Cemetery: Where History Lives On

When I drive by a cemetery, I usually look away.  I am not superstitious.  I do not worry about the dead haunting the place because I know, from the Bible, that those who have passed are asleep in death (Ecc. 9:5,10).  They await a resurrection and can no more harm me than could a bad dream.  Still I look away.  Cemeteries conjure up the memories of those I’ve lost and miss so dearly and leave me melancholic.  So, of course, I normally would not think of spending the afternoon in a cemetery.  And yet that is just what I did recently.  Only, it was not just any cemetery.  It was the Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, VA.
I used to live next door to a nice lady named Geneva who retired from a local hospital and subsequently spent a lot of time volunteering at the Old City Cemetery.  She talked about it often, especially when all of the roses were in bloom, and continually encouraged me to go.  I didn’t.  Despite her enthusiasm, I never understood the fascination.  Still, I decided to visit for the first time this week and I began to understand. 

Cobblestone Street

As I passed through the brick and iron entrance gates, I was transported back in time.  Asphalt was replaced by cobblestones and cement by old brick paved sidewalks.  The afternoon was well along and except for the occasional buzz and hum of a lawn mower, there were no other sounds to be heard.  No other person in sight.  Just graves all around.  Thousands of them.  Nearly 20,000, to be more precise, and  containing the remains of “political, religious, social and cultural leaders, the city’s indigent and ‘strangers’, veterans of every major American war and conflict from the Revolution to Vietnam, and over 2,200 Confederate soldiers from fourteen states.  Three quarters of those buried here are African American, both free and enslaved.  More than one-third are infants and children under the age of four.”

Barrel Vaulted Brick Tomb

The grave markers are as varied as those who have passed.  There are obelisks, tabletop monuments, old colonial bedboard headstones, marble cubes, a wooden marker that still exists, barrel vaulted brick tombs, even a life-size cut tree trunk carved in limestone.  Since the cemetery was established in 1806 and most of the dead were buried before 1925, many of the names and inscriptions are worn beyond recognition; however, the cemetery has a guide pointing out some of the most notable occupants and points of historical interest.   
It should be recognized that the Old City Cemetery is one of the oldest public cemeteries in the United States that has been in continuous use since its founding.  In addition to the burial sites, there are also Scatter Gardens for the cremated remains of loved ones—human and animal.
The land, which the cemetery occupies, was donated by John Lynch, founder of Lynchburg.  On the grounds, there are a number of other buildings of historical significance. 

The Pest House Museum

·         In The Pest House there is now a medical museum.  The Pest House was originally used as a quarantine hospital for residents who contracted such diseases as smallpox or measles and later for quarantined Confederate soldiers. 

Station House Museum

·         The Quartermaster’s Glanders Stable held quarantined Confederate Army horses that contracted the deadly and contagious Glanders respiratory disease so research could be done to determine the cause. 

The Station House Museum was formerly Stapleton Station located near  Galt's Mill in Amherst County and was used by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Station.  In 1999-2001, the Station was dismantled and reconstructed on its' current site to interpret the importance of railroads in Lynchburg's history.

The cemetery also hosts events throughout the year and most center on the local flora and fauna including butterflies, birds, shrubs, trees, and all manner of flowers, including sixty varieties of roses.  Mid-May is the peak time to view the myriad of roses planted along both sides of the Old Brick Wall. 
For hours, events, and information on the best times to view the various flowers, trees, herbs, and birds, please check out  And remember to tell the hosts and curators, that Cindy at sent you!
Note: Much of the information contained in this post was gleaned from brochures obtained at the Old City Cemetery and most appear to have been researched, written, or edited by Jane Baber White.  Additional information was obtained from the official website (referenced above) and the historical marker found just outside the cemetary gate.  Thank you to all who contributed to preserving this bit of history.

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