VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) — For at least 228 years, Greenlawn Cemetery has served as the final resting place for thousands. That extensive history makes it the oldest public — and oldest continuously operating — cemetery in the state.
Greenlawn these days is true to its name: Its slightly hilly landscape is lush and green, well-manicured and watched over, shaded by a few big trees.
Though traffic rushes by on Willow Street, it’s a peaceful place to spend a summer evening.
But it wasn’t always so picturesque.
Greenlawn Cemetery was established in 1788 and estimates are that it is the final resting place of over 10,000 people.
Regular written burial records only go back to 1907, according to cemetery sexton Danny Wilson.
“There are 8,127 people buried in Greenlawn Cemetery that we know about and sadly probably a couple thousand more we don’t know about,” he said.
Several early Vincennes notables are buried in Greenlawn, including Francis Vigo and Elihu Stout.
The earliest burial on record is of Dolly Blackman, the wife of Truman, who died on Nov. 4, 1815 at the age of 32.
Her grave is just uphill from the most-recent gravesite at the cemetery, that of Anna Louise Howe Weisenberger, a Vincennes native who died in Carmel on Feb. 27 at the age of 109. A 1924 graduate of Lincoln High School, she was buried in Greenlawn this past March.
The reason why we know that the cemetery dates back to 1788, local historian Richard Day explained, is because there’s a 1790 letter from the trustees of Vincennes that asks for the land to be set aside for a cemetery.
“They said in the letter that they had been burying people there since 1788,” Day said.
That particular plot of land was initially chosen as a burial ground because in those days, it was on the outskirts of town.
The railroad tracks represent the edge of town and beyond that were the Vincennes commons.
Willow Street represents what was the boundary for the lower prairie survey, Day said, and the land beyond that was where the local Catholic church operated its farm.
Greenlawn was about a quarter-mile from town at the time, so it was quite a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Usually in newspapers, Greenlawn — which didn’t officially become known as “Greenlawn Cemetery” until much later — was referred to as the “American burying ground” because the French Catholics had their own cemetery next to the Old Cathedral, Day added, that was called the French cemetery or the cathedral cemetery.
“Greenlawn was called the American cemetery or the Protestant cemetery,” Day said. “If you died and spoke English and were Protestant, that’s where you were buried.”
The cemetery was also referred to as simply “the public burial ground” or “the burying ground” throughout those first 100 years, Wilson said.
Located up on a hill, the cemetery was originally rather open, but as various critters kept creeping onto the grounds and doing what critters do best — dig — local leaders passed an ordinance requiring a fence to be placed around the lot. It was also common practice for families who bought burial plots there to erect cemeteries around their own plots, too.
In the early days, Greenlawn was dotted with wooden markers but by the 1820s, burial markers were crafted from hornstone, which was stronger and more durable than wood.
Among its other changes, Wilson noted, was a change in where its entrance.
The main entrance for the cemetery was once on Prairie Street, he said, and there was also at one time a caretaker’s shack and small home on the property where the superintendent lived.
“You can still see the brick sidewalk that once led to the caretaker’s home,” Wilson said.
An interesting thing most folks don’t know about Greenlawn, he added, is that it was segregated until the early 1960s.
African-Americans were buried in an area directly across the road from the small flag pole, he explained, which used to be the back portion of the cemetery.
“When they opened up Fairview Cemetery in 1898, a ‘of color section’ was once again opened up in the rear of the cemetery,” Wilson said. “The practice of segregation in the city cemetery ended in early January of 1964 with the burial of local longtime post office worker Alfred Clinton in Section 11 of Memorial Park Cemetery.”
Greenlawn’s general appearance in those early years was a far cry from what it looks like today. Early cemeteries in the U.S. were not well-thought out places; they were simply seen as a place to put someone once they’d passed on, Day said.
“Cemeteries were rather lonesome, doleful places separated from the community,” he explained.
But when famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted came up with the idea of beautifying cities in the 1860s, Day said, the landscape of Greenlawn and city parks across the country started changing.
One of the keystones of Olmsted’s approach was adding parks dotted with trees to city layouts — perhaps his most famous example is Central Park in New York City — but before that, there were very few trees in places like Vincennes.
After the Civil War, planting trees became common practice, and a common belief started surfacing that cemeteries could be morally uplifting places.
“You’d go there and see monuments to your esteemed predecessors and that would inspire you with patriotism and that sort of thing, and it would be inspirational,” he said. “You began having park-like cemeteries at that point, so they went back and planted trees and at Greenlawn they did some landscaping, and put pathways in so you could walk around, which is still done to this day.”
By the 1830s, as government in Vincennes became more and more well-established, a borough ordinance was passed that officially established the offices of commissioner and superintendent of the public burial ground, according to the March 18, 1837, edition of the Western Sun & General Advertiser.
The burial ground superintendent was responsible for digging the graves and was “entitled to demand and receive from the persons employing him” $2.50 for each grave of a decedent 15 years and older. Graves for those under 15 cost $2 each. In winter, if the ground was frozen, the commissioner could authorize the superintendent to charge an additional fee not to exceed $1.
Anyone who dug a grave without the superintendent’s permission could be fined a sum not exceeding $3 for each offense, according to the ordinance.
The cemetery didn’t become Greenlawn until the summer of 1919, when the trustees finally ended years of “slumbering over the selection of a name.” A contest with $15 set aside for the winner was announced in 1914 so that the city cemeteries could finally be given official names, but for whatever reason, the contest faded from the radar.
On July 23, 1919, the Vincennes Morning Commercial announced that the trustees had met and selected the names “Fairview” for the new city cemetery and “Green Lawn” for the old.
“It has been so long ago that the contest was instituted that nearly everybody has forgotten it,” the newspaper reported.
Now, 97 years later, Greenlawn Cemetery still serves its original purpose as a resting place.
Halloween is still over a month away, but the story of Greenlawn Cemetery wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the supernatural.
When Wilson started working in the cemetery in 2001, members of the staff would often tell him about catching glimpses of people in Greenlawn as they mowed, but at a second glance, no one would be there.
During those early years, as Wilson worked on cataloging all the visible markers in Greenlawn, he did so by using large pieces of cardboard as the map and would drive to different sections and write down names and dates from the stones.
“Several times as I worked, I swore I heard somebody whisper my name in my ear,” he said. “It would happen so fast that I would wonder if it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.”
A few years back, he added, the grandson of former cemetery superintendent Jack Anderson came to Wilson’s office and, after striking up a conversation, asked him a question that Wilson won’t ever forget.
“He asked me if I heard voices over in Greenlawn Cemetery like his grandfather did,” Wilson said. “It still gives me cold chills to think about it.”
Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://bit.ly/2cbiVol
Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://www.vincennes.com