story by Dana Cooper
Tucked away in the west end of the city is the beautiful and historic Elmwood Cemetery, the 80-plus-acre final resting place of hundreds of Memphis’ citizens –the famous and the infamous.
Since 1852, Elmwood has provided burial space to celebrities and non-celebrities alike, from musicians to politicians, soldiers to scalawags, and the filthy rich to the poorest of the poor. Anyone witha few hours to spare can see them all and learn a great deal about Memphis history in the process.
“What I find so interesting about this place is the dichotomy,” said Vincent Astor, who works with Elmwood as a docent and actor. As testament to that dichotomy, visitors to the cemetery can find a monument placed in tribute to the more than 300 slaves buried at Elmwood just a street or two removed from the gravesites of Confederate generals.
The cemetery’s offices are located inside the Cottage, the only building in Memphis constructed according to the Victorian-era Carpenter Gothic architectural style. The Cottage is situated just inside the main entrance, beside the Morgan bridge and nestled beneath a canopy of lush greenery. Magnolia trees, crepe myrtles, oaks and dogwoods tower over the thousands of granite and marble markers that occupy the grounds. Elmwood is also a Tennessee Urban Forestry Department Level II Arboretum, and its gardens are remarkable in their own right.
Elmwood’s residents, however, are the main attraction. Some of the most famous people to have ever claimed Memphis as home are buried there. Among Elmwood’s well-known occupants are the Church family, Memphis’ first African American millionaires, politicians and entrepreneurs, and “Boss” E.H. Crump, Memphis’ legendary mayor in the early 20th century.
Elmwood is still popular for burial. In the foreground is the Miller family monument whose concrete forms
were still in place when this photo was taken in May. In the background, an obelisk marks the grave
of the once powerful Memphis politician, E.H. ‘Boss’ Crump (1874-1954). Photo by Joan Allison.
“I can honestly say that I did not fully understand about where I lived and where I was born until I started working here,” said Kim Bearden, Elmwood’s executive director. Since taking the helm in 2005, Bearden has been working directly with families and the public to increase awareness of what Elmwood has to offer.
One way to take advantage of these unique educational opportunities is through a guided tour. From the cemetery’s vast connections to everything from the Civil War through the civil rights movement, docents and historians are on hand to inform visitors about Elmwood’s critical place in Memphis history, and more tours are constantly being added to the itinerary. “Scandals and Scoundrels” is currently one of Elmwood’s most popular tours, with actors portraying several
of the cemetery’s inhabitants and telling their riveting – and eyebrow-raising – life stories.
Two of Elmwood’s famous scandal-embroiled citizens are Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, the 19th century lovers whose relationship – and Freda’s murder at the jealous hands of her former beloved – has been memorialized in pop culture, from books to television shows. Both women are buried at Elmwood, though at opposite ends of the cemetery. Focus recently reported on the placement of Freda’s marker in December 2017, more than 125 years after her death.
While touring Elmwood, those interested in Memphis LGBTQ+ history may also be interested in paying their respects to the cenotaph – a marker commemorating an individual who is buried elsewhere – belonging to Bill Kendall. Kendall’s
tireless work fighting the city’s draconian obscenity laws paved the way for the open enjoyment of controversial art films. Kendall ran what would later become the Evergreen Theater in the 1960s and 1970s, and the first Miss Gay Memphis pageant in 1969 was entirely of his design. At the time, dressing in drag was illegal. According to Astor, hosting the pageant on Halloween and having “real girls” in attendance meant that the event was untouchable by local law enforcement. “That was a real turning point in Memphis GLBT history,” Astor said.
Because Elmwood occupies such a prominent place in Memphis history, its directors spare no effort in ensuring their docents arequalified to discuss it. Elmwood University offers training through two colleges – the Ambassador College, which starts from the very beginning of Elmwood’s story to prepare tour guides to lecture the public about the cemetery and its residents, and Stone College, which offers hands-on instruction in how to properly maintain Elmwood’s old, often fragile grave markers.
Bill Kendall was a gay man on the front lines of LGBT equality in Memphis. A veteran, Kendall was mistakenly
buried in a pauper’s field in Atlanta. Friends of his purchased this cenotaph, and Vincent Astor donated
space to place it in Memphis at Elmwood Cemetery. Photo by Dana Cooper.
Though the cemetery has plenty to offer the living, both Bearden and Astor explained that Elmwood offers pre-need services and has many plots still available to those interested in being interred alongside historically significant
Memphians. “We are still very much an active cemetery,” Bearden said. “We have a great time teaching people about Memphis, but everything we do is to support the maintenance of the cemetery grounds. We’re not going anywhere.”
And given Elmwood’s unparalleled beauty and the richness of its historical offerings, that’s a very good thing.
Located at 824 South Dudley Street near Lamar and I-240, general access to Elmwood Cemetery is always free to the public. For the most up-to-date information about tours, volunteer opportunities and special events, follow Elmwood on Twitter (@ ElmwoodCemetery), Facebook (@ElmwoodCemetery), and Instagram (elmwoodcemetery).