All true stories begin and end in a cemetery.Carlos Ruiz Zafon
When you think about cemeteries, what comes to mind? The final resting place for loved ones, memorials, sadness, or even ghosts? Ever since I was young, when we would bury a loved one or place a memorial crock on a headstone, I would remark on the beauty and wonder I felt. I would become really curious about the lives of people long since passed. I would wonder how they lived their life, what they cared most about, if they still have family and friends that pay their respects. Somewhat morbidly, I would wonder how they died. Thankfully for me, some of the older headstones provided that information.
When I left for college, I actually sought out a cemetery when I needed a break from studying. If I’m not sounding strange enough, I recently visited a cemetery during a vacation to New Zealand! If you share the sentiment that cemeteries are worth visiting for a stroll–or anything in addition to a burial–you will be happy to know that we have some wonderful options right here in Elmiraland. You can even make a plan before you head out by searching this website to find a cemetery or to search for famous graves.
A few of my local favorites, below.
Woodlawn Cemetery is by far one of my favorites. The Friends of Woodlawn work hard to preserve the integrity of the cemetery, and it shows. Most recently they worked to install the Heller Cremation Garden which surrounds a new columbarium or alternative to in-ground burial. During Halloween the Friends offer a (typically sold out) Ghost Walk that I would encourage you to check out along with ongoing audio tours and other special events. Within Woodlawn is Woodlawn National Cemetery, which started as the final resting place for prisoners of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp and is not to be missed. Exercise and history all in one!
Woodlawn was among the first cemeteries designed to have a park-like feel. Prior to 1831, Americans did not bury their dead in large cemeteries. Around that time, however, we began creating large cemeteries that felt more like public parks and places to spend time outdoors. Because the US did not have many public parks at that time, families would flock to cemeteries for picnics or to carriage race among the beautiful gardens and sculptures. Woodlawn (est. 1858) certainly has this feel to it. Stroll along its winding roads and you’ll be sure to get some steps in. You’ll also notice some famous names who’ve made Woodlawn their final resting place including Mark Twain, John W. Jones, Ernie Davis, and a host of Elmira’s founding families (Diven, Eldridge, Pagett, Hendy).
Saints Peter and Paul’s Cemetery on Elmira’s Southside is where my passion for cemeteries first grew. In the 1980’s, my parent’s owned the Convenient Food Mart on the corner of Broadway and Franklin Streets. While they were working, I’d hop on my bike and ride throughout the cemetery, sometimes for hours. (I was a slightly odd child but I’m OK with that). I would ride and wonder, sometimes do some gravestone rubbing and always check to see if the mausoleum was open.
A few years ago, I discovered the Webb Mills Cemetery while reviewing grant applications for work. This cemetery is in the hamlet of Webb Mills at the junction of Pennsylvania Avenue and County Highway 69. Community members have adopted the cemetery and volunteer their time to mow, fix fallen headstones, solve water run-off issues and so much more. It’s a really lovely place situated on a hill.
There are so many other smaller cemeteries scattered throughout the City that often get overlooked like the ones on Fulton Street, Second Street, and upper Maple Avenue. Most are lovingly cared for or at least mowed by a few dedicated people.
I encourage you to consider visiting one of these cemeteries or take a trip to be with your loved ones. Make sure you have plenty of time to pay your respects, reflect on life and enjoy the memories. Then, take a moment to gaze around at all of the headstones. Each one represents a life. We all try to avoid cemeteries but death is inevitable. You can give yourself some serious time to focus in on your future direction surrounded by a rather silent audience. All of our lives have meaning and purpose and the truth of the matter is that someday it will end. Cemeteries will surely remind you of that.