It’s no secret that those of us here at TalkDeath are a bunch of cemetery aficionados. Whether it’s for a stroll, a picnic, or an afternoon of reflection and learning, cemeteries are living testaments of our history and ancestors. However, there are definitely cemeteries that many value more than others, particularly those with white marble monuments and ornately carved headstones. We all know the places—usually the burial grounds of the rich, white, and sometimes famous. Given this disparity, we thought it would be worthwhile to compile a list of less visited sites that are definitely no less worthy of our care and attention.*
This list is not exhaustive by any means but includes historically Black cemeteries, Native American burial sites, and even a grave in the middle of a road! Summer 2021 road trip, here we come…
*As always, please respect cemetery regulations and best practices: read rules before you go, visit only during opening hours, don’t jump fences, and don’t touch or move anything on gravesites.
Cemeteries Off the Beaten Path: Summer Road Trip Edition
Cemeteries in the Northeast
African American Cemetery in Montgomery, New York
As we noted in our recent article about Juneteenth, the cemeteries of enslaved people in the US have often been subject to neglect and erasure. The African-American Cemetery (previously known as the Colored Cemetery) in Montgomery, New York unfortunately fell into such a state for decades, until the local community banded together to cut down the overgrowth and rededicate the site in the 1990s. It is estimated that at least 171 people are buried there, most believed to be Africans who were violently enslaved and brought over by early settlers in the mid-eighteenth century. The originally marked graves are now supplemented with small pipes and there is a plaque at the entrance that acknowledges this painful but important history.
Wampanoag Royal Cemetery in Lakeville, Massachusetts
Massachusetts’ colonial burial grounds famously receive thousands of visitors every year, but also of note is Wampanoag Royal Cemetery, a historic Native peoples cemetery in Lakeville. The peaceful forest grove contains about 20 graves, including direct descendants of the sachem (i.e. leader) of the Wampanoag confederacy, Chief Massasoit. Massasoit was known for making alliances with New England colonists and saving the people of the Plymouth Colony from starvation during their earliest years in Massachusetts. The last burial took place in 1812, and the cemetery was officially recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Click here for directions to Wampanoag Royal Cemetery
Mount Moor Cemetery in West Nyack, New York
Surrounded by a giant megamall, Mount Moor Cemetery feels almost like a time capsule with its fading gravestones overlooking a Target parking lot. Mount Moor was deeded in July 1849 as a “burying ground for colored people” and now is the resting place for around 90 Black Americans, including veterans of the Civil War. Notable graves include that of Lafayette Logan, who fought in the first Black Northern regiment, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. The cemetery is a testament not only to this history but also a substantial David and Goliath-esque standoff. When the mall was first announced in the 1990s, developers wanted to move the graves and even offered $100,000 to Mount Moor Cemetery Association to sell the site. They rejected the offer, instead working doggedly to preserve and take care of the cemetery.
Old Letchworth Village Cemetery in Rockland County, New York
When the residential institution Letchworth Village opened in 1911, it was hailed as a compassionate new example of how to care for those with physical or mental disabilities. Rather than being confined to a single building, patients were to live in their own “village,” complete with farms, shops, and even places of worship. However, like many other asylums of the time—even those supposedly dedicated to reform—there were horrific reports of abuse and the facility closed in 1996. Most of the buildings have decayed, but the cemetery remains with the original anonymous numbered markers. To address this tragic situation, a local grassroots group campaigned to create a large memorial plaque in 2007. The names of over 900 patients, culled from decades-old records, are now listed near the entrance of the cemetery under a large inscription that reads; “Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”
Mount Hebron Cemetery in New York, New York
Mount Hebron is a historic Jewish cemetery in Queens that is a striking visual example of twentieth-century immigration to New York. The first burial took place in 1909 and since then, there have been over 226,000 burials! Visitors can walk through the grounds today and see sections dedicated to different Jewish societies, which helped immigrants settle into their new life, join a community, and even receive health coverage or burial benefits. Each society usually commemorated their organization, such as with gates at the entrance of their section with the name of the society or village it represented and its officers.
Cemeteries in The South
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia
The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery has gone through so much during its almost 160-year existence. It was opened during the Civil War to bury those who had escaped slavery and freedpeople who were fleeing to Alexandria, a Union-occupied city. Even though almost 2,000 people were buried there, it faded from public memory, even disappearing from city maps by the 1940s. The land was even used for a gas station and office building at one point. However, once it was discovered that it was a cemetery in 1987, the buildings were demolished. A statue at the center of the site now shows people breaking free from a snarl of vines and thorns, and bronze plaques mark the names of those whose names have been recovered.
Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida
Pinehurst and San Sebastian is believed to be the oldest segregated Black cemetery in Florida, with headstones dating back to the 1840s. Many buried here were born into slavery, but later burials were of those who were not allowed to be buried in white cemeteries. The site was virtually abandoned in the mid-twentieth century, but has recently been cleaned up in 2015 due to the efforts of volunteer organizations and a state lawmaker. Those who visit can see graves bearing marks of various African burial rituals, including planting trees in lieu of erecting headstones and leaving offerings of stones, seashells, and mementos to placate the souls of the departed.
Click for directions to Pinehurst and San Sebastian Cemeteries
African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont in Loudoun County, Virginia
The African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont is an important historical site and an example of the incredible powers of communal care and reclamation. A former plantation, the cemetery was virtually abandoned until the Reverend Michelle Thomas discovered it while researching potential building sites for her church. Thomas and her community banded together to restore the cemetery, which was the burial site of those enslaved by the plantation-owning cousins of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Over 100 volunteers mobilized to build paths and cut back brush, and in 2015, they even created the Loudoun Freedom Center to promote the preservation of Belmont and other nearby sites. In a tragic turn of events, Thomas’s son drowned and was laid to rest in the cemetery she had fought to restore. In an interview with NPR, Thomas said, “My son is the first African American person who was born free to be buried in this cemetery. He brings the message of freedom to the ancestors that eventually, we made it to the other side.”
The Grave in the Road in Hearne, Texas
While most of the sites in this article have been full cemeteries, we would be remiss not to include the burial site of Hollie Tatnell. Her lone grave lies in the middle of a street median in a suburban neighborhood of Hearne, Texas—a circumstance that speaks to the importance of respecting sacred ground. Hollie was born into slavery and buried in Hearne’s colored cemetery in 1911. The cemetery closed in 1912 and was purchased 35 years later by real estate developers, who wanted to push Black families out of the area to make room for new white homes. They forced the families of the dead to exhume and rebury their ancestors’ remains, but Hollie’s family was the only one to refuse. As a devious workaround, the developers ended up constructing a median around Hollie’s grave. In 2007, the Texas Historical Commission placed a plaque on the median designating it as a historic Texas cemetery. “This single grave,” it reads, “serves as a reminder of the area’s early African American community and the sanctity of burial grounds.”
Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is famous for its impressive above ground cemeteries. Those who regularly walk among their white marble tombs, however, rarely see Holt Cemetery in their guidebooks. Located across the freeway from the famous Metairie Cemetery, the land was an informal potter’s graveyard before it was formally established as a cemetery in 1879. The plots were free (minus the cost of digging) and became the resting place for many Black Americans. Many of the grave markers
are handmade, created from everyday items like PVC pipes and garden fences, to painted plastic headstones. Also of note is a giant oak tree in the center of the cemetery that is often covered in cowrie shells, Mardi Gras beads, and other less traditional—but no less moving—offerings.
Cemeteries in the Midwest
Files Cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Files Cemetery is a family burial ground owned by Ruth Coker Burks, also known as the “Cemetery Angel.” Coker Burks has personally buried the ashes of 43 people who died from AIDS-related complications since the 1980s. She felt compelled to do so in the early days of the epidemic, when caring for the dying and dead was heavily colored by homophobia and discrimination. At the time, it was not unheard of for funeral homes to treat bodies with bleach or charge exorbitant fees, while some cemeteries refused to bury them outright. Coker Burks managed to find a local funeral home that would do cremations and performed her own ceremonies and burials—in cookie jars, no less. In the ensuing decades, local volunteers and LGBTQ organizations such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence regularly gather to take care of the site and honor its unique history.
Huron Indian Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas
Similar to historically Black cemeteries, many Native American burial grounds have been subject to disturbance or demolition. The Huron Indian Cemetery is the fascinating legacy of those who fought against such a fate for their ancestors. The cemetery was founded in 1843 after the forced displacement of the Wyandotte Nation from Ohio to Kansas. It was then sold in 1906 to local developers. Those buried there were set to be moved to another cemetery nearby, but two sisters with relatives interred at Huron fought the sale by barricading it and defending it at gunpoint for two years. One of the sisters, Lyda Conley, became the first Native woman attorney admitted into the Supreme Court when she argued against the sale. The court did not rule in her favor, but Congress passed legislation to protect Huron in 1916. Lyda and her family are now buried there, and her sister’s grave reads: “Cursed be the villain that molest their graves.”
Cemeteries in the West
Sacajawea Cemetery in Fort Washakie, Wyoming
Although she is one of the most famous Native women in American history, Sacajawea’s resting place is contested and shrouded in mystery. One oral tradition suggests that Sacajawea died in 1812 from putrid fever, while other recorded documents and statements made by her descendants record her death in Fort Washakie in 1884. Either way, she has a grave in a small burial ground that is now called Sacajawea Cemetery on the Wind River Reservation. There is a bronze statue and large memorial plaque, and visitors that make the trek regularly leave flowers in her honor.
Click for directions to Sacajawea Cemetery
Roslyn Cemetery in Cle Elum, Washington
Tucked among the forests of the Cascade Mountains near Cle Elum, Washington is a burial ground that is a literal patchwork of nineteenth-century mining communities. Roslyn Cemetery is divided into 27 distinctive sections, each with its unique qualities (for example, most graves face east, but the Polish section faces north toward the Polish church). Of particular note is the Black section, which resulted from 300 mining families unknowingly brought to Rosyln in 1888 to break a strike. Their coming changed the remote town’s demographics overnight and led to the creation of several Black fraternal organizations, which was unique for the time in overwhelmingly white mountain country. William Craven, the descendant of these miners, was elected Roslyn’s mayor in 1975 as the first Black mayor in Washington state and has buried his family here.
Chinese Cemetery in Warren, Idaho
Around the same period, many Chinese immigrants came to Idaho for mining and prospecting opportunities. In the town of Warren, they were forced to live partially segregated during a time of rampant anti-Asian sentiment and created their own cemetery where they could practice Chinese rituals such as feeding the dead on Yu Lan. The cemetery operated from 1870 to 1920, although many of those buried were eventually exhumed and sent back to China by the companies that they worked for. Several local stories purporting that a Chinese woman and a handful of other individuals are still buried here, probably because no one paid to have them sent home. The cemetery is now on the National Registry of Historic Places, and a metal dragon was erected in 1984 to commemorate these individuals as an important part of Warren heritage.
Cemeteries Off the Beaten Path – Conclusion
These sites, while representative of many different eras of American history, are so emblematic of the perseverance of marginalized communities in this country, both past and present. They are also only the tip of the iceberg, as there are hundreds (if not thousands) of other places that deserve our visits and advocacy. Let us know what other cemeteries we should include in a future feature and if you go on a cemetery road trip this summer, document it, tag us and comment on this post!