Rochester Cemetery in Rochester, Iowa Credit: Jacie Thomsen

T here are some people who find traveling for the purpose of visiting cemeteries ghoulish. These individuals, however, should realize that a century or so ago, perfectly normal people like them used to hang out in cemeteries. This was because there was a paucity of public parks, places where city folks could take a picnic and enjoy being someplace cool and green and quiet. They were untroubled by the fact that they were surrounded by dead people, so much so that they left their trash on the ground and tore up the lawns. So the cemeteries put an end to that practice. But then we got parks, so it’s all OK.


There are plenty of other reasons to visit a cemetery besides the obvious, interring or visiting of a loved one. (If you don’t know where your loved ones are and would like to find out, the Newberry Library genealogy desk is a great place to start.)

Oak Ridge Cemetery in SpringfieldCredit: Sun Times Print Collection

The second-most obvious reason to visit a cemetery is to commune with the spirit of a long-dead Great Person. The most-visited pilgrimage site in the midwest is Abraham Lincoln’s tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, but there are plenty of other death and burial sites to visit. For instance, if you’re interested in junk food (an essential part of any road trip), Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis is a logical destination: it’s the final resting place of flour magnate Charles Alfred Pillsbury; Franklin Mars, creator of the Milky Way candy bar; and H. David Dalquist, inventor of Nordic Ware kitchen tools and the bundt pan. The Buddy Holly crash site outside Clear Lake, Iowa, is marked, endearingly, by an oversize pair of black-rimmed glasses planted in the ground.

Almost every large midwestern city still has at least one enormous parklike 19th-century cemetery. Several, notably Bellefontaine in Saint Louis and Elmwood in Detroit, currently double as arboretums. Elmwood in particular is a fine example of 19th-century landscape architecture, as you might expect from a place designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who’s best known for his work on Central Park. It’s also notable for being the first integrated cemetery in the midwest. Several members of the Underground Railroad network are buried there, and the cemetery offers an African-American Heritage Tour.

The Native Americans anticipated Olmsted by many hundreds of years and built elaborate earthworks and burial mounds all over the midwest. The largest and most famous are the Cahokia Mounds, just across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis. The mounds are believed to be the remnants of what was the largest city in North America prior to 1800; some contain the bodies of victims of ritual sacrifice. There’s also a large concentration of mounds in southern Wisconsin, particularly in Lizard Mound County Park, northwest of Milwaukee, and Aztalan State Park, roughly halfway between Milwaukee and Madison. Many of these mounds take the form of various animals and water spirits.

One of the Tiffany windows in the Wade Chapel in Lake View cemetery in ClevelandCredit: Provided by Lake View Cemetery

Americans of European descent didn’t start creating large pieces of artwork to honor their dead until the 19th century, but then they involved some of the finest architects and sculptors of the age. Louis Sullivan designed the Wainwright Tomb in Bellefontaine; Frank Lloyd Wright was a draftsman on the project. Louis Comfort Tiffany designed the stained-glass windows inside the chapel at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland in 1901. Fun fact: when the chapel was finished, Tiffany was adamant that no gas lamps be allowed inside because the soot would spoil his work. Instead, he got Thomas Edison to wire it for electricity. It became the first electrified building in the city.

You can find lots of good cemetery statues in the midwest, particularly in the areas of cemeteries that date back to the late 19th or early 20th century, when there was a craze for memorial sculpture. Some people commissioned representations of their loved ones as they appeared in life. Others just settled for angels. One of the most famous cemetery statues is the black angel of Oakland Cemetery, in Iowa City, which watches over the grave of Teresa Dolezal Feldevert and her family. If you know someone who ever took a poetry or photography class at the University of Iowa, it’s likely he or she immortalized this statue in Art. The black angel was originally bronze. Some people say it’s normal for a bronze statue to turn black through the natural chemical process of oxidation. Others claim that the statue turned black because it was struck by lightning or because Teresa cheated on her husband—or maybe because Teresa was a witch who murdered her son. Kiss it and you will die. Stand in its shadow while pregnant and your baby will die.

You don’t have to go to Iowa to be cursed. There are plenty of haunted cemeteries around the region. One of the creepiest is Greenwood Cemetery in Decatur, which is haunted by the ghosts of Confederate prisoners of war (some of whom may not have been fully dead when they were buried) whose graves are now covered by a memorial to Union soldiers. And also a bride who committed suicide after her fiance was murdered by bootleggers on the eve of their wedding. And a whole host of lost souls whose bodies were relocated after the old mausoleum was torn down. If you’d like to make a pact with the devil, Greenwood’s your boneyard; sit in the “Devil’s Chair” and you’ll get anything you want . . . for seven years.

Rochester CemeteryCredit: Jacie Thomsen

Then there is haunting, which is entirely different from haunted. Rochester Cemetery in Rochester, Iowa, roughly halfway between Davenport and Iowa City, is such a place. Because the town never plowed the cemetery, the prairie has gradually overtaken the gravesites. It’s now a marvel of biodiversity: there are 400 plant species on its 13 and a half acres, 337 of which are native to the region. “I came to think of it as the prairie’s own graveyard,” wrote Stephen Longmire, a writer and photographer (and former Reader contributor) who spent a year documenting the cemetery for his book Life and Death on the Prairie. “A graveyard is a living map of the community over time, the place where the underworld and the heavens meet.”   v