August 20, 2015
By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
Elmwood is turning 163 this month, and though it might seem as though a cemetery that looks like Elmwood would have always been a reality, it was not. Elmwood’s forebear, Pere Lachaise cemetery, opened in Paris in 1804, and it was the first landscaped cemetery. It started what would become the Rural Cemetery Movement. Graveyards were at one time dismal, dreary places, but the “rural” or “garden” cemetery was meant to be a beautiful place filled with trees and flowers. We point to the lifetime of grieving by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) for her husband, Albert, as the birth of the Rural Cemetery Movement. She ushered in this new attitude towards death, and cemeteries, and because of that we now enjoy the beauty of 80 bucolic acres at Elmwood.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery inspired Americans to create similar places outside their cities. Garden cemeteries were meant to be like parks, where people could go for picnics or family outings. Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston was the first garden cemetery in the United States, founded in 1831. In the following decades, dozens of rural landscaped cemeteries were founded throughout the New England states.
On August 28th, 1852, 50 prominent Memphis citizens each paid $500 to establish a new cemetery outside the city, making Elmwood one of the oldest landscaped cemeteries in the South. At a meeting of the committee on September 25th, 1852 the purchase of the first forty acres was confirmed. The stockholders had to pick a name for the new cemetery so the 50 men each wrote down a suggestion and one was drawn from a hat. The stockholders were pleased with the selection of “Elmwood,” a suggestion made by Captain Charles Church. There were no Elm trees on the property so the Trustees ordered some from New York to plant. Today Elmwood is well known for its landscape of trees and is recognized as a Level 2 Arboretum by the Tennessee Department of Urban Forestry. That means there are over 60 species of trees on the property.
After the Civil War the cemetery was expanded to a total of 80 acres. The Phillips Cottage was constructed in 1866 and operates as the cemetery office today. It is the only example of Carpenter Gothic architecture in the city and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also on the National Register is the cemetery itself and the Morgan Bridge at the entrance.
At 163 years old, Elmwood is the oldest active cemetery in the city with approximately 5 acres that haven’t even been developed yet. The beauty of Elmwood stands as a testament to the foresight of those 50 founders, as well as the love of the people who continue to help us maintain this special place.