Elmwood's New Historian, Kelly Sowell
May 13, 2014
I recently started working at Elmwood Cemetery as the new Historian. Before I moved back to Memphis, I volunteered and interned with an organization in New Orleans, Save Our Cemeteries, which aims to preserve the city’s cemeteries and teach the public about them. When I started the Master of Preservation Studies program at Tulane, we each had to document a tomb for the Historic American Building Survey. I really enjoyed researching the man whose tomb I drew. He was actually a sculptor and tomb builder so I started looking more closely at the cemeteries around town for tombs he had built. That’s what originally got me so interested in cemeteries.
For my practicum at Tulane University, I surveyed and mapped a lesser known cemetery that no longer had plot maps, photographed each tomb and its inscriptions, and wrote brief condition reports for each of the 591 tombs. Elmwood is very fortunate to have the original plot maps and records of interments, especially after over 160 years. It is very rare for a cemetery so old to have all these records.
The digital database we use daily, which was created from the original books, is invaluable. Someone can walk in asking where a family member is interred within the cemetery, and we are able to look that person up and point out on the map where to find them within just a couple of minutes. It amazes me how easy it is compared to hunting for someone out in the cemetery.
I was born and raised in Memphis but didn’t truly appreciate the city’s history and charm until I moved away to college to study historic preservation. There is so much to learn about Memphis history through Elmwood’s many residents. It really is an outdoor museum for history and art, and I just want to repair and clean everything! There are so many types of jobs I could have ended up doing with my degrees, but I’m happy to have ended up back in Memphis working at Elmwood Cemetery.