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‘Everybody’s here.’ Kentucky history lives on inside the Lexington Cemetery

Lexington Herald-Leader - 5/25/2024

There was nowhere left to bury the dead.

The 1833 cholera outbreak left Lexington in ruins, taking 500 lives - about 7% of the population - in a mere two months. People were laid to rest in church cemeteries, which quickly filled.

Cholera returned in 1844. With no grave plots left, a group of 24 men came together, each pledging $500, to buy 40 acres of land right off of Main Street and establish what is now the Lexington Cemetery.

“Most of us live life without prominence, but we all deserve a place to be honored,” said Mandy Higgins, executive director of the Lexington History Museum. “The Lexington Cemetery has been doing this for 175 years. It has provided that respite for the city to see itself in the people who made this city.”

The cemetery is privately owned and operated by a board of directors and is not maintained by the city.

Many will be visiting the sprawling cemetery this Memorial Day weekend, but it’s not uncommon for visitors seeking natural beauty and a significant slice of Kentucky history, to stroll through it, as well.

Whether marked by a simple granite headstone or a national monument “of colossal proportions” such as the one for noted politician Henry Clay, each grave in the Lexington Cemetery honors someone who lived, worked or died right in Lexington.

It is also an incredible setting for plants, bushes and flowers. It is marketed as a “place of beauty and a public cemetery,” an arboretum with more than 200 species of trees.

In the 175 years since the first interment, the cemetery has grown from 40 acres to 170 acres, and is the final resting place of over 77,000 people. Boasting 20 acres of undeveloped land in the back, cemetery President Miles Penn said there’s room for another 100 years of growth.

Ground burial isn’t the only option the cemetery offers. With a scatter garden, cremation monuments and mausoleums there are many ways to say goodbye. Penn said 50% of services at the cemetery last year were cremations, a steep increase from the estimated 10% when he started at the cemetery 26 years ago.

“A lot of people attribute it to being more economical - it’s not necessarily that. It’s easier for families, so there’s not that pressing time. We have funerals scheduled three months ahead of time, and it’s more so a gathering,” he said.

On a typical day, there will be anywhere from two to five ceremonies performed on the grounds. Penn said the cemetery offers something for everyone, and works to make hard days a bit easier on families.

“We have an area that we call ‘Baby Land.’ It’s very low cost. We charge a family $75 if they have something wrong with their infant,” he said. “I’ve worked here a long time but that’s about the most heartbreaking you deal with.”

Kentucky law requires 30% of a cemeteries revenue to go into a perpetual care fund. To make sure the long history of the cemetery stays alive, the Lexington Cemetery puts 60% into perpetual care. Right now, there is $140 million in that fund, Penn said.

Though there is rich history in every corner, he said the main mission of the cemetery is to have a space where everyone can come and be at peace.

“We see from Jewish, to Buddhist, to Hindu. It’s really cool to see all the different religions and customs,” Penn said. “Everybody’s here. There’s no difference between any of us.”

Kentucky’s garden cemetery

Designated as a garden cemetery, the Lexington Cemetery makes sure you won’t be troubled to find your share of rural serenity within the walls of Lexington.

The identified 179 species of birds, over 200 species of trees and 26 miles of hedges “make it a beautiful place, not some creepy old graveyard,” Grady Walter said, whose marketing firm works for the cemetery.

“Lexington Cemetery starts at a time when mourning culture and cemetery culture throughout the country is really growing,” Higgins said.

Since the beginning, there has always been at least one horticulturist on staff. Three greenhouses toward the back of the acreage are used to grow the 25,000 annuals scattered throughout the cemetery each year.

“Even if you don’t know anyone that’s buried there, even if you don’t care about the development of the city or the people behind it, it is a quiet, peaceful place in the midst of an urban landscape,” Higgins said.

“It’s something that’s been valued for 175 years. There is a space for respite.”

First and foremost, the grounds are a cemetery, Penn said.

Committed to preserving the history of Lexington and creating a green escape from the surrounding concrete of downtown, workers plant anywhere from 40-50 trees each year.

“Where there’s a tree, we always try to keep a tree there. In some instances that’s not possible … but if we take out a tree, we’re going to put one back in,” Penn said.

One of the oldest things in the cemetery is a tree that’s over 300 years old. The ancient American Linden, or Basswood, is one of the largest in the world, Penn said.

“It is hollow to a point, lighting did strike long ago, but the tree overall is still growing. We try to keep most of our mature trees,” he said.

That gigantic tree sits next to another boastful resident of the cemetery, Henry Clay, the former Speaker of the U.S. House and U.S. senator who was known as the “Great Compromiser.” The Virginia-born lawyer and statesman (he was the new country’s ninth secretary of state) and ran unsuccessfully for president in the 1824, 1832 and 1844 elections.

Kentucky history on display

Following his death in June 1852, Clay was laid to rest in the cemetery, but he would later be moved to a different plot. The day after he died, a group of Clay’s friends met at the Fayette County Courthouse to adopt a resolution and build a “national monument of colossal proportions.”

True to the words, Clay was honored with a 120-foot tall column topped with a sculpture of the man himself. Clay and his wife were moved to rest in the monument’s vault 12 years after his death. A few sections away from Clay, across from the national cemetery, there are two more statues with complicated histories.

Sitting under the watchful eye of a solar-powered security camera, there’s a weathered, bronze statue of a man riding a horse. That man is John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate general known for his sweeping raids across Kentucky.

“He and his men are burning down towns, pillaging, burning courthouses. They’re burning courthouses because they don’t want to pay taxes, and they don’t want to be taxed for their enslaved property,” Higgins said.

A few yards over, there’s another security camera aimed at a similar bronze statue. This one is Lexingtonian John C. Breckinridge, the last Confederate Secretary of War and former vice president of the U.S.

Originally erected in the late 1880s and early 1910s, the statues were displayed in front of the Fayette County Courthouse in an area known at the time as Cheapside, a marketplace where slaves were sold.

“You have those two statues standing in a space where people were literally bought and sold, and no other history told anything of the atrocities that happened in that space until 2003,” said DeBraun Thomas, a lead activist of the Take Back Cheapside movement.

A sign detailing the ties Cheapside has to slavery was erected in 2003, but later removed after being vandalized. That sign was restored and put back up in 2018, years after it was removed.

In 2015, after a mass shooter targeted Black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina cities across the nation started conversations about removing Confederate monuments. In 2017, after a white supremacists rally in Virginia, statue removals increased.

Thomas said conversations around the removal of the Lexington statutes started in 2013, after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, but real progress wasn’t made by the city until 2016. The city council unanimously voted to remove the statues and place them in Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried.

“Context is everything. We were not asking for these statues to be destroyed. We wanted them to be placed in a space that was historically appropriate, and particularly get them off of their pedestals,” Thomas said.

The statues originally stood on 8-foot-pedestals, which the cemetery required the city to shave down before being placed on the lot. City spokesperson Susan Straub said the city still has the original pedestals.

“Good, bad, indifferent; they were moved and it was kind of done,” Penn said.

There are funds at the cemetery to maintain the statues, set up by private donors through the Blue Grass Community Foundation, an organization in Lexington that supports charitable projects across the state. The money to move the statues and continue the care at the cemetery came from private money, Thomas noted, not public funds.

“That part of the cemetery is already sort of cornered off and it’s a private space for private mourning,” Higgins said. “The cemetery helped solve a problem.”

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