Elmwood Cemetery: Where No One is Forgotten

By Aisling Maki

More than 30 visitors braved the sweltering summer heat on a recent Friday evening to immerse themselves in the stories of some of Memphis’ most famous, infamous and influential citizens during Elmwood Cemetery’s Evening Stroll.

Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of about 75,000 Memphians.
(Photo: Gary Shelley)

Kimberly McCollum, executive director of Elmwood, 824 S. Dudley St., on Friday, June 24, led history enthusiasts of all ages to gravesites throughout the historic cemetery’s serene 80 acres, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2002.

“Once you spend time here and start learning the stories, it’s all about that 80 acres out there,” said McCollum, who’s worked at Elmwood for the past 13 years. “It gets in your blood and you can’t imagine doing anything else.”

The outgoing McCollum, who graduated from the University of Memphis with an English degree and the desire to work in the nonprofit sector, began her career at Elmwood as the receptionist, a role she calls her “first grownup job.”

“I asked for more work and got more work, took over the newsletter and started the website,” McCollum said. “I was given a big opportunity by my board of trustees. They believed in me. I’d been around long enough to get the gist of it, and plus I’d done everything here from funerals to accounting. I can do anything that needs to be done and I had a passion for it.”

The 36-year-old’s adoration of Elmwood is obvious as she shares the stories of some of the nearly 160-year-old cemetery’s 75,000 permanent residents, including political powerhouse E.H. “Boss” Crump; the South’s first African-American millionaire Robert Church; and cotton and slave-trader Wade Bolton, founder of an agricultural school that later became Bolton High School and who was killed following a duel in Court Square.

Another popular figure is Annie Cook, a madam with a heart of gold who became known as the “Mary Magdalene of Memphis” after she converted her brothel into a makeshift hospital to care for victims of the city’s 1870s yellow fever epidemics – more than 1,500 of whom are buried at an Elmwood site known as “No Man’s Land.”

Governors, blues singers, suffragists, martyrs, generals, outlaws, victims of the 1865 Sultana Steamboat disaster, and veterans of every American war are interred at Elmwood. Graves represent a variety of ethnic groups, including Gypsies, Chinese, Greeks and Italians.

More recent burials include Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who died in 2005, and civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks, who died last year.

Elmwood is still an operational cemetery, working to meet the needs of families in mourning. Fifteen thousand plots remain available, and the grounds include five acres of completely undeveloped land located on the cemetery’s south side – the highest point in the cemetery, which features hilltop views of the Memphis skyline.

And a number of the city’s notable movers and shakers – including real estate developer Henry Turley and The Daily News columnist Dan Conaway – intend to spend eternity at Elmwood.

“Obviously, I’m a big fan, long before I was ever a trustee,” Conaway said. “I always thought it was a great place to go for a walk and let what makes Memphis soak in because it’s all there.”

McCollum described the board as “amazing, and a who’s who of Memphis,” and many have family plots at Elmwood.

“I think it’s very telling that once you get on the board of Elmwood, you don’t get off,” said McCollum, noting board member Charles M. Crump served for more than 60 years, and that Elmwood’s friendly resident cat, Howard, was named in homage to late longtime board member Howard Caruthers.

Elmwood recently completed a large endowment campaign in which an anonymous donor offered a $1 million matching funds challenge. Although the cemetery fell just slightly short of its goal, the donor still awarded the matching gift.

“This is a big deal for historic properties,” McCollum said, noting historic preservation initiatives typically face an uphill battle when it comes to raising capital. “But luckily, we had this extremely generous donor step forward and say, ‘I believe in you. I believe in Elmwood.’

“We’re never going anywhere. Every place in Memphis can shut down or move or get a new building; this is it for us. So, it’s critical that we invest in the property.’

In addition to improved grounds maintenance, which includes caring for 1,400 trees, the gift has helped Elmwood increase the number of programs offered. In addition to its incredibly popular Halloween Twilight Tour and a monthly Lunch and Lecture series that attracts about 40 people, the staff has ramped up its youth education program and the number of evening strolls offered.

And volunteers are an indispensable component of everything that happens at Elmwood.

“It’s all volunteer-based. The volunteers at Elmwood are exceptionally committed; they learn these scripts, put on these costumes and go out there whether it’s rain or shine like mailmen,” McCollum said. “They love history and they love Elmwood.”

In addition to being an active cemetery, outdoor museum and youth education facility, Elmwood is also a bird sanctuary and arboretum, rents bicycles, and hosts weddings, birthday parties and picnics.

“But the greatest thing about Elmwood is that no one is forgotten,” McCollum said. “That’s the hidden treasure in giving these tours. I don’t want anyone forgotten because their lives meant something to somebody.”