Grave Hunting in Nashville
I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Nashville, TN grave hunting and wandering historic sites. I wasn't sure what to expect on my first foray into the South, but needless to say I wasn't disappointed. From Civil War battlefields to hidden slave cemeteries, Nashville has it all. Join me as I break down my three must see cemeteries of Music City.
#1 Nashville City Cemetery
Founded in : 1822
Estimated Burial Count : 22,000+
The longest operated cemetery in Nashville, City Cemetery is smack dab in the center of everything just a mere mile from Broadway. Although this is considered to be one of the oldest, it is not the original. Fun fact - the original city cemetery is still located underneath the Nissan Stadium...yea, you heard that right. Story goes that two weeks out from finishing construction on the stadium, construction workers found bones....lots of them. Since they were so close to completion they just kept on going without removing the bodies. A fun little fact to remember next time you're watching a game there and enjoying a beer.
Of the 22,000+ people buried at City Cemetery are 22 former Nashville Mayors, 6,000 slaves although good luck finding headstones for them and at one point, President James Polk. Two new headstones were placed on the graves of Polk's slaves, part of a growing movement to mark the graves of enslaved individuals who traditionally only received a rock if anything to mark their final resting place. If Presidential history is your jam then you will enjoy this; one of the men Andrew Jackson killed in a duel (apparently he was fond of this activity), a dude named Charles Dickinson, is buried at the cemetery. Although he was killed and Andrew Jackson survived, the bullet from Charles's gun did in fact make contact with Jackson, a nice little pocket by his heart. Because of the proximity to this vital organ, the bullet couldn't be removed so he lived with it for the rest of his life, one of two bullets he would carry. Insane. Another grave I happened upon and knew nothing of was that of Scottish born Pamela A. Kirk, who came to Nashville in the 1850s and founded the first children's school out of her house. Her headstone is a really neat and worn depiction of a woman in a chair with little kids coming up to her as if she's reading a story and I just find her story absolutely fascinating.
I spent about 3 hours wandering the cemetery. It's monuments, crypts and mausoleums make the perfect backdrop to a gloomy Nashville day. Unlike the other cemeteries I would later visit, this one is not heavy on the Confederate propaganda and instead feels like a very balanced walking history lesson.
Hot Tip : Make sure to stop and read the historical markers, you'll learn a lot.
#2 Midway Plantation Slave Cemetery
Founded in : 1850
Estimated Burial Count: 38
Tucked in the middle of a traffic median on a busy street of the upper class neighborhood of Brentwood sits the Midway Plantation Slave Cemetery. Within its stone walls are 38 rocks marking the bodies of 38 enslaved individuals and one large memorial dedicated to the people buried there adorned with offerings of flowers, coins and thank you notes. To say visiting this site is somber is an absolute understatement but first we need to understand why it's there.
Modern day Brentwood was once a part of the Midway plantation; a massive plot of land owned by the McGavock family who had 38 slaves who worked their corn and tobacco farms. When the original mansion was destroyed in a fire, the 38 slaves rebuilt a massive new home in 1847 which they called "Midway." That mansion is now the Brentwood country club and the plantation is now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Nashville, freakin Dolly lives there ya'll. What sets this cemetery apart is that it exists and not only that, theres markers. See, most plantations never marked where they buried their slaves. To this day historians theorize some 200 slave cemeteries have been lost or yet to be rediscovered. To put it in perspective, Thomas Jefferson's famous plantation Monticello has only recently started identifying their slave burial grounds with the help of Lidar technology and Andrew Jacksons' Hermitage, which I visited while in Nashville, has absolutely no idea where there's is. So it's exciting that the Midway plantation didn't follow the norm. However, this doesn't mean the cemetery wasn't almost lost.
When Brentwood was being built up, the city wanted to pave over the burial ground. Thankfully there was a public outcry when the news leaked so much so that they altered the plans and instead paved a road around the burial ground which is how we have a burial ground in the middle of a traffic median. What really struck me when I was there was how little things had changed. These mega McMansion's stare out unto the burial ground in a stark reminder of how polarizing this country has been and still is. It may not be the most beautiful cemetery in Nashville, but for many reasons, it's one of the most important.
Hot Tip : Consider bringing some flowers to leave at the memorial, it's truly the least we can all do.
#3 Mt. Olivet Cemetery
Founded in : 1856
Estimated Burial Count : 190,000
If your trip in Nashville consists of music museum tours, bar hopping on Broadway and talks with locals, you might forget that Tennessee was once a Confederate state that had strong feelings about the right to maintain slavery. Well, believe me when I say a morning spent grave hunting at Mt. Olivet will remind you real quick. Not only is the Confederate Circle there with a 40+ft tall statue, but there are over 15,000 Confederate soldiers buried there along with almost all of Nashville's plantation owners, patrons of the Confederate cause and many, many historical plaques praising the efforts of the Confederate army.
Culture shock? Yea, I think so.
Another sobering fact is that many African American's are buried here, most of them dying as enslaved individuals and being laid to rest in a circle around their owner. A lot of these burials aren't marked. Their burial count, unknown. Yet the cemetery is full of some of the most ornate and beautiful monuments I've seen outside of Europe. Despite the cemetery overlooking a rather industrial and unattractive part of town, the cemetery itself is breathtaking, where you can rub elbows with the historic who's who of Nashville. One of the ornate crypts overlooking the Confederate Circle is that of Adelicia Acklen, owner of the Belmont Mansion and at one time, owner of one of the largest slave holdings in America.
Wandering this cemetery brought up a lot of emotions in me, some of it rage, sadness but mostly it was incredibly educational. Being from the West Coast and growing up around Democrats and Liberals, I've been able to sort of escape this kind of living history. We like to think we've progressed and that places in the South have grown and moved on from the Civil War but reading some of the plaques at Mt. Olivet will remind you just how far we still have to go. It is so easy to judge historical people with the eyes of today but to truly be a student of history, one must suspend our personal bias to try and see through the eyes of the past and the Antebellum South is a truly complex time in America's history. I think I am still working through some of the emotions that were brought up for me in the cemetery that day, but I am grateful for the experience, the questions and even the complicated emotions because it just means I am growing and learning as hopefully all of us are.
Hot Tip : Have a big meal before coming here, the cemetery is huge and trust me when I say you don't want to miss any of it.
This is just three of the cemeteries I visited in Nashville, here are some of the others that deserve to be mentioned.
*Rest Haven Cemetery
*Toussaint L'Overture Cemetery
Have you grave hunted in Nashville? Tell me about it in the comments!