Right in the heart of the Highlands off Bardstown Road is a forgotten thirty-acre stretch of graves known as Eastern Cemetery. You may have driven past it many times, perhaps thinking it was part of neighboring Cave Hill; a forgotten section left to be ravaged by weeds and vandals. Or maybe you’ve been walking inside its rusted gates, wondering how so many graves had been completely abandoned. The truth is more complicated and somber, but not without hope. The Friends of Eastern Cemetery, a non-profit group, is hard at work restoring the site, bringing some peace and respect to a place that has seen little of it.
Eastern Cemetery records go back to 1843, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in Louisville. There are a range of individuals buried there, from slaves to Confederate veterans. With a who’s who of historic Louisville within its walls, its hard to believe Eastern Cemetery was abandoned for so long, but it also has a history of practices in violation of the law that leave it in legal limbo.
It’s possible that as early as 1858 there have been reuse of graves in the cemetery - not stacking, which is a legal practice of interring individuals on top of one another. Rather, Eastern Cemetery has used a variety of practices to re-sell graves as fresh plots - some as many as six times. Sean Stafford, one of the principle organizers of the group, said that it was common to use backhoes to completely disinter a site, destroying and mixing the previous remains into the soil, before re-selling the plot. This has left the graves riddled with human remains from unknown people, all completely forgotten so a grave could be sold again. This was no isolated or small-scale practice, either - it’s estimated that there have been over one-hundred and thirty-eight thousand burials in a cemetery that has sixteen thousand plots.
In the mid-eighties an employee of the cemetery blew the whistle, and the company that operated the cemetery folded not long after that. Due to Kentucky laws, however, no other group has wanted to purchase the site due to the estimated $58 million price tag for fixing all the violations, which any entity claiming ownership would be liable for.
And so Eastern Cemetery has sat untouched since 1994. Andy Harpole, owner of the Louisville Stigmatorium, has been taking walks in the cemetery for years, and noted that the grass in some areas was as high as eight feet. On one walk, he finally decided to do something about it, and Friends of Eastern Cemetery was born.
“Isn’t it our job as a community to take care of the wishes of the people who came before us?” Andy was frustrated with what he saw as a complete lack of respect for those who had built Louisville into what it is today. In early March he organized the first clean-up day at the cemetery. Since then the Friends of Eastern Cemetery have been on-site every other weekend, and attendance has averaged between twenty-five to thirty people per event. The group has mowed, cleaned up garbage, torn out overgrowth and cut down Japanese Yews that obscured countless headstones, vastly altering the condition of the site. Bob Hunt, who has been working with Find-A-Grave to document Eastern Cemetery since 2005, estimates they have uncovered an additional 125 graves that were completely hidden prior to the clean-up efforts.
Friends of Eastern Cemetery has brought together local businesses to help as well. Willow Landscaping donates time and equipment to the group, Heine Brothers Coffee supplies drinks, and Spinelli’s Pizzeria just up the road from the cemetery has been giving the group lunches. Evans Monument Company recently got on board as well - they’ve volunteered to help re-set stones, repair those that can be serviced and fully replace those that are completely destroyed. They’ve also received volunteer assistance from Dismas Charities, who have helped mow and clean the site. Friends of Eastern Cemetery also received volunteer groups from local high schools who’ve come out and worked full days. Sean said he was impressed with how dedicated they were, and that “none of them complained, or said they were tired. No one tried to find a reason to get out of it - they just worked.”
Andy told me that he wanted to bring a sense of community back to a place that had lost it long ago. If the amount of passion and dedication from the volunteers with Friends of Eastern Cemetery is any indication, it would seem he’s done just that. The future of Eastern Cemetery seems bright by all accounts; there’s a lot of work to do, but there’s a community of people willing to do it.
Photos Courtesy of Friends of Eastern Cemetery and James Guest.