For most in Lexington, October means Keeneland. (And those who aren’t familiar with Keeneland, it’s our racetrack.) Betting on horses while day-drinking isn’t really something that appeals to me. I’ve had the childhood Keeneland experience: my dad placed a $2 bet for me and I won $16. And after that, I was pretty much over Keeneland.
That’s not to say those who love Keeneland have something wrong with them! It’s just not my cup of tea, and if you’ve found this blog, it’s not yours either.
This blog is for everyone who lives in Lexington—or would love to visit Lexington—but isn’t into the whole horses and bourbon thing. (Full disclosure: I love bourbon; I just know there’s more to the Bluegrass Region than that!)
Welcome to unLEXpected!
For the rest of you not in horse country, October probably just means Halloween has begun! So this month I’m focusing unLEXpected on “Spooky Lexington.”
And what better way to kick off the month by highlighting one of my favorite places in Lexington: the Lexington Cemetery.
Perhaps it stems from the fact that the Lexington Cemetery was a staple in my childhood field trips, or the fact that I’ve always been fascinated with the darker side of the human psyche. (My go-to books to read when I was eight and nine were books on the Holocaust. Go figure.) But whatever the reason, the Lexington Cemetery holds a special place in my heart.
Part of a nationwide trend in the mid-1800’s to move away from church cemeteries and family plots, the Lexington Cemetery began. And while the need for it sprung from a terrible 1833 cholera epidemic, beauty and magic have blossomed at this 170-acre arboretum.
Most visit the Lexington Cemetery—or any cemetery for that matter—for three main reasons: history, mystery, and nature. So let’s delve into each of those while exploring the cemetery!
Cemeteries don’t let you avoid the past—the past is literally all a cemetery is. They don’t just catalog history; they let you delve deeper into the lives of those passed on.
For example, if you weren’t aware that Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War, you’ll have that fact foisted upon you here. While Kentucky never seceded from the Union, plenty of Kentuckians joined the confederate army. In fact, while 1100 union soldiers are buried in the Lexington Cemetery, 500 confederate soldiers are, too.
Those graves aren’t the only ones that force us to confront our city’s conflicted past. A monument to confederate soldiers built in 1874, stands proudly on the grounds. And frankly, I wasn’t all that at ease viewing it—especially after visiting the Jewish section of the cemetery.
In the Jewish section “Holocaust Survivor” is proudly engraved on numerous headstones. Even a stone dedicated to the 500,000 Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust is erected. Throughout the rest of the cemetery many tombstones bear the phrase “daughter of the confederacy” or “son of the confederacy” as proudly as “Holocaust survivor.”
The Lexington Cemetery is a fascinating time capsule. Statues to confederate officers, an immense monument to Henry Clay—Lexington’s most well-known statesmen, and graves of WWI veterans, WWII veterans, Holocaust survivors, and Baby Boomers all share the same grounds.
Mystery and Magic
For the rest of the graves not marked by massive monuments, descriptions or aren’t listed on the cemetery’s history walk, it’s up to our minds to fill in the blanks. Like this tombstone:
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been!’”
That inscription completely captured my imagination. Who was Brent? Based on the heart-wrenchingly sad poem, I have to assume he died young. How did he die? How old was he? Not only did this grave completely pique my curiosity, for a brief second, Brent (whoever he was) was thought of again.
Another fascinating headstone that caught my attention was that of Dorothy McPherson Farnsworth. She shares a headstone with her husband. And while most women who died in the 1930’s were almost certainly referred to as “So-and-So’s wife,” Dorothy is the more lauded of the two. Dorothy’s husband, Patrick, has only his name and dates listed. Dorothy’s inscription is far more elaborate: “Poet, Wit, and Sculptor who won literary fame under more than twenty pen names, the greatest of which was Robert Emmet Ward.”
While clearly not immune to the misogyny of her day—she had to use pen names after all—hers stood out to me because of its proud feminism. It made me ponder: what was it like for Dorothy McPherson Farnsworth? Did she have a hard life because she was a woman publishing her work under pen names, and maybe didn’t feel she was getting the credit she deserved? Or did she have a happy life because she got to pursue arts she was clearly passionate about?
And now, forever, Dorothy McPherson Farnsworth’s life—though it ended decades ago—is entwined with mine.
The magic of the cemetery helps the past live through our imaginations.
(And just who is “King” Solomon? I’ll let you find out when you visit the cemetery yourself!)
But maybe you’re still not convinced: headstones and history do not intrigue you. And that’s okay, because most of the cemetery’s visceral beauty is natural. The Lexington Cemetery has over 200 species of trees on its grounds. If you’re a tree buff, you need to grab the tree walk pamphlet. Not every species is listed, but if you can find all 42 listed in the pamphlet, you are doing alright.
The office also provides a bird-watching pamphlet. And no wonder! I saw a blue heron hanging out at a pond, and I wasn’t even looking for birds! The well-maintained grounds and undisturbed trees allow for birds and small mammals to thrive.
But words can’t express the beauty of the cemetery as well as pictures (and sadly pictures can’t do justice to the real thing!). Here are some of my favorite views from the cemetery:
I spent two hours meandering through the cemetery and only saw half of it. I missed several gardens, historic plots, and the unfortunately named “Baby Land”, which I hope isn’t what it sounds like. (If it is, it might be too sad to visit.) Two hours for someone who has a plan is plenty of time. You can absolutely visit all the graves marked on the history walk in two hours. But if you want to walk around, explore, and let time take you where it will, you should devote a half day to it. I don’t recommend any longer than that, because food is prohibited.
Which reminds me…
Visiting an Active Cemetery
The Lexington Cemetery is an active cemetery. They have space available to intern people for the next 100 years, so unless you plan to live a very, very long time, you will almost always come across mourners. Here are some tips for you to follow when you visit any active cemetery.
1. Stay respectful of the graves and the people visiting them. Don’t shout, laugh loudly, take pictures of mourners, etc. Basically, if you don’t want it to happen to you when you are in mourning, don’t do it.
2. Accompany children. Even if your child is well-behaved and they would never do anything disrespectful at a cemetery, the grounds are not easy to walk on. There are no sidewalks at the Lexington Cemetery so walking must be done of the road or around graves.
3. Drive slowly. As mentioned no good walking places at the Lexington Cemetery exist, and mourners will be too preoccupied to pay attention to cars. It’s up to you as a driver to be hyper-aware of your surroundings.
4. Pets are not permitted (unless you have a service animal).
5. While a lot of cemeteries are gorgeous like the Lexington Cemetery, the same privileges do not exist as if visiting a park. Therefore no picnics, no sunbathing, no drinking, and I would even advise against sitting on the ground anywhere, whether or not you’re leaning on a grave.
6. Don’t touch the gravestones and be careful you don’t knock into them or walk on the ones lying flat on the ground. The old gravestones in particular are fragile.
Despite going during the day on a weekday, I saw plenty of people visiting graves and mourning. I worked extra hard to make sure I wasn’t taking pictures around them, and if I stumbled upon mourners, I avoided them. Give people their space when you visit an active cemetery, most people aren’t there simply out of curiosity.
Even with all those guidelines, cemeteries are still amazing places to visit! Full of history, mystery, and magic, you’d be hard pressed to find another destination overflowing with culture. And Lexington Cemetery is the best of them all.