Cemeteries Are for the Living
Oklahoma’s cemeteries are rich with history, culture, symbolism.
Cathy Ambler sits among the graves and monuments at Rose Hill Cemetery in Tulsa.
Photo by Heath Sharp
When a museum and a genealogy society in Durant, Okla., teamed up to host a “ghost stories” walking tour at Highland Cemetery, they never expected a Facebook-fueled fuss to force them to cancel the event, planned for last October.
Some local residents complained the event was disrespectful of the dead. Cathy Ambler, a Tulsa preservationist consultant who has visited many Oklahoma cemeteries, says she was unfamiliar with the Durant controversy. However, she says people should be encouraged to visit cemeteries and explore the rich history that is there.
“Cemeteries were designed for people to visit,” Ambler says. “In the Victorian era, people would take their families out (to cemeteries) to be in a green place and have a picnic lunch. (Cemeteries) were our first city parks.”
The canceled Durant event resembled the “Tombstone Tales” re-enactment featured each spring at Fort Reno Military Cemetery, west of Oklahoma City. Up to 3,000 people turn out to walk the cemetery and listen to costumed re-enactors portray people buried there, including a buffalo soldier, a stagecoach driver, an outlaw and a German prisoner of war. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, says Fort Reno is just one of many interesting cemeteries throughout the state.
Blackburn mentioned several “celebrity” gravesites. Geronimo’s grave is at Fort Sill National Cemetery, one of just two national cemeteries in Oklahoma. Before you go, do some research on the claim that Yale University alumni robbed Geronimo’s grave almost 100 years ago. Or visit Charley Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, laid to rest at the Akins Cemetery near Sallisaw. Oklahoma’s first governor, C.N. Haskell, is buried under an impressive obelisk at the Greenhill Cemetery in Muskogee. Perhaps the most visited tomb in the state is that of Will Rogers, at the beautiful Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore.
Cemeteries close to home may or may not feature famous names, but they may reveal discoveries about one’s own family tree. Cemeteries are a popular destination for genealogists, Blackburn says, adding that “genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the country after fishing.”
Ambler notes that there is more to a cemetery than the people who are buried there. The design, the plotting and the landscaping all reflect a community’s values. For example, many cemeteries have separate sections for certain religions, fraternal organizations and even ethnicities. “Cemeteries actually represent American society very well,” she says.
Blackburn echoes the thought: “Cemeteries reflect the community’s values.”
Historical and genealogy societies sponsor occasional cemetery walking tours. However, you don’t have to wait for an official event to enjoy exploring a graveyard. Ambler recommends studying cemetery iconography and then searching for symbols on monuments and grave markers. Clasped hands, open gates, a finger pointing upward, lambs and doves – all are part of graveyard code.
Hundreds of cemeteries are scattered throughout Oklahoma’s 77 counties. Here are three among many intriguing destinations:
• Fort Gibson National Cemetery, east of Muskogee, is Oklahoma’s other national cemetery. Union soldiers of the Civil War who died in Indian Territory battles are interred there. The sprawling field, with uniform rows of white tombstones, is breathtaking.
• Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hugo includes a section called “Showmen’s Rest” for circus performers and workers. A large monument with engravings of a performing elephant and a circus tent reads, “A tribute to all showmen under God’s big top.”
• Polson Cemetery in eastern Oklahoma is the final resting place of Confederate General Stand Watie. Watie was the only Native American to rise to the rank of brigadier general of the Confederacy