Weekend Wanderlust: Is Green Lawn Cemetery the greatest museum in Columbus?

Kevin J. Elliott
A marker in Green Lawn Cemetery

I’m often met with bewilderment when I recommend a cemetery as a place for a leisurely trip especially in a time when death is on the minds of many. But since acquiring an Ancestry account several years back, I’ve often found myself in a long-forgotten graveyard in somewhere like New Vienna, Ohio, searching for my great-great-grandfather on some random Saturday, only to find a grandfather five times removed. Or, to the disdain of my faithful traveling partner, driving miles off-route to visit the grave of Jack Kerouac and drop off a pen, or the grave of Sun Ra to drop off some existential vibes. Communing with the dead, wandering through the sacred, unknown lives of people you’ll never know, is, to a degree, a morbid fascination, sure. But it’s also a chance for mediation, reflection and reveling in being alive.

After all, you have a captive audience and the social distancing just hits differently.

AtGreen Lawn Cemetery on Columbus’ South Side, with 360 acres, and more than 154,000 interments, you have the ear of much of our city’s rich history. It is, in retrospect, Columbus’ first park, and a place you can spend hours walking aimlessly, or intently, absorbing the history, admiring the art and identifying natural elements that abound.

“At the time Green Lawn was founded, attitudes about death were influenced more by the Romantics and the arts. Death wasn’t seen as dark anymore,” said Randy Rogers, president of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association. “These cemeteries just outside of the city were a part of the rural cemetery movement. You wanted a cemetery with green space, natural topography and old growth. Green Lawn actually came before Columbus’ first city park, which wasGoodalein 1850.”

Get a new Weekend Wanderlust delivered to your inbox every month when you sign up for our daily newsletter

On his sturdy but worn John Deere golf-cart, Rogers zoomed through the narrow paths of Green Lawn’s vast expanse.The place has seen floods, pandemics, grave-robbers and the rise of sprawl built up around it, making it less of a far-off respite from the clang and clatter of the city than when it was established. Every other turn Rogers made, he would point out a medal of honor recipient, an associate of Wyatt Earp, a Civil War veteran, a nurse stricken from attending to patients sick with the 1918 Spanish Flu, famous botanists, abolitionists and a mistress-murdering Olympic pistol champ who invented a still commonly used veterinary tool. Cemeteries are simply the best museums, if you know where to look.

“We tell people we have 154,000 stories and I know about 1,200 of them,” said Rogers. “But those are just the stories about the people. We also have stories about the markers themselves; how they were built and designed. Stories about the trees.” 

On this tour, I was looking specifically for some lesser-known Columbusonians: Billy Southworth, a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee who coached the St. Louis Cardinals to multiple World Series; andAlice Schille, a modernist watercolor painter. And with that, Rogers was on the move. He knew right where each stone was set.

In the past, I’d seen the cemetery’s most famous residents, includingPrescott Bush (patriarch to a presidential monarchy), but today I was also searching for the grave of Marion Tinsley.Tinsley, a doctor of combinatorics at the Ohio State University, is universally considered the greatest checkers player who ever lived. His genius of the game was so complete that he lost only seven matches, and he defeated the Chinook computer after retiring as world champion in 1992 at age 64. His small, out-of-the-way plot is etched with a checkerboard. Until today, Rogers didn’t know Tinsley was a resident. 

“There’s a new story I just learned, so that’s 1,201.” 

James Thurber's grave marker

To think that Rogers is just now hearing of Tinsley is a testament to the cemetery’s evolution, as well as a reminder that a cemetery is not a place of finality or stasis, but something that is always changing.

In fact, there is always something new or in need of repair at the cemetery. Just a few weeks ago, Green Lawn unveiled the “departed denizens” monument, which memorializes anonymous graves of pioneers moved from razed city cemeteries Downtown. Soon there will be a sculpture ofMuggs the dog, to better locate the unassuming stone of Muggs’ more famous owner, writer and cartoonist James Thurber. The bigger question mark the cemetery will face is how to find the $2.5 million in funding needed to rehabilitate industrialist Charles Hayden’s magnificent 1920s mausoleum, which boasts a dome of Tiffany glass,Haydenville tile and four large, Italian murals in an interior the public rarely gets to see. It’s a tomb so grand, Hayden was said to have spent his children’s inheritance on it. 

Those giantOzymandian monuments to the fortunes built in early Columbus are a stark yet lavish contrast to those lost stories Green Lawn also painstakingly tries to preserve. Like that ofElliott Blaine Henderson, a forgotten African American poet who was buried far in the back of Green Lawn in an unmarked grave. In 2019, the Green Lawn Association gave his resting place a beautiful marker, including one of his more fire and brimstone poems as the epitaph. 

For the sake of travel, and getting outdoors, the cemetery is still a paramount counter to city life. In addition to multiple stories of the Sullivant family, or the curious tale ofEmil Ambos’ brass fish, Rogers would occasionallypoint out a wild honey bee hive or migratory birds (the cemetery is an Audubon designated site). With the crunch of leaves and the crispness of the early October air, it makes for a tranquil environment that still has plenty of living to do.

That’s certainly a quandary for any mortal hiking through a cemetery. Where will I be other than dust in the wind 500 years from now? I often think of this, not about myself, but of someone like irreplaceable Columbus icon Rahsaan Roland Kirk, buried in an unkempt part of town with few visitors. Maybe he needs to move to Green Lawn? With a celebratory statue? They have plenty of space. Rogers predicts with the remaining acreage, they have room for the next 100 years. And they are endowed to remain there, with their usual meticulous upkeep, for centuries more.

But as far as ghosts, which are certainly the reason I chose this destination in the depth of October, that’s purely rumor. There are no ghosts at Green Lawn. There are definitely some hauntings at the immaculately restored Greenlawn Abbey next door (at one time a fierce competitor to Green Lawn). But at Green Lawn? It’s only in our imaginations.

“You don’t usually find stories of ghosts haunting the place they were buried,” Rogers said. “Obviously cemeteries have a reputation as being a spooky place, but we don’t have any stories here. They usually hang out where they lived or where they were killed.”