Two in a Series of Three on Syracuse University Area Open Spaces.
It has been years since I enjoyed a good campfire tale. But I got my fix in a surprising way a few Sundays ago on a guided tour of Oakwood Cemetery, right on the edge of the Syracuse University campus. I felt like I was back at summer camp, equally captivated by the natural scenery and stories: On the tour, about two dozen people huddled around gravesites instead campfires, sat on overturned headstones instead of logs, and listened to sisters and avid historians, Darothy DeAngelo and Susan Greenhagen, instead of camp counselors.
Before you question how I could make such a lighthearted connection to a place where bodies are buried, consider this: In 1859 when Oakwood Cemetery opened, its wooded, rolling hills quickly became the most popular place for a family picnic. Nineteenth century folks weren’t morbid, they just wanted to escape the urban chaos that industrialization brought to their day-to-day lives. Rapidly growing cities like Syracuse were dirty, loud, and well, smelly. The same could be said about cemeteries at the time. Ingenious landscape architects killed two birds with one headstone (couldn’t help myself) by creating the “rural” cemetery. Rural cemeteries provided citizens with a relaxing, quiet, natural retreat while they were alive and a respectable burial when their time came. But back to my graveyard tour…
Despite being in her late seventies, Darothy proved an energetic tour guide, taking our group straight up a hill on a hot, sunny afternoon to our first grave. The subject of Darothy’s tour was “Doctors, Dentists, and Quacks” and we were all introduced to quack number one: Henry Denison, a doctor-turned-contractor, who “was so crooked he made a horseshoe look straight” according to Susan. (The banter between the sisters was worth the tour alone.) I had just gotten comfortable and cool in the shade when we were led to our second grave, a hut-like structure which reminded me of a Parisian cathedral entrance. In fact, Doctor Ezriah Shipman, who was buried beneath, had died in Paris “at sundown” as the inscription read. I felt like I was just getting to know who Ezriah was, when Darothy herded us to the resting place of Surgeon Hiram Hoyt who was a renowned cataract surgeon (eye surgery in the mid 1800s, not a pleasant thought).
We spent about ten minutes at each of the dozen or so gravesites we visited, meeting the people of Syracuse’s past. There was Milton Waldo Hanchett, a dentist who invented both today’s adjustable dentist chair and the organ pedal pumping system – all by age 26; Doctor Mercer who saved Syracuse from the 1874 smallpox outbreak, lived to 95, and shared his secret to life, “don’t worry, don’t hurry, and masticate your food thoroughly”; the quack George Greeley who cheated on his wife, got divorced, went broke, and killed himself just days before he was to inherit millions; and the younger brother of Wizard of Oz author Frank Baum, who gave up his cot to a sick friend in the Spanish American War, got bronchitis on the cold floor, and ultimately died from his act of goodwill.
As you can tell, there’s more story than spookiness at Oakwood Cemetery. And Darothy carefully researched each of the characters, visiting local libraries and historic societies for months in order to bring their stories to life. At one point, in the middle of a graveside tale, Darothy looked up from her notes and said, “really, I find this fun, everybody has a story – I just piece it together by pulling out the interesting parts.” When I share stories from my outdoor adventures, I try to follow this same advice. But my Oakwood tour gave me so much material, I had trouble “pulling out the interesting parts” – because it all was so engaging. So I’ll share just one last graveside tale, one that best captures why I like walking in Oakwood.
Towards the end of the tour, I was starting to tire of the graveyard shift. There was no breeze, and the grey tombstones on grassy hills started looking the same. But then we stopped at a massive honeycomb-like structure that was almost as tall as some of the century-old trees nearby. Its simple, circular shape looked out of place among the more traditional angular monuments. This was the grave of Dr. Wieting, a world traveler who had designed the structure like a stuppa, a Buddhist shrine he had seen in Asia. I admired the subtle reflection of the person’s life in the actual structure.
I drifted away from the group and sat down to gaze up at the stuppa and the trees, leaning back on my elbows as the breeze picked up. Up on the hill in Oakwood Cemetery, my busy day-to-day life down in Syracuse seemed very far away. While the stories were entertaining, for me, Oakwood holds the same appeal it did to a stressed out 19th century citizen: it’s quiet, peaceful, and full of natural beauty – the perfect spot to retreat from the chaos of our day-to-day lives.
Want More Tales from the Crypt?
The Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association is hosting two more tours this summer. Tours begin at 2:00 pm and begin at the chapel on the west side of the Cemetery. Turn into the Oakwood entrance off the 900 block on Comstock Avenue. The tour is free, but they appreciate donations!
August 15th – “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem”
September 19th – “Signs, Symbols, and Sayings: The Iconograpy of Death”