We finally made it. Urban Woman and I had entertained ideas of visiting Old Gray Cemetery for the Lantern and Carriage Tour for several years. Something always happened – a conflict or a simple mis-remembering. This year seemed an odd one to want to spend an evening among the stones, but it also felt right. We remembered and we went.
The sounds of the bagpipe, played by Katie Helms and Wyatt Brown greeted us at the iron gates as we moved toward the gathering inside the cemetery. It wasn’t somber or depressing, but it’s hard to describe a gathering inside a graveyard as festive. Bagpipes always sound a bit mournful, I suppose, as if they can’t quite move the tempo up to “normal” or “just doing alright.” Maybe it’s just me.
After paying our admission, we listened to a series of personifications of some of the people buried within the walls of the grand old cemetery. Some of the city’s best known residents in history are confined there for eternity and it seemed fitting that their representatives should tell their story in that context. Opened in 1851, the cemetery covers 13 acres and is filled with names all Knoxvillians know: Brownlow, Tyson, Boynton and Kern. Each of these were represented along with others who are less well-known, but whose stories inform our city’s story.
Interspersed with the narratives of the various actors were other activities: small booths, portrait artists, grilled hot-dogs and civil war re-enactors firing a cannon. The carriage rides are a big draw, but we found walking through the cemetery looking at the odd stones and listening to the actors more appealing. The carriage ride was fine and the guide who rode with us was informative, but it didn’t last very long and the wait to embark stretched out longer than the excursion.
I can’t take my eyes off the statuary, though some of the more subtle and odd stones did catch my notice. The clam shell and the tree stones particularly stand out. As our guide said, “In Victorian times, symbolism was very important.” Indeed. A college course in symbolism could be taught in the cemetery.
As for the stories, they ranged from the violent: Rebecca Eckle beaten to death by her son within view of the Knoxville police department in 1880, to the simply tragic: Charles McGhee Tyson and Richar McCalla both killed in World War I in simple accidents aboard planes. I enjoyed listening to Peter Kern played by Robby Griffith. The fact that he landed in Knoxville by pure fluke and decided to stay here shaped our city’s history as did his bread and his building at 1 Market Square, soon to be home to Tupelo Honey.
In the end, however, the stones speak for themselves and while the event was a very good one and we’ll likely return, I also enjoy a quiet walk in the cemetery when no events are planned. It’s a serene place of beauty that tells a large swath of the story of our city. I’d encourage you to visit and to try to make this fine event next year.