Elmwood Cemetery was established in 1852 and is a still-active cemetery as well as one of Tennessee’s oldest nonprofits. As Halloween approaches, we sat down with its director, Kim McCollum, to talk about her love for the institution, the Victorians, volunteers, the cemetery’s annual fundraiser, and, of course, ghosts.
How long have you been director of Elmwood and how does one come into such a job? I’ve been the director since 2005; this is my 10th year. I went to Northwest Community College and then the University of Memphis for a degree in English. All I knew was that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector when I graduated, and knew I wanted to do some sort of advocacy work, but didn’t know just what that meant. I was working at the Memphis Botanic Garden and a friend mentioned Elmwood needed a secretary. I love working at Elmwood. It’s home.
What is it about cemeteries that attracts the living? Genealogy research is incredi-bly popular now. So if you want to work on your genealogy, one of the places you are going to end up at some point is an old cemetery; Elmwood helps people all the time with this. Cemeteries also give people a sense of permanence. The beau-ty, too; Elmwood has 80 acres of green space in the heart of a bustling city. It was founded two-and-a-half miles outside of the city limits and designed as a park. When you drive over the bridge into the grounds of Elm-wood you immediately feel like you’re in a very special place. There are about 1,400 trees and we’re a Level II arboretum.
Why do people still want Elmwood to be their final resting place? I hope that people know they’re not going to be forgotten over at Elmwood. We are going to tell their stories well into the future, we’re going to preserve the lot books that bear their names, we’re going to stay in touch with their families and try to make them a part of what we do all of the time. There are 75,000 people buried in Elmwood, each with their own story.
Do you have a favorite? Evelyn Estes. She was a young woman who traveled out west by horseback twice in her lifetime. In 1927 she was 21 years old, she got on a horse and rode to California by herself. Later she was a nurse’s aide in World War II, worked on B29s in Seat-tle, and worked in the psychiat-ric unit at John Gaston Hospital. I got to meet her just before she passed away in 1999. Her diary is in the Memphis Room at the main library. Evelyn’s story is a favorite, though I have new favorites frequently.
What makes Elmwood a Victorian cemetery? It was founded during the Victorian era, during Queen Victoria’s lifetime. She lost her husband Albert and spent the majority of her adult life mourn-ing that loss. Mourning used to be a practical experience but Victoria elevated it, helped make it almost an art form. She helped transform the concept of the cemetery itself from a place that’s bleak and dreary, places that were not cared for or visited, to places that were park-like where people cared about upkeep and wanted to install monuments of angels and obelisks and draped urns, and make the place beautiful, one of passion and love, and a place where you could go and reflect.
Elmwood is a tourist attraction. Like Graceland, Beale Street, and the Stax Museum of American Soul, do tourists from around the world visit? Absolutely. We’re consistently ranked in the top 10 things to do in Memphis on TripAd-visor, especially during Elvis Week in August. We do have two connections to Elvis Presley here — we have Grace Toof, the woman for whom Graceland was named; and we have one of Elvis’ cooks, Mary Jenkins Langston, the lady who perfected the peanut butter and banana sandwich.
What is your favorite area of Elmwood? The oldest part of the cemetery in the south half is my favorite because there are old head-stones in the old-fashioned script, and in different languages like German and Chinese.
How special are the volunteers to Elmwood? We couldn’t do any of the pro-gramming that we do without the volunteers, or we would be able to do very little of it. The core group of volunteers num-bers about 25, and they do clean-up events, youth education tours, adult education tours, they work the costume twilight tour in character, they do filing for us, scanning documents, you name it. We have no irrigation in the cemetery, so there is a tree-wa-tering team that drives a cart through to water the trees. It’s a big commitment and Elmwood’s volunteers are very committed.
Tell us about the upcoming party and fundraiser. This is the fifth year for the “Spirits With The Spirits” party at Elmwood. The funds raised from ticket sales and sponsor-ships go towards the perpetual care and maintenance program at the cemetery. We’re going to have a silent art auction component, Earnestine & Hazel’s house band will be playing, there will be food and beverages, a buckboard-drawn mule ride through the grounds, fortune tellers, and costumed characters. About 300 people attend every year. The date is October 30th and tickets are $60 per person or $100 per couple.
And because we’re getting ready for Halloween, have you ever seen any ghosts at work? I have not seen a ghost, but I had an experience where I think I heard a ghost whistling. I am very cynical, I’m very skeptical, and I’m not a person who believes in this sort of thing. But I was in the office by myself, getting ready to lead an after-hours tour — the staff was gone, the grounds crew was gone, it was just me — and somebody was whistling a tune right outside the window. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Visit elmwoodcemetery.org.