The story of Miami University and Oxford, Ohio is one that began with its people. To find out how their lives (and deaths) shaped the place many of us call home, a trip to the cemetery can answer many questions.
“Cemeteries are very important because they tell a lot about the community,” said Steve Gordon, the administrator of Miami’s William Holmes McGuffey Museum.
One of Oxford’s first cemeteries, called the “Old Yard,” was located at the corner of Spring Street and College Avenue near the current location of Ace Hardware and Building Supply. Old Yard served the Oxford community from 1817 to the 1880s and contained at least 40 bodies, Gordon said.
Township Cemetery, now called Woodside Cemetery, was another burial option for the residents of Oxford.
“Although the township cemetery interred many more poor people, many of them African-Americans, there is no evidence of racial segregation between the Oxford Cemetery and the township cemetery,” Gordon said.
Woodside Cemetery, maintained by the City of Oxford and located on Chestnut Street, contains many headstones from the early 1800s as well as newer burials.
“There’s been a lot of improvements in Woodside, however, the (older) stone is wearing out because of acid rain, the freezing and thawing during the year, lawn mowers that mow too close to the monuments and vandals,” Gordon said.
As Oxford grew, some citizens of the city proposed the idea of a new, well-planned cemetery.
According to Gordon, the creation of the private, more expensive Oxford Cemetery was not a radical idea in 19th century America. Across the nation, well-designed, artistic cemeteries were in vogue because they brought humans (both dead and living) and nature together.
“Rural cemeteries helped console the living, served as outdoor art museums, public arboreta and civic archives in stone,” Gordon wrote in “Spring Grove and the Rural Cemetery Movement” in Timeline, the publication of the Ohio Historical Society.
However, the new Oxford Cemetery was not built without a fight.
The April 8, 1887 edition of The Oxford News recorded several community members arguing for and against the new cemetery. One person said, “Digging up graves is not honorable,” while another said, “In its present condition, the old grave (Old Yard) is a disgrace to both Oxford and the university.” According to the paper, this commentator “did not see how anyone who had friends buried there could rest until they were interred elsewhere.”
As the cemetery expanded, so did local businesses. Many woodworkers doubled as coffin makers, Gordon said. The success of their business is shown in the numerous advertisements that ran in local papers.
An advertisement from a 1870s Oxford newspaper, printed in Sylvie Ferguson’s Burial Grounds of Oxford, Ohio, features cabinetmaker and undertaker John B. Morris, Oxford, Ohio.
According to Ferguson, the Oxford Council declared Old Yard legally vacated in 1888, allowing a steam flourmill to be built on the premises.
No one gets left behind
As with any removal and transfer of bodies from one cemetery to another, glitches in the reburial process are common. Oftentimes, bodies are accidently overlooked.
“There’s a good possibility that there are bodies still buried in the original cemetery,” Gordon said.
Several local newspapers covered the difficult process of transferring the bodies from one cemetery to another.
The Sept. 21, 1882 issue of The Hamilton Telegraph reported a body was “found in a petrified state, and the coffin was filled with water. The person (buried) was unknown.”
The 19th century cost of a plot in the Oxford Cemetery was a minimum of $50, Gordon said. According to measuringworth.com, the cost would translate to $1,280 today.
Artistic, impressive monuments
The Oxford Cemetery is home to several mausoleums interring some of Oxford’s most wealthy and influential citizens, Gordon said.
“In the 19th century, mausoleums prevented grave digging by people and animals and people knocking over headstones,” he said. “They are also an architectural statement because they tell about the family’s wealth and prosperity.”
Several interesting tombs in the Oxford
Cemetery include the Patterson and Freeman family mausoleums.
According to Gordon, James R. Patterson donated land and his home to Western College, and Freeman was a Revolutionary War veteran.
The most interesting monuments in the Oxford Cemetery are often the most unexpected and unique, Gordon said.
There is one “tree stone” in the cemetery, marking the grave of Henry G. Ross. A tree stone is a monument in the shape of a tree, traditionally a sturdy oak with English ivy winding around it, Gordon said. Like Ross’ marker, the branches of tree stones are cut off, signifying a sturdy, promising life cut too short. He died in 1898 at the age of 55.
For Gordon, an unexpected marker in the Oxford Cemetery belongs to
Harry Thobe. Thobe was a prominent Oxford house builder who lived from around 1870 until 1950. He was an avid Miami sports fan and local eccentric. Many of the homes in Oxford that incorporate stone designs were built by Thobe, Gordon said.
“His maker is just a tiny stone tablet, which is odd considering he was an eccentric and very well known. I thought he would’ve had a more visible monument,” Gordon said.
Another burial tradition that applies to many graves in the Oxford Cemetery is the symbolic direction of the body when buried in its plot.
“Usually, the footstone is to the east with the body in repose facing towards Jerusalem. It varies, but most of the graves face east towards the entrance of the Oxford Cemetery,” Gordon said.
Making Miami your final home … forever
Up on the hill of the Oxford Cemetery are neat rows of sturdy, white headstones. Under these monuments lay some of Miami’s most influential and dedicated emeriti, staff and friends.
“On Jan. 31, 1959, the board of trustees resolution was passed to provide cemetery plots for emeriti and their spouses. The plots are given to emeriti who have served the university for 20 years or more. They are given free of charge by Miami,” said Kathleen Dudley, the manager of administrative services at Miami.
The headstone itself must be purchased, she said.
The white headstones feature the Miami seal, the name of the person buried in the plot, the name of his or her spouse and other information like a favorite quote or a picture of a hobby.
The headstones erected after 1930 are different in style, Gordon said. According to Dudley, this is because the old headstone style was no longer available.
The burials of Miami students
According to Gordon, a Miami student cemetery was erected in the early 19th century to serve the funerary needs of students who had passed on while at school. According to a 1934 map of Miami housed in the McGuffey Museum collection, the student cemetery was located behind what is now the Formal Gardens off of Patterson Avenue.
“In the 19th century, they didn’t have the technology to transport the body to home without it starting to decompose. They often buried the students in the student cemetery,” Gordon said.
According to Lindy Cummings, a Miami alumnus and employee of the McGuffey Museum, American interest in developing mortuary skills and innovations like embalming didn’t begin until the Civil War era. At this time, many people became concerned their loved ones who fought and died on the battlefield received what they deemed a decent burial.
According to Walter Havighurst’s book, The Miami Years, “more than a score of students were buried there before 1850, but the three most significant student graves are the the Three Erodelphians.” In the 1840s, three members of the Erodelphian Literary Society died at Miami, and their graves are marked by three identical obelisk-shaped graves.
These monuments can be found at the Oxford Cemetery along with the other student graves. They were moved to their present location when the cemetery opened in 1855, Gordon said.
For Cummings, markers provide historical insight into what life was like when the people were buried.
“They’re so interesting because you really realize how fleeting life was before antibiotics,” she said.
Another special Miami burial belongs to Robert Hamilton Bishop, the first president of Miami. A special plaque dedicated to him surrounded by a ring of stones from his home country of Scotland can be found in the Formal Gardens, Gordon said.
After Bishop’s remains were returned to Miami in the 1950s, the burial was conducted very carefully. The university did not want the students to find out where he was buried.
“They thought fraternities would dig his body up as a prank,” Gordon said.
To this day, Bishop’s grave is not marked, but its exact location is known by a few local historians and university officials, he said.
Graves do tell tales. They tell the story of the individual, the world they lived in and how their contributions shape our lives today.