Eastern Cemetery is a swath of rich Louisvillian history. The first documented use of the property as a cemetery dates to the 1840s, which makes it one of Louisville’s oldest cemeteries. The area at the time was on the outskirts of the city and away from the general population.
Originally owned by Fourth Street Methodist Church (now known as Trinity Temple United Methodist Church), it was one of the first cemeteries to bury Blacks and Whites on the same property. The grounds are the final resting place for individuals from all walks of life. Slaves, Odd Fellows, Free Masons, Louisville’s famous Black ministers, Union and Confederate veterans, and Servicemen and women from wars all the way up to Vietnam are all interred at Eastern.
The Cemetery was the site of the first crematoriums in Louisville and possibly even the entire Commonwealth. The facility, which still stands today (though now in use as apartments), opened in the 1920s.
According to renowned University of Louisville archaeologist and anthropologist Philip J. DiBlasi, “Records at Eastern Cemetery indicate that the reuse of graves began as early as 1858. The early records note ‘OG’ in many of the daily logs of burials. In several places in the records – ‘Old Grave’ is written out. Records indicate family owned lots that were filled completely or partially with burials were purchased by Eastern Cemetery from their owners and subsequently sold as unused lots.” There are four maps of Eastern Cemetery, from 1880, 1907, 1962, and 1984, which are inconsistent in their placement of graves. Eastern’s two sister cemeteries, Greenwood and Schardein, also suffered similar mistreatment.
Eastern Cemetery made national news in 1989 when a worker blew the whistle on grievous mistreatment of graves. A New York Times article from November 28, 1989 opens: “The remains of up to 48,000 people were buried in graves that were already occupied at two cemeteries in a practice believed to have begun in the 1920s, investigators for the State Attorney General’s office say.” A gravedigger allegedly reported the activity to the Attorney General, exposing The Louisville Crematories and Cemetery Company, which owned Eastern and the two sister properties at that time.
Since the 1980s, Eastern Cemetery has laid abandoned in the heart of the city. It gave rise to urban legends and ghost stories while it slowly deteriorated under the hands of vandals and illegal dumpers. Headstones weathered away in the elements and the grass grew too high to find some graves at all. Cemeteries have unique statues regarding ownership and treatment of the land, so it lies in more or less a legal and financial limbo. Though the Louisville Crematories and Cemetery Corporation have been dissolved, the Perpetual Care Fund they left generates no usable interest. Veterans, small volunteer groups, as well as Dismas Charities have been the sole caretakers of the nearly 30-acre property in the past. Friends of Eastern Cemetery are now the largest caretaker for the Cemetery which is comprised 100% of volunteers.