Eastern Cemetery, located in the heart of the Highlands neighborhood, is a rich source of Louisville history. The first documented use as a cemetery dates to the 1840s, making Eastern one of Louisville’s oldest cemeteries. At that time, the area was on the outskirts of the city away from the general population.
Originally owned by Fourth Street Methodist Church (now known as Trinity Temple United Methodist Church), Eastern Cemetery was one of the first cemeteries to bury people of different races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. The grounds are the final resting place for individuals from all walks of life, including former slaves, Odd Fellows, Free Masons, congressmen, mayors, ministers, boxers, immigrants, musicians, and veterans (from Mexican War to Vietnam War). One of the most distinct and memorable features of Eastern Cemetery is the Richardsonian Romanesque wake house designed by renowned architects Charles Clarke and Arthur Loomis in 1891. The cemetery was the site of the first crematorium in Kentucky. The facility, which still stands today and functions as apartments, opened in 1935. The modern columbarium, office, and crematorium building was constructed in 1957.
However, Eastern Cemetery has a dark past. According to University of Louisville archaeologist 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 that were purchased by Eastern Cemetery from their owners and subsequently sold as unused lots.” Four maps of Eastern Cemetery (dated 1880, 1907, 1962, and 1984) are inconsistent in their placement of graves, which further exemplifies the overburial. Eastern Cemetery’s two sister cemeteries, Greenwood and Schardein, also suffered similar mistreatment.
Eastern Cemetery made national news in 1989 when a worker finally blew the whistle on the 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, Greenwood, and Schardein cemeteries. State investigators now estimate that 100,000 people were buried in 30,000 graves.
Since the 1980s, Eastern Cemetery has been left abandoned and forgotten. It gave rise to urban legends and ghost stories while it slowly deteriorated under the hands of vandals. Mother Nature weathered many of the headstones and the grass grew too high to find some graves at all. Due to the complexities of state cemetery statutes, Eastern Cemetery has remained in a legal and financial limbo. Though the Louisville Crematories and Cemetery Corporation has been dissolved, the perpetual care fund they left generates no usable interest. Veterans, small volunteer groups, and Dismas Charities have been the sole caretakers of the nearly 30-acre property in the past. Today, the Friends of Eastern Cemetery, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, is now the largest caretaker for the cemetery. These volunteers strive to bring Eastern Cemetery back to its former glory and honor those who are interred there as well as their families.