April 28, 2017 11:11 am

If you walk down Baxter Avenue in the bustling Highlands neighborhood in Louisville, you’ll pass the famed Cave Hill Cemetery, where the likes of Muhammad Ali, Colonel Harland Sanders, and various military heroes are buried. Right next to Cave Hill is another, smaller cemetery that many people mistake as being part of Cave Hill due to its proximity. In fact, this is Eastern Cemetery, and it has been abandoned since the 1980s.

Eastern Cemetery has been around since the 1840s, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in Louisville. It was also the site of the first crematoriums in the city in the 1930s.

The 28-acre cemetery was one of the first to bury people of different races on the same property. People from a wide variety of backgrounds are all interred at Eastern, including slaves, ministers, Union and Confederate soldiers, and even people who were members of the Free Masons and Odd Fellows. Veterans from more recent wars, such as the Vietnam War, are also buried at Eastern.

However, Eastern Cemetery has a dark past of grave mistreatment and controversy. There are records that show bodies being buried in graves that were already occupied as early as 1858. According to research done by University of Louisville anthropologist Philip J. DiBlasi, old daily logs from Eastern show that full family lots were bought by the cemetery and then sold again to be reused.

Four grave maps of Eastern Cemetery exist from 1880, 1907, 1962, and 1984. They are all different from each other, indicating that multiple burials took place in the same section.

Eastern Cemetery made national news when the New York Times published an article in 1989 about the purposeful mistreatment of human remains that had been going on at the cemetery since the 1800s. Not only were graves reused, but headstones or bodies were moved without informing the families of the deceased, so some of the headstones do not properly identify the body that is buried in that spot.

According to that New York Times article, it was found that the remains of about 70 infants were buried only 10 to 18 inches deep, oftentimes on top of someone else’s remains. The cemetery had room for about 18,000 bodies, but it was estimated that 51,000 bodies were actually buried there.

Over the years, the condition of Eastern Cemetery has deteriorated. Weather has caused headstones to be damaged, and grass and brush has grown so high that it has entirely consumed some graves.

Vandals have also caused extreme damage. Urban legends and ghost stories about the cemetery attract trespassers, and many headstones have been broken, knocked over, or written on.

However, a nonprofit organization comprised entirely of volunteers called the Friends of Eastern Cemetery has made a huge effort to restore the cemetery to acceptable conditions. Since the cemetery has no official caretaker, this group has taken on the big job of cleaning up two decades of mistreatment and neglect. They clear out trash, mow the grass, and even repair broken headstones.

A walk around Eastern Cemetery is like walking through a history of Louisville. You’ll see graves of people from all walks of life who were laid to rest up to 150 years ago, if you are able to read their headstones, that is. It’s obvious to see the conditions at Eastern are not good, but with the help of volunteers, it’s slowly improving.

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This post was written by Nadia Vella