Oakwood Cemetery: Not so much “live oaks and dead folks” as “live oaks and odd folks.”
The tour guide held an oil lantern as she opened the metallic hatch speckled with rust. The hatched opened with a “groan”. A noxious smell similar to the aroma of a middle school boy’s locker room—a mixture of body odor and stagnate water escaped. The class started to enter. “Ah,” a girl cried. A tall blonde refused to move, citing a fear of bugs. The girl pointed to five or six large crickets hanging upside-down at the side-entrance of mortuary chapel. The class entered the room—even the blonde with the fear of bugs entered the crypt.
This literal purgatory or holding place for the unfortunate souls who died in the midst of winter was the class’ first stop on the “Live Oaks & Dead Folks” tour of Oakwood Cemetery. The 154-year-old cemetery, originally designed as a rural park, seemed out of place in 2013. The quiet cemetery sat between a student apartment complex that awoke every night with the sounds of loud music from hedonistic parties and US-Highway 81 that eradiated the drones of speeding cars and thundering 18-wheelers.
Sue Greenhagen, the tour guide was an elderly woman with a strong build. She wore weathered white and blue running shoes, brown professorial-slacks, and a green Oakwood Cemetery T-Shirt. A black and orange Syracuse University baseball cap tamed her matted white hair and coke-bottle glasses could be used by a Santa Clause impersonator framed her face. On her left hip hung a black ‘fanny-pack’ and on her right hip sat a Sony CLR camera. If there was a uniform for a stereotypical cemetery tour guide this would have been it.
The class followed Greenhagen with caution into the crypt. A little sunlight followed the students through the doorway and Greenhagen’s lantern, which appeared to have been made during the Truman administration, offered a bit of illumination.
As the class ventured further into the room, a wall full of large cubbies similar to the back of a kindergarten class emerged. These giant cubbies were about 7 feet long, 2.5 feet wide, 2.5 high and were numbered from 1 to 109. Greenhagen informed the class this is where they used to put the bodies in winter because the frozen ground prohibited burial. The crypt seemed to have been undisturbed for decades, except for the blue ‘tag’ on a brick and decaying plaster wall. ‘Sigar Rossi” this could have been tagger language, maybe the tagger’s name—but sounded more like a winery in Alsace-Lorraine.
For the next hour the class followed Greenhagen around the cemetery, stopping at the final resting places of notable Syracuse residents such as the abolitionist and U.S. Congressmen Amos Phelps Granger and the “Resurrectionist” (grave robber) Hervey Kendall. Some of the grave stones towered 30 feet in the air, decorated with carvings of angels—giant seemingly immortal monuments to the dead. Others were small plaques in the ground that one could barely notice standing three-feet away.
Oakwood is a mixture of art, history, theology and nature. It is easy to reflect on your life—on your mortality, while navigating the endless 159-acres of marble, sandstone, crosses, obelisks and quasi-pyramids. One student deep in nihilistic thought inspired by the inevitable mortality surrounding him and question of whether or not these immortal monuments effected how people remember the deceased stepped on what appeared to be a dead snake. He found the one of the few things in the cemetery that was not dead and did not appreciate being disturbed in its current resting place. The snake solved his moralistic dilemma. Apparently, life has consequences.