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Ithaca City Cemetery tours bring local history to life

By Faith Maciolek and Kelli Kyle

Sitting in the Ithaca City Cemetery is a monument, featuring two columns deliberately broken at the top- a Victorian symbol of a life cut short. The grave belongs to the Heggie sisters, Charlotte and Mary, poisoned with arsenic by their mentally unstable mother Elizabeth in the 19th Century. The monument stands today as a memorial to the girls and their tragic story.

This is one of the tales featured on the tour of the Ithaca City Cemetery. During October and November, residents can tour cemeteries all over Tompkins County. These tours are meant to provide background on the cemeteries’ history and purpose, while simultaneously attracting volunteers to help maintain the spaces.

The Volunteers

Christine O’Malley, preservation services coordinator for Historic Ithaca, said the cemetery has many people passing through who would like to see it in better shape. Part of this responsibility falls on The Friends of Ithaca Cemetery, a volunteer group that helps to maintain the grounds. O’Malley said she hopes the tours will help bring more attention to the upkeep of the cemetery.

“Maintaining a city cemetery is really difficult and very expensive- and not just for Ithaca, for a lot of communities all over the place,” O’Malley said. “So the volunteers who help clean up are a really big asset. Otherwise there aren’t a lot of resources to do stuff like that.”

Volunteers can assist with picking up fallen headstones, cleaning the stones with a special compound to remove plant growth and continuing conservation work to keep the markers in good shape.

“We think it’s important to the families… even if they’re long gone from Ithaca. You’re being respectful and helping to maintain their cemetery,” O’Malley said.

Rod Howe, Executive Director of The History Center in Tompkins County, echoed this sentiment, stating there are over 200 cemeteries in the county. Many of these locations rely on family members for maintenance, which Howe said raises some concerns for the future of those sites.

“What’s going to happen when those family members reach a certain age and there are no younger family members to take over?” Howe said. “Some cemetery associations don’t have the volunteer base the City Cemetery has. So we’re hoping to raise awareness.”

In Memoriam: Cemeteries at the History Center

This month, cemeteries are also the focus at The History Center in Tompkins County. The organization is hosting an exhibit through February called “In Memoriam: Cemeteries of Tompkins County.” Archivist for the center, Donna Eschenbrenner, created the exhibit to focus on three specific areas: the history and genealogy in cemeteries, the art, architecture and landscape, and the “business” of cemeteries- the practical matters of the spaces. There is a cemetery for each of the eight towns in the county, including city of Ithaca.

Howe said the tours can get people thinking about cemeteries with a new perspective.

“It’s more of a reverence. It’s more about remembering people,” Howe said. “And it’s about really getting in and walking around cemeteries and exploring them.”

To get more familiar with the spaces, visitors to the center also have the opportunity to join in a cemetery scavenger hunt. There are four hunts total, with two for adults and two for children. Each group has the option to complete a scavenger hunt within the exhibit and another scavenger hunt at the cemeteries themselves. The children’s cemetery scavenger hunt can be completed in one cemetery, while the adult hunt takes them to all eight locations in the exhibit.

One of the cemeteries on the scavenger hunt is the Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca. Howe said by offering the activity, people will come to the space for the clue, but stay for the beauty.

“One of the scavenger hunt clues takes you to Lakeview to find Carl Sagan’s headstone,” Howe said. “We’re hoping when you’re there, you look around and you say ‘Oh my god, what a beautiful place this is.’ I think we’re building on that.”

“See you at the cemetery!”

In many cities — including Ithaca — cemeteries were originally used as parks and designated green spaces, but over the years have received a darker image. Eschenbrenner said the exhibit at the History Center purposely avoided “spooky Halloween stuff,” despite the exhibit and tours beginning in October.

The Ithaca City Cemetery is also sponsoring the Second Annual “Cemetery Sprint” on October 31 that allows residents to come dressed up in costume and walk or jog one mile through the site. While it may sound strange, O’Malley said activities like these are all part of promoting cemeteries as community spaces.

“Cemeteries in other communities do things like have a movie night,” O’Malley said. “Some of them allow their cemeteries to be used as sort of like staging areas for performances and plays, that sort of stuff.”

The goal is to erase the misconception of cemeteries as morbid or merely the setting of horror movies, and instead show visitors the beauty and importance of these spaces.

“[I hope people]…stop associating cemeteries with spooky October afternoons and start thinking about beautiful summer mornings,” said Eschenbrenner. “You know, these quiet, serene, historically resonant places, when the sun is up and the place is quiet and the birds are singing and the wildlife is there and the trees are green.”

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