Caves, Hills, Trees and Tombs

With everything in bloom this spring – and my fortunate lack of allergy symptoms (knock on dogwood) – my limited free time on a beautiful day can’t be wasted. There are so many gorgeous places in this city to visit. Thinking back to a time when I lived in the Highlands, I realized last week that it had been years since I’d paid a visit to Cave Hill Cemetery. It’s a resting place for people I’ve lost –but also a place full of life.

Growing up in Clifton, I regularly made my way over to the Highlands to visit friends.  I only knew Cave Hill as that walled-off obstacle that I wasn’t allowed to enter when unsupervised, and that I had to walk around to get from one neighborhood to the next. It wasn’t until my late teens that I got to enter the majestic place, which has been in our city since 1848.

Monument2Named for its unique landscape of rounded hills with caves beneath, Cave Hill Cemetery boasts 296 acres of rolling hills, beautiful gardening, striking mausoleums, and ancient trees. Running along a great portion of Grinstead Drive and Lexington Road, it has two entrances: one on Grinstead and the much more noticeable main entrance with a tall clock tower, where Broadway ends at Baxter Avenue.

Visiting again last week, it occurred to me that there are two things I’d never done. First, I’d never made use of the cemetery’s great photographic potential, as many of my fellow photo students had many years ago. Secondly, I’d also never learned a detailed history of the place.

Gwen Mooney, Cave Hill’s new president and CEO, and J. Michael Higgs, the foundational coordinator who’s worked for the cemetery 15 years now, took me on a tour of the grounds, providing an endless wealth of information. I learned quite a bit of history regarding the property’s founders, its growth, and its connection to our culture.

You can find the graves of so many famous figures, from George Rogers Clark to Colonel Harland Sanders, and learn about eccentrically designed tombs honoring old superstitions and practices.

Satterwhite2“The rule of thumb is, if you were buried in a circle in the cemetery, you were wealthy,” said Higgs. In one of these areas, a beloved parakeet is buried next to his owner.

Jennie Carter Benedictine, inventor of one of my favorite sandwich spreads (try it with bacon) was buried in this large graveyard, as is the co-writer of “Happy Birthday to You,” Kindergarten teacher Patty Hill, who wrote the song with her sister, Mildred. It is the most popular – and copy-protected – song in the English language.

In addition to the large portions of space held by Louisville’s most famous families, there are tremendous sections dedicated to Union and Confederate soldiers. A haunting (yet unsurprising) fact is how many of the soldiers given graves were never identified.

At one amusing stop, Higgs pointed out the well-preserved Louisville Transfer Company Waiting Station.  “You could get on a carriage for five cents,” he said of the place, which used to take visitors in and out of the cemetery on a horse and buggy.

BellNear the very old main office building is a well-preserved bell, cast with beautiful decorations. It was originally used for communication with people across the vast property.

The largest and perhaps most famous site at Cave Hill is the Satterwhite’s Monument, which accounts for half an acre. It rests at the bottom of one of the sinkholes. With Corinthian columns and a statue at its center, it’s unquestionably photogenic.

At this time of year, the surrounding plants are a  great sight. “Everything (is) at its full maturity,” said Higgs, who pointed out the gardening around the sinkholes and bodies of water. “We’ve taken advantage of all of our basins here. We always plant decorative things around them.”

grave2A big aspect of the tour is the grand variety of botanical beauty. The Ginko is the oldest species of tree known to man, and there’s one in Cave Hill. Like the other notable trees on the grounds,  such as the Coffeetree and Contorted Beech Tree, the Ginko is full of character, but this one is gigantic.

As I spent the rest of my time taking photos, I relished the serenity of this place, appreciating every minute I had left with a busy day ahead. If you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself. VT

Cave Hill Cemetery is open every day from 8 a.m.-4:45 p.m. For rules and tour information, go to