As I stated in my previous blog post regarding Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, we originally planned to visit the Lexington Cemetery to see the cherry blossoms that were in bloom. Once I looked further, I then learned of the historical significance of this beautiful location.
Traveling from Fort Harrod in 1775, a group of frontier explorers, led by William McConnell, came across a natural spring and chose to create camp. Shortly thereafter, the group received word from Fort Boonesborough that the Revolutionary War had begun in the town of Lexington, Massachusetts. In honor of that event, the group decided to name their newly found site, Lexington.
Today, a bronze marker commemorating the first viewing of Lexington by this group of explorers stands at the entrance of the Lexington Cemetery.
Early Graveyards & Family Burials
In the early days of not only Kentucky, but all of our country, it was typical for deceased individuals to be buried in one of three places; on family land, in church graveyards, or in what would later be known as pioneer graveyards.
As we know now, these type of original burial sites would come to present problems.
Family burial sites became lost to time when families sold their land. Too many times, original family plots were marked with wooden crosses or simple field stones. Wooden crosses would deteriorate over time, and simple field stones would be moved unknowingly by new land owners. During my own family genealogical research, I found this to be true. My second great-grandfather is said to be buried under a tree on a ridge in Barren County. That location is now in a cow pasture in someone’s backyard. According to records, several other family members are buried in that same area, but not one of their spots are marked. My 5th great-grandfather was a Revolutionary War soldier who likely was buried on family land in Green County. Today, not a single record shows a final burial location and I have yet to find a cemetery or graveyard that has a record of him being buried there. His final resting place is simply lost forever.
Church graveyards held their own problems. While most are still marked today, these graveyards were often so small that they ran out of space or only their congregation were allowed to be buried there.
Pioneer cemeteries were just that, for the pioneers. (The title was given to cemeteries that held twelve or fewer burials in the preceding 50 years.) These were not meant to be long term solutions for burying the dead. In addition, in a time when water treatment was not a thing, many were concerned that these types of burials would contaminate wells and springs.
By the 1800s, Lexington had grown to be one of the largest and wealthiest towns west of the Allegheny Mountains. The townspeople were looking for a more suitable place for burying the dead, so a group of Lexington residents requested that the Kentucky General Assembly approve an act that would allow them to create a rural or garden cemetery for all residents. The act required that the cemetery created would provide constant care for the grounds and the graves of those buried there.
The Kentucky General Assembly approved the act on February 5, 1848, creating the Lexington Cemetery Company.
It was not until 1849 that a forty acre tract of land was purchased to get the cemetery started. This land was on the outskirts of town on Leestown Pike. The property was a heavily wooded area that had been used for hunting. The land did however, contain a small family graveyard. Those graves are now contained in Section A of the the Lexington Cemetery.
A Garden and a Cemetery
Charles S. Bell was hired in 1849, as the first general manager of the cemetery. He had horticulturalist training from his homeland of Scotland and wanted to bring that new “rural” concept to the cemetery. Bell created a park-like setting through the landscaping, roads, sections, and lots. The horticulture of the cemetery was so important to Bell that he had a cemetery greenhouse erected in 1854.
The Burial of Henry Clay
John Lutz, one of the founders of the cemetery, had received four burial lots as appreciation for his work with Bell on laying out the cemetery grounds. In 1851, Lutz wrote a letter to Henry Clay offering him the four burial lots. Clay graciously accepted the lots in a letter sent from Ashland.
On June 29, 1852, Henry Clay passed away at the age of 74. On the day of his burial, more than 30,000 people came from near and far to show their respects to the Great Compromiser. Clay was placed in a receiving vault the day of his burial, but a few days later he was interred into the lot provided by John Lutz.
A Monument of Epic Proportions
John Haly of Frankfort was chosen to build the monument, furnish all materials, and the hoisting apparatus at a cost of $43,920. The monument was completed in 1861, just as the Civil War began. Clay would not be placed into the vault of the monument until 1864.
The monument received a major renovation in the 1970s after decades of deterioration. The Lexington Cemetery rededicated the monument in 1976. Today, the Lexington Cemetery has ownership of the monument and continues to care for its preservation.
Today, the cemetery encompasses 170 acres of land and is nationally recognized for its arboretum. With 200 different species of trees within the cemetery walls, you are sure to find something beautiful around every corner. A few of the flowering trees include dogwoods, crab apples, ornamental magnolias, and pink weeping cherries. Additional beauty can be found throughout with gardens of annuals and perennials, weeping willow trees, three lakes, and peaceful fountains. Also, the cemetery is well know for its birds. With 200 species of trees, there are bound to be birds! The Audubon Society has identified 179 species of birds on the cemetery grounds. While at the end of the day, it is the final resting place for many, the Lexington Cemetery is nothing short of a beautiful well-maintained park, one that is worthy of recognition.
The Lexington Cemetery is also committed to maintaining the park-like setting for future generations with their perpetual care endowment fund. Sixty percent of the purchase price of a lot is placed into an endowment fund that is set aside for “perpetual care [that] includes grass mowing, removal of fallen trees, general landscaping and leaf removal, as well as a perpetual record system of lot owners and burials.” (https://lexcem.org/endowment-funds/)
The day we visited the Lexington Cemetery, the rain had started to move in and the cherry blossoms had lost most of their blooms. We were determined to make the best of it, and we still managed to find some very beautiful spots for my daughter’s annual photo shoot.
You see, ever since she was born, as all parents do, we have had annual pictures made in a portrait studio. It was just within the last three years that I realized I could take photos nearly as good for much cheaper. So, once my daughter heard about the cherry blossoms, she was on board to visit and use it as her photo shoot for the year.
I had also learned of Henry Clay’s monument so the visit would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
After driving through the cemetery, finding the most beautiful spots possible, jumping in and out of the car and the rain, taking a blue-zillion photos of my daughter, we headed for Henry Clay’s monument.
Without a map to guide us, we found his final resting place. It’s not hard to find, just look up toward the sky and you’ll see his statue sticking out above the trees. The height of his monument is very impressive and can be seen from just about anywhere in the cemetery. You cannot truly know or understand the magnitude of this monument until you drive up to it. We parked, and my mom and I stepped out of the car. In a sprinkle of rain, we walked around the base of his monument. The base alone, made of native limestone, has to be the height of a one-story building, if not taller. On top of the base is a 120 foot-tall Corinthian column topped with a statue of Clay. The two marble sarcophagi of he and his wife can be seen through gates on one side of the monument. These are just as impressive.
Clay’s burial monument truly is worth a visit.
Other Notable Burials
- Remains of both Confederate and Union Soldiers (making this one of eight national cemeteries in Kentucky)
- Remains of Spanish-American War veterans
- John C. Breckinridge, Vice-President of the United States under James Buchanan
- James Lane Allen, author of books such as Flute and Violin and The Blue Grass Region of Kentucky
- General John Hunt Morgan, daring raider of the Confederacy
- Coach Adolph Rupp, University of Kentucky basketball team for 42 years
Additional notable people can be found using the link here.
The Lexington Cemetery is a definite beauty and if you ever have the chance to visit (especially in the spring), I highly recommend that you do so. The grounds are open daily from 8am-5pm so plan accordingly. And while you are visiting Lexington, you might as well plan for a tour of Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Between the two, I think you will get a good idea of just how loved he was by his fellow Kentuckians and why he is claimed to be “Kentucky’s favorite son.”
As we pulled out of the cemetery, we promised to be back next spring, hopefully a little earlier to catch the cherry blossoms at full bloom.
Until our next adventure, Happy Travels!