A permanent place on campus

A history of the Kenyon College Cemetery

T he beginnings of Kenyon's campus cemetery are almost as mysterious as death itself. The need for a cemetery arose when the campus was still in an early stage of development. Henry Caswall, who came to the College as a student in 1828, described the first grave on campus. Bishop Philander Chase pointed it out to him, near the site where Rosse Chapel would be built. The bishop "had caused a railing to be erected 'round the grave, and with his own hands had trained a wild grapevine to overshadow it," Caswall wrote.

Today, we can only guess at the exact location of this grave, and we know little about its occupant except that he was an old man. Perhaps he had helped with the construction or attended Sunday services in Gambier. His burial was a fitting beginning for the cemetery, which would serve gown and town for nearly forty years.

After taking much care with this first grave, Chase did not continue to supervise the cemetery so closely. Records indicate that anyone could choose a location in the general area and dig a grave. Unlike Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, who succeeded him, Chase kept few records. Once, in his annual address to the convention of the diocese, he reported in detail the four burials during the preceding year. Since headstones on the earliest graves are now nearly illegible or gone entirely, this is the best record we have.

In 1835, Harcourt Parish moved its worship services into Rosse Chapel (although only the basement was ready for use). McIlvaine, by then Kenyon's president, turned over much of the responsibility for the cemetery to the vestry of the parish. This was hardly an ideal arrangement for the village cemetery, but with no municipal government the Episcopal parish may have been the only organized body that included people who lived on and off the campus.

The vestry duly appointed a "burying committee" to erect a fence around the graveyard, lay out plots and assess fees. Otherwise, the old laissez-faire policy was continued. As years passed, it became clear that more control was needed: new grave sites were left in a mess and fees weren't paid. In 1841, the vestry drafted regulations that required a person to seek approval from the burying committee before digging a grave, unless it was in an already-existing family plot. If the party responsible failed to clean up the site, the sexton would see to it and charge a dollar for his work.

The fees set in 1841 reflect the sad fact that children's deaths were all too frequent: $1 was charged for a new grave, unless it was for a child under the age of ten, in which case the fee was reduced to fifty cents. A glance at parish records for the years 1835 to 1837 reveals that five adults and twelve children belonging to the parish were buried during that time.

Enforcing the rules continued to be a problem, and starting in 1845 the sexton was required to attend all funerals to see that regulations were followed. When this measure failed, the vestry adopted stricter rules in 1861. In future, the burying committee would designate the location of any new grave, and only the sexton could dig it. Rates were raised for those who were not members of the parish, but the committee was also given the power to reduce the fees on an individual basis. Fees must be paid before ground was broken, and the committee would post a notice that there would be no more interments without prior approval. The committee, for its part, would henceforth keep a record of all interments. This regulation may confirm the suspicion that, for several decades, only the burials of Harcourt Parish members were recorded.

Enforcement problems arose, in part, because of the hands-off policy during the graveyard's early years. But after 1850, when a municipal government was formed in Gambier, the parish vestry was no longer the most appropriate entity to supervise the village cemetery. The diocese still owned that land, however. The arrangement was bound to make some citizens question why they should obey parish authorities, and the committee was vulnerable to charges of favoritism.

The burial ground was enlarged in 1854, but the terrain inhibited any future growth. Some villagers realized that they had better secure a family plot before it was needed, or it would be too late. The practice of reserving plots brought new complexities, however. In 1863, the vestry was advised that Mr. Drope had (at the direction of the burial committee) located his father's grave in the French family's plot. The vestry had to ask Mr. Drope to disinter and rebury his father.

The parish tried to take some pressure off the cemetery in 1864 by locating a new graveyard near Quarry Chapel, but it could find no land at a reasonable price. Finally, the College trustees took the matter in hand. In 1866, they selected a parcel of land to sell for the purpose of establishing a new village burial ground. Oak Grove Cemetery, on the northeast edge of the village, would be managed by a cemetery association. Harcourt Parish was relieved of its burden, as the trustees took over responsibility for the old cemetery.

The trustees passed a resolution that only "officers of the institution, their families and students" could be buried in what was now to be a true College cemetery. In practice, however, the rule was not always observed. Kwaku Lebiete, also known as Samuel deWette--a boy from the Gold Coast of Africa who came to America with a missionary family--was not a Kenyon student but was laid to rest in the College cemetery when he died in 1865, so far from his native land.

One of the most prominent features in the graveyard marks another exception to the rules. John N. Lewis, an engineer who resided in Mount Vernon, was awarded an honorary degree by Kenyon in 1876. The Lewis family was later allowed to purchase a plot, and they built the stone crypt, the only structure of its type in the graveyard. In 1899, the trustees interpreted the rules narrowly when a student, William Rambo, sought permission to bury his recently deceased father in the cemetery. Rev. Rambo had been a missionary who had lived for some years in Gambier, but the trustees decided, with regret, that they could not make a plot available.

Over time, as it became possible to transport back to their homes the bodies of students who died, fewer and fewer of them were buried on campus. Conversely, more and more alumni expressed a wish to be returned to the College for burial. In 1969, the hundred-year-old policy, partly outmoded and sometimes ignored, was revised. President William G. Caples '30 announced that "persons who have worked for or served Kenyon College or the Episcopal Church, or who are associated with the College, and their immediate families" would be allowed to have plots, for a flat fee of $100 for each grave.

Today the price is higher: $500 for a plot, plus a $200 burial fee. Kenyon faculty members and officers of the College, who have had access to the cemetery throughout its history, are now the only ones automatically granted a site upon request. Kenyon's president may, however, make a plot available "to other persons whose lives and deeds have demonstrated an affectionate dedication to the College." If a person is deemed eligible for a plot, the right is extended to members of his or her family.

Like most colleges, Kenyon has several campus ghost stories, but none of these features a shade wandering in, or out of, the College cemetery. But that is not to say that there has never been any strange activity there. In 1949, the Kenyon Collegian reported that during Prohibition the Lewis crypt had been appropriated to hide a distillery. Noises issuing from the crypt might well have scared more than one poor soul taking an evening stroll past the graveyard. But that would have been spirit activity of an entirely different sort.

Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.

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