Elmwood Cemetery was established by the City of Norfolk on 50 acres on the city’s northern most limits in 1853.
that time burial space in the churchyard at St.
Paul’s Church as well as space in the city’s
Cedar Grove Cemetery had been depleted. The
timing was providential as a ferocious case of
Yellow Fever would spread through the city in
just two years; on its heels would fall the War
Between the States. The space would certainly be
With such death tolls and amid such public
display of mourning, death took on a romantic
veil. The church graveyards came to be referred
to as “cemeteries, “ from the Greek for “sleeping
place.” Thus, loved ones were only sleeping;
many epitaphs read “asleep in Jesus.”
Similarly, the “coffin” was replaced with
the “casket,” again Greek in origin meaning
“jewel box,” or a place for the safe keeping
of precious items. The precious items were of
course, the loved ones.
Up and down the eastern seaboard cities were designing cemeteries with a new philosophy in mind – they were to be peaceful, restful places of solitude and tranquility. Family members would visit the cemeteries often; they would lovingly tend to the physical space by planting and pruning and decorating the space. Leisure-like activities such as picnics and gambols were afforded in these beautiful places. Often the name of the cemetery was a reference to the abundance of plantings, such as cedar trees, elm trees, holly trees, and the like. Where possible, cities laid out their cemeteries along cliffs and bodies of water or incorporated the rise and fall of the land into the cemetery design. Often the designs were commissioned of landscape architects. These areas became the forerunners of public parks.
In the effort to memorialize as well as to demarcate family lots, large monumental markers were often placed upon the family lots. Lots were then enclosed with iron fencing or granite coping. The family’s name or crest could be incorporated into the design.
As you wander through Elmwood Cemetery today you will find it to be an outdoor museum of funerary art and sculpture. The statues and art include the iconography of Victorian mourning: ivy represents fidelity, the lily represents resurrection, and the anchor represents hope. Look for the cross and the crown, for guardian angels and for recording angels. Deftly sculpted mourning figures cling to life sized crosses at the foot of and atop many monuments. Children’s graves are often marked by lambs and by angels and a few, by seashells. Several memorials to the young are statues carved to resemble children, even perhaps the actual child.
Varied in size and design, mausoleums dot the landscape in Elmwood Cemetery. Two of the most interesting are revival designs. The Core mausoleum built in 1915 appears to be a Greek temple. The LeKies mausoleum built in 1892 is a miniature Gothic church.
Burials are still conducted in Elmwood today but there are no lots available for sale.
Tours and programs at the cemetery are offered throughout the year by the Hunter House Victorian Museum as well as by the Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries. The Hunter Family is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. As the last surviving family member, Eloise Hunter requested in her will that the Hunter Foundation place flowers upon the family graves at five times during the year: Easter, Memorial Day, All Saint’s Day, Ascension Day and Christmas. The museum recreates the once popular Decoration Day each year around the Memorial Day holiday. Walking tours are offered and bouquets of fresh flowers and greens are placed upon lots that have no decorations. Guests are encouraged to bring along a picnic lunch, as was the custom of the time.
The Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries is working to have the cemetery placed upon the National Register of Historic Places; it has been deemed eligible for inclusion by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Elmwood Cemetery is located on East Princess Anne Road in downtown Norfolk between Church Street and Monticello Avenue. The cemetery is open daily from
7 AM – 5PM. An office is situated just inside of the gates and has family burial and genealogical information available. You are welcome to venture in and wander through. The original grassy aisles can still be maneuvered by car, however, please drive with caution. Your best vantage is on foot. Many stones are lovely, but are also deteriorating, please do not sit or lean upon them. Although tempting, stone rubbing can also deteriorate the fragile monuments. These monuments are not only works of art, but are also historical records providing family information for genealogists and local history for historians. You will indeed be in and on an historical site.
If you are interested in the continued preservation of this site, please consider becoming a member of the Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries. Please call the Hunter House Victorian Museum at 757-623-9814 for more information, or
download a PDF
version of the membership form.