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Digging Up History at Macomb's Oakwood Cemetery

Rich Egger

Historian and author John Hallwas was looking for a different take on Macomb's history. He found it by going through its grandest old graveyard, which is Oakwood Cemetery.

The result is the book Here to Stay: Reflections on the Dead in a Small Town Cemetery. It will be released in the coming days.

“Cemeteries are like huge puzzles. The more time you spend strolling through them, noticing things ... there are many mysteries in the cemetery,” Hallwas said. “The cemetery is a big vast canvas of mysteries.”

He said those buried in Oakwood include Underground Railroad conductors William and Sarah Allison, Civil War veterans, activist Josie Westfall, and Dr Ruth Tunnicliff, who Hallwas said was the key figure to finding a cure for measles.

Burials still take place at Oakwood. Hallwas said it is the final resting place for people from throughout the history of Macomb, and his book focuses not just on the distant past but also tells stories of those buried in Oakwood during the present time.

He said there are about 14,000 people buried in the cemetery.

Hallwas said Oakwood was laid out on a 10-acre tract by William Randolph in the mid-1850s. He said that was an era when Americans were changing their thinking about cemeteries.

Previous generations basically had a philosophy of “...bury them in the ground and more or less leave them to God,” said Hallwas.

That changed with what was called the Rural Cemetery Movement, which began outside of Boston.

“What they're doing is creating cemeteries as parks,” Hallwas said. “Park-like places where people find them to be inviting spots to go and sort of commune with the dead through memory.”

He said that is clearly evident at Oakwood, which is laid out on a hillside and has what Hallwas called “lovely contours.” He said there was once a lake on the south edge of the cemetery but it was drained long ago. A mobile home park is now on that site.

Hallwas will lead tours of Oakwood Cemetery during Memorial Day weekend. The tours begin at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm on Saturday, May 26 and 1:30 pm on Sunday, May 27.

Tickets are $10. They can be purchased at the tour times. The money raised will support the effort to build a Women's Social Service Memorial in Chandler Park.


Rich is TSPR's News Director.