Many people do not find cemeteries appealing and would not consider casually visiting one, but from a historical perspective, a trip to the cemetery can be a rewarding experience. Cemeteries such as Galesburg’s Hope Cemetery, burial site of many of the city’s early settlers and other prominent citizens, are persisting monuments to a community’s past and offer an opportunity to reflect on the lives of the individuals interned there.
The first time I visited Hope Cemetery I was in the process of writing an essay on human perception of space and time for a class dealing with religious thought. I felt inclined to visit Hope Cemetery for inspiration because I believed — due to previous experiences — that cemeteries were one place where our normal perceptions of those dimensions were altered. Personally, cemeteries have always produced a surreal sense of connection with the past; I have often felt like I was particularly pensive when walking through cemeteries, imagining the lives of those interned there. Without prior knowledge of these individuals my ruminations were overwhelmingly imaginative, but after I began to study the lives of those buried there out of simple curiosity, it became a historical exercise.
Subsequent trips to Hope Cemetery have inspired me to learn even more about those who are buried there — and there is a lot to research. As I have mentioned, Hope Cemetery is the resting place of many of the town and college’s founders, as well as generations of other prominent Galesburg citizens. George Washington Gale is buried there, along with founder Sylvanus Ferris; Chauncy Colton, who was principal in attracting the railroad to Galesburg; Founder Nehemiah West and his daughter, Mary Allen West, early educator and temperance advocate; Knox College’s first president, Hiram Kellogg; just to name a few. For me, visiting Hope Cemetery with the knowledge of the history it represents is a profound experience.
I would suggest that anyone with an interest in Galesburg’s history tour Hope Cemetery, prefacing their visit by brushing up on their local history. The books I mentioned in my second post about engaging primary sources are a good start, and will provide you with the information you need to make the most out of your visit. Again, it may seem odd to some to casually visit your local cemetery, but one only has to look at the popularity of Chicago’s Graceland cemetery or the many Civil War battlefields to understand the utility of such a trip. Finally, on a side thought, primary and secondary teachers might consider Hope Cemetery for a field trip; I think it would be productive for young students to learn the history of their community in such a way.