On a lonesome hill off a gravel country lane, a handful of gravestones jut out of the rural Johnson County landscape.
Simple limestone markers, tilting after 180 years in the ground, stand in crooked rows. More modern monuments of polished stone indicate the passage of time in the burial yard.
This is McGill Cemetery, a small graveyard located near the border of Clark and Needham townships. The earliest grave here was laid in 1835.
McGill is just one of the county’s numerous historic cemeteries, the final resting places of some of the county’s earliest residents. The state has recorded 90 such plots across Johnson County, some founded in the early years of the 1800s.
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An increased effort has been made to preserve and protect these burial places. The campaign is done not only out of respect for the dead but to maintain a strong connection with the tradition and history.
In Indiana, the Department of Natural Resources has taken the lead to help preserve these cemeteries. The division of historic preservation and archaeology co-sponsors a series of workshops with the Indiana Historical Society to teach cemetery preservation.
These places are important because they are a reflection of the past, said Jeannie Reagan-Dinnius, the director of special initiatives for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. For many individuals early in the state’s history, their grave is the only evidence they existed, she said.
Reagan-Dinnius has made categorizing the state’s cemeteries a priority. The division of historic preservation and archaeology has compiled a registry of gravesites stretching back more than 200 years. More than 100,000 have been cataloged and sent in, aided by historic organizations working on the local level.
Locally, teams of volunteers and staff from the Johnson County Museum of History collected data on 100 graveyards across the county. The project started in 1995 and lasted six years as members counted graves, recorded names and mapped the different burial grounds.
The compiled information is now part of the museum’s database and has served as a valuable resource to genealogy enthusiasts.
“Even if the stones break and fade away, those names will always be recorded,” said Linda Talley, genealogy librarian at the museum.
These timeless remnants of county history are places of beauty, tranquility and peace. But in the month of October, the image of the cemetery takes on a spooky context.
In that spirit, here are a grouping of some of the county’s oldest historic cemeteries.
Year founded: 1845Graves: About 15,000Location: U.S. 31 and South Street, Franklin
What makes it special? The only county cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places, Greenlawn Cemetery is a wealth of history packed onto Franklin’s southside. It is the burial place of some of Franklin’s most influential residents, including George King, founder of the city; William Watson Wick, a three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives; and Roger Branigin, the 42nd governor of Indiana. Thousands of examples of Victorian funerary art are on display on the grave markers from the 19th century. Many of the markers depict draped cloth, meaning mourning, and urns to represent the soul or roses, which stand for beauty. More than 300 veterans are buried in the cemetery, ranging from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War.
Beech Grove Cemetery
Year founded: 1858Number of stones: 42Location: Hensley Township, at county roads 325S and 575W
What makes it special? In a wooded enclosure behind Beech Grove Baptist Church, this country cemetery sits on a ridge overlooking a pond and ravine in southwestern Johnson County. Stones are grouped by family around trees within the cemetery grounds, such as the 100-year-old markers of the Spicer and Clemmer families. Henry Byers, a Civil War veteran of the 18th Indiana Infantry, is buried with a modest stone toward the back of the graveyard.
Old Shiloh Cemetery
Year founded: 1827Number of stones: 66Location: Union Township, on County Road 125S east of County Road 575W
What makes it special? A cobblestone monument marks this cemetery settled in the farmland of Union Township. It marks the location of the original Shiloh Presbyterian Church. Buried behind it are some of the church’s founding families, well-known names such as Voris, Young and Shuck. The log church is gone, but the memory of it remains in the small lichen-covered stones and large polished monuments.
Year founded: 1835Graves: 550Location: Hurricane Road, just north of County Road 300N.
What makes it special? Like a timeline of the county’s history, Hurricane Cemetery is a tribute to lives stretching nearly two centuries. Some stones are so old and worn down that the names can no longer be read. But the cemetery is still in use, and new burials are held on occasion.
Year founded: 1835Graves: 43Location: Needham Township, off of County Road 525E north of County Road 350N
What makes it special? This small country graveyard seems like it was pulled from a scary movie. Sandwiched between farm fields in Needham Township, it is difficult to see just driving down the road. The well-maintained plot of grass rises to a hilltop, where the stones spread out underneath the bare branches of a dead tree. The cemetery is the resting place of some of Needham’s earliest residents and longest-standing families.
Second Mount Pleasant Baptist Cemetery
Year founded: 1839Number of stones: 2,800Location: 1540 N. County Road 800E, Franklin
What makes it special? Adjacent to the historic church building, this cemetery spans from the 1830s to the present as you walk through the grounds. The passage of time starts to the north, with weathered old stones and intricate monuments to noted families such as the Coles, the Stricklers and the Webbs. A towering obelisk is dedicated to the Beard family, who helped found and operate the Clark Mill throughout the 1800s. But as you move further south, you pass into the future, all the way to the plots of recent church members.