Old City Cemetery Museums and Arboretum Protects History, Horticulture, and Education

by | May 2024

WHEN LOOKING for a place of peace, beauty, history, and learning, few think of a cemetery – but that is just what the Old City Cemetery Museums and Arboretum is. Home to a 27-acre public garden, multiple small museums, and a wedding venue, the cemetery is one of Lynchburg’s most popular places to visit. As a “grave garden,” Director Jay Brooks said the cemetery sees visitors who are cemetery enthusiasts, history enthusiasts, and horticulture enthusiasts, as well as many who are simply enjoying the atmosphere. 

“We have a little bit for everyone, from history to horticulture,” Brooks said. “It’s a very peaceful place to come reflect, or spend time, or just get healthy and walk around.” 

While Brooks has only been a director since June 2023, he has been a long-time visitor to Old City Cemetery. He grew up visiting regularly with his father, as both were interested in the famous people of Lynchburg. As they learned more, that interest grew. 

“When we started doing research and finding out more information, it just continued with our interest in the cemetery,” Brooks said. “Of course, visiting the candlelight tours that we had every year, it just blew our minds that there was so much here and so much history that we hadn’t seen before and that a lot of people in Lynchburg don’t see very often.” 

Part of that history is housed in five small museums, which will become open to the public this spring. The museums were closed in the past because there were not enough staff or volunteers to monitor the collection, but visitors could look through windows. Now, Brooks said, they are able to take proper care of everything. 

“People can walk through and look at everything, and we encourage everyone to come out and just learn as much as they can,” Brooks enthused. “We have a historian on site and several other people who can help out with anything that anyone has questions with.” 

Other learning opportunities include guided and self-guided tours, covering topics like Civil War history, Lynchburg history, African American history, medicine in the Victorian era, and Victorian mourning and burial customs, among others. While those tours are not free for everyone, Brooks has worked to raise funds to make them free for those in school — whether preschool or college.

“When I started, I wanted to make education free to those wanting to come learn,” Brooks said. “We found out that, through sponsorships and donations of specific asks, that people were willing to help donate and give us the opportunity to allow people to come in for that free educational tour.”

For those interested in horticulture, Old City Cemetery offers classes on beekeeping, tree tapping, composting, and many other areas. The cemetery’s goats — Braxton, Sampson, and Morris — are popular, as is the heirloom rose collection.

Much of the groundskeeping is done through the work of many volunteers, and there are volunteer opportunities for those who love history and research.

“Being open since 1806, we have a lot of paperwork,” Brooks said. “We go through a lot of our items and research, and there’s opportunities to help with candlelight tours and other tours that we have going on.”

Anyone is welcome to volunteer, even if the work has yet to be considered.

“We have volunteers here almost every day doing things all over the cemetery,” Brooks said. “We’re always open to people coming in, and stopping in, and seeing what they can take care of.”

Its work alongside the Southern Memorial Association has built the Old City Cemetery Museums and Arboretum into something Lynchburg treasures, and all are welcome to experience it.

“It’s just a beautiful place to be able to take a long walk, or catch your breath, or reflect, or come sit on one of our benches,” Brooks said. “We have a lot of new events coming up, so don’t miss it and don’t miss the opportunity.” GN

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