Tombstones stand — and fall — in a row underneath trees at Lawrence’s Oak Hill cemetery. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)
Scouting through the winding paths of Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, I found a small patch of green dotted with children’s graves. It’s on a high point of the rolling tract, which is covered with trees and a dizzying array of markers from the 1860s to the present.
Among the stones was a pile of fresh earth, marking the burial of a 2-year-old.
I did not set out to find this particular location. I had meant to compare and contrast two graveyards in time for Halloween. But as I blinked back tears, I understood how different the supernatural cemeteries of Victorian novels, slasher films and Spirit Halloween stores were from this simple, pain-laden place.
One was entertainment. The other was grief.
Road trip to Stull
The road that led to those moments in Lawrence first brought me to Stull, the legendary unincorporated area in Douglas County.
I drove out with our family’s new puppy, hoping to sneak in a walk along with a glimpse of the fabled Gateway to Hell. Having never visited during my years at the University of Kansas, I didn’t know what to expect.
Turns out I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last, to be disappointed by Stull Cemetery.
The site looks like what it is — a small piece of land punctuated by graves and the foundation of a now-absent church. Chain-link fence surrounds the property, with vaguely desperate No Trespassing signs posted at the gate. The 5-month-old puppy managed to enter underneath that fence for a few moments. He now has a better claim to visiting than I do.
The whole reputation of Stull can be blamed on KU students.
“In November 1974, KU’s college newspaper, the University Daily Kansan, reported that Stull was believed to be a center of supernatural activity,” writes Sarah Smarsh in “It Happened in Kansas.” “But the supposed activity wasn’t your run-of-the-mill ghost lady in a white dress or predictable spirit of a Civil War soldier. Mere child’s play. No, Stull was the stomping ground of the devil himself.”
A few objectively cool things arose from this manufactured creepiness. The band Urge Overkill used the name and photo for a record. The TV show “Supernatural” set scenes there. And Ariana Grande claimed to have had a demonic encounter nearby.
Regardless, Stull’s few residents aren’t amused. They weren’t amused when the whole affair began, they weren’t at various points documented by years’ worth of news articles, and they no doubt aren’t amused now.
Who can blame them? Who wants to even consider that your loved ones are buried near a mouth of hell?
Stull’s reputation — and the spooky downtown Lawrence attraction that nicked its name — has everything to do with youth. College kids don’t think they’re going to die, and they know precious few who have. A cemetery, full of ancient mysteries and uncomfortable questions, can be parodied as some ghastly nightmare, a haunting phantom to be confronted while drunk and armed with beer bottles.
For this audience, Stull is entertainment. But not for the folks who see that cemetery as a field of sadness and memory.
Following Oak Hill’s paths
Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery sprawls over 60 acres and offers far more to ponder than Stull, at least on the sunny afternoons I visited. Follow roads deep into the cemetery, and you will find clusters of picturesque markers, in various stages of stately decay.
The cemetery’s story officially began in 1865, with the city purchasing land for a graveyard closer to town to honor the victims of Quantrill’s Raid. According to its website, “Instead of a simple, open cemetery, Lawrence’s city commissioners selected a rural cemetery design, with rolling hills, trees, and curving carriage paths which was the popular trend at the time. The new cemetery created a park-like space for the public.”
More than 150 years later, Oak Hill retains that flavor. You could have a family picnic there, or spend a quiet afternoon searching for notable names, such as Langston Hughes’ parents or the founder of Haskell University. The city website includes lesson plans to help students do just that.
Oak Hill “contains more notable men than any other of God’s acres in this state,” wrote the state’s famed newspaper editor William Allen White in 1942. He called it the Kansas Arlington.
I’ve always found this type of cemetery deeply calming. We all end up the same, the tombstones tell us. Yes, some of us may enjoy grander memorials than others, but none of us are around to enjoy them. While wandering amid the graves, sometimes it’s the smallest and oldest that catch your interest, that make you wonder about stories of the past, of lives gone by.
That calmness, though, depends on time and distance. It may not be as tacky or bloodthirsty as college students creating the legend of Stull from whole cloth, but it’s just as abstracted.
Into a precious place
Which brings me back to where I began.
I was looking for a high point in Oak Hill, as well as older, historic markers. I especially wanted to see the stone commemorating the victims of Quantrill’s Raid.
The winding path led me there. I started to take photos, first of the prominent stones around me, and then the broader landscape. I walked higher and higher, taking in the view. It was a brisk fall afternoon, with a soft breeze and white clouds wisping through the gentle blue sky.
Glancing down, I saw markers amid the green grass. I paused to read the first one. I walked a few strips to read the next, then the next. I had stumbled into a precious place, a spot where families buried those who never made it to their teen years, or early adulthood, or middle age. These graves didn’t commemorate lives lived; they listed lives scarcely begun.
No horror lurked here, bloodcurdling or otherwise. Nor did I feel abstracted peace. Limitless sorrow permeated, bound up with unyielding love. Some cemeteries, I saw then, could never be transformed into haunted houses or mild parkland.
I shed my tears, looked around once more and headed home.
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