Walk around campus and this is what you find: Residence halls full of teens and 20-somethings. Faculty who are teaching and conducting research. Classrooms and cafeterias. Laboratories and libraries. Serious studying and lighthearted laughter. Everything you’d expect.
But then—what’s this? A peaceful green area, shaded by tall trees, with a black wrought iron fence surrounding rows of stone monuments.
It’s the College Cemetery.
Does every college have one on campus? No, not many. It’s a pretty place—and maybe just a little creepy, but we all seem to like it. So why is it here?
Wedged between Smith Hall and the Sunset Apartments, it has been called simply the “College Cemetery” ever since it was established in 1858. This was just beyond the northwestern edge of campus at the time, not cheek-by-jowl with residence halls like it is now. There are a few hundred graves of varying ages and descriptions, and the place has a graceful elegance. It’s sort of Old World, like you should walk softly here, and whisper.
And even though it’s old and stately, it is not Denison’s first burial ground.
The first one was a mile southwest of College Hill, on the other side of Raccoon Creek atop the old Middleton farm, the first home of the college following its 1831 founding. In those early days, Denison was called the Granville Literary and Theological Institution.
There, in that first burial ground, two students and the school’s second president, Jonathan Going, were laid to rest in the 1840s.
When the college moved up the hill in 1854, those three dearly departed ones were not brought along, which makes a certain amount of cold hard sense. After all, digging up old graves is not your first thought when you’re building a new campus.
Then, in 1857, a new student named Ebenezer Bland was crushed by a mill wheel. Tragic thing. Why was he messing around on a mill wheel? History is silent on this question, and we’re left to wonder. In any event, he was buried up here on the hill, and the College Cemetery was established.
Young Ebenezer was the only occupant. But only for a little while.
During the next year, travelers from Granville to Columbus took note of something that just wouldn’t do. Their route took them past the old burial ground, the one just southwest of town, and they noticed that cattle and sheep were using President Going’s monument as … a rubbing post.
Concerns were raised, sentiment quickly grew in favor of drastic measures, and the board of trustees was asked in 1858 to relocate the three old graves.
So with some obvious hesitation, they approved an expenditure of $52 to have the three coffins exhumed and moved and reburied, plus gently tipping and loading and moving and repositioning a 14-foot-tall limestone pillar, which serves as President Going’s grave marker, still the tallest stone in the cemetery. A student group called The Franklin Society saw to buying simple markers for the two students, whose names were Isaac Iams and Herman Montgomery.
Today, 154 years later, a visitor to the College Cemetery will find those old graves, but they’ll also find that it is something of a vital place. The living go there to pay their respects. Students stroll through. Mostly they just walk by without looking in. But sometimes they look. Like we said, it’s charming in a curious sort of way.
A number of markers bear final dates of 2010 and 2011. They’re the gravestones of emeriti faculty whose eminent status allowed them and their spouses to claim a spot alongside the others who are there: seven Denison presidents, foreign missionaries, a few other students who died on campus in earlier centuries, and an assortment of other individuals who, by way of unique circumstances, found their conclusion in this place.
As a final note on this All-Hallows-Eve, it’s interesting that people don’t often claim that the old cemetery is haunted. Sure, we’re not totally devoid of spooky campus tales up here on the hill. Occasionally someone will question the upper floors of the library, for example, but not with much gusto. Generally, it’s understood that to hear a convincing ghost story, you have to go into the village and ask at the Buxton Inn.
So it seems the College Cemetery is just as peaceful as it looks.