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Taking a Walk With Death Prompts Pondering of Life

Embracing the Stillness of Cemeteries

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Above image credit: In many places within Union Cemetery, old trees allow sunlight to dapple the landscape and create a sense of peace and quiet. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

It’s whispery quiet today here in Union Cemetery.

It is every day, really, despite the burial ground’s location at 227 E. 28th Terr., just south of busy Crown Center, and despite nearby construction work on Main Street, where aggressive, clattering machines have been assaulting the roadway so utility lines can be relocated in preparation for extending the KC Streetcar line south to 51st Street.

The silence here is broken only by soft peels of windchimes that hang on the porch of the small wooden building housing the Union Cemetery Historical Society. Windchimes can be insistent — can, in a stiff breeze, be the street gangs of bells. But the breeze today is soft and the chimes offer an almost-hypnotizing dulcet sound.

So here in this seductive 27-acre graveyard, which Kevin Fewell, the historical society’s board president, calls “sacred ground,” you can find retreat from the noise and busyness of life to think or maybe just breathe.

Kevin Fewell, president of the Union Cemetery Historical Society, considers the site to be sacred grounds.
Kevin Fewell, president of the Union Cemetery Historical Society, considers the site to be “sacred ground.” (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

“It really is a meditative place,” Fewell says of Union Cemetery. “Any time during the day but especially in the mornings, if you come in here and are around all these names on these stones — and the stones that don’t have names on them anymore — you think about what they went through to build the city and you can’t help but feel some sort of peace or meditative state.”

As I walk these grounds, I’m thinking about death because, well, in a cemetery, how can you not? Death is, after all, the most inescapable human subject. And I have spent much of my professional life telling readers that if they don’t understand their own death they’ll never understand their own life.

Fewell himself recently had to confront that when his mother died, and he discovered it hit him harder than he had expected for someone so used to being around death.

So he was glad to remind himself that, as he says: “If you walk around here any time of the day, it’s amazing how much peace there is, even with all the construction going on and even being in the middle of the city. Everything is muted in here.”

Union Cemetery (so named because it was a joint project in 1857 of the Town of Westport and the Town of Kansas) is full of stories of life and reminders that even the most interesting and consequential lives eventually end up in a place like this.

The cemetery, Fewell says, “is a sacred place because this is the final resting place of thousands of babies and children, plus African Americans who were slaves and then became free people. We have thousands of veterans who went and served their country — most from the Civil War, including union and confederate soldiers buried side by side.”

John Calvin McCoy, founder of the Town of Westport, which later merged with the Town of Kansas to create Kansas City, is buried at a prominent site in Union Cemetery.
John Calvin McCoy, founder of the Town of Westport, which later merged with the Town of Kansas to create Kansas City, is buried at a prominent site in Union Cemetery. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

One of Kansas City’s earliest leaders, John Calvin McCoy (1811-1889), was buried here after his body was moved long ago from a family interment plot on the northeast corner of 55th Street and State Line Road.

And then there’s the grave of Hattie Drisdom Kearney (1844-1927), the first African American buried in what, until then, had been part of the cemetery reserved for whites. (Even current maps of the cemetery acknowledge that history by marking some areas as “Colored.”)

Who was Hattie? Born a slave, she was sold on the courthouse steps one day to Charles E. Kearney (1820-1898) for $1,300. But Kearney didn’t believe in slavery so he immediately freed the 11-year-old girl, who asked him how she was supposed to live now. He took her into his family home, where she learned domestic arts. She wound up being a caregiver to three generations of Kearneys, whose last name she adopted.

James M. Hunter (1803-1871), whose land became Union Cemetery, is interred here, too. Originally, Hunter lived where Mt. Washington Cemetery is today on the Kansas City-Independence border. But after Hunter met John Calvin McCoy at his trading post, he went into business for himself and did well, acquiring quite a bit of land. Hunter, who lived at what today is Linwood (once named Hunter Avenue) and Main, made 45 acres available for the cemetery, and later his son provided another 10 acres. Eventually the cemetery size was reduced to its current 27 acres.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was at its raging peak in 2020, I often would walk through three cemeteries near the house my wife and I owned (we sold it recently): Forest Hill, Calvary and Rose Hill on Troost north of Gregory. 

It was a chance not only to exercise some muscles but also to think about what I still wanted to accomplish before I die. Walking through cemeteries is a necessary reminder that despite what many Americans seem to believe, death is not optional. It’s also a chance to remember who still needs you, whom you may have hurt and to whom you need to apologize. Mostly it’s a reminder that we are guaranteed not even one more hour.

So right in the heart of a city noisily building its future, we can retreat to the sanctuary of Union Cemetery to reimagine what that future should look like, who will occupy it, if not us, and why we’re here at all.

It also helps to remember that the poet John Donne was right: When the windchimes here toll, they toll for thee.

The center of windchimes that hang outside the office of the Union Cemetery Historical Society provide a frame for a view of the burial grounds.
The center of windchimes that hang outside the office of the Union Cemetery Historical Society provide a frame for a view of the burial grounds. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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