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Cave Hill is more than a cemetery

Cave Hill is more than a cemetery
I’m not one to revel in prowling cemeteries and reflecting on the dear departed. Some cemeteries are worth reveling in, however, for other reasons.
I and friend Mike Garner had occasion a couple of weeks ago to revel in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Ky., on a weekend when we were in that city for a meeting of the Southeast Region of the American Conifer Society.
The reason Cave Hill is worth a revel, for plant nuts anyway, is the fact it boasts some of the finest old specimen trees and shrubs in the United States, indeed in some cases the world.
Before leaving Louisville at the conclusion of the two-day conference that included lectures and garden and nursery tours, we took a drive through Cave Hill. Roads meander all through the 200 acres of rolling hills, rife with monuments identifying the final resting places of the blueblood of Louisville as well as some lesser commoners.
Interspersed are monumental trees, some planted as whips just after the cemetery was founded in 1846. That’s 161 years ago the way I cipher, making, say, a bald cypress tower into the skies the way the ancient specimens do at Reelfoot Lake. Bald cypresses will, incidentally, thrive on dry land as well as in water.
Resting under the cemetery are such notables as Colonel Harlan Sanders of KFC fame as well as famed politicians, theologians, poets and educators.
There are, as well, hundreds of graves of Confederate and Federal soldiers from the Civil War, crisp white markers precisely row on row, a stark contrast to the elegant obelisks and towers devoted to the rich and famous.
The latter are of amazingly intricate and varied description, some featuring angels or busts of the late resident of the plot. Family plots have been handed down for generations, assuring that some of them hold a great number of kin.
During our drive, we enjoyed guessing the identity of the trees, many of which are labeled with the common name of that particular specimen. Some of the white oaks are of phenomenal bole diameter and canopy spread. We estimated that one, in an open area, spread more than 100 feet across.
Among the trees we were unable to identify was one with multiple trunks and beautiful cinnamon colored exfoliating bark. It must have been fully 70 feet tall.
Upon inspection of the label we found it to be a Chinese toon, a little known Asian tree that is much underused and, in fact, difficult to find in the trade. Toons are almost indestructible once established, and exceedingly tolerant of inhospitable soil and drought.
A common, and seldom recommended shrub is the Peegee hydrangea, a gawky, gangling thing admired in times past for its large panicles of white bloom in late summer. It is, in fact, a cultivar of the panicle hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata.
At one point we spied a misshapen big bush, one-sided and with a few white blooms. It had a trunk some foot or more in diameter and it had us completely fooled.
A closer look proved it to be an ancient Peegee hydrangea, probably planted 60 or 70 years ago. It was amazing to see what a plant is capable of with that kind of age on it. It was ugly as dirt, but a curiosity nonetheless.
It isn’t cheap to be buried at Cave Hill, I am sure, even if there are plots still available. Most of the residents have come by their retirement homes via perpetual ownership of families. There are areas of unused ground, but I believe most of them are reserved for nature to take its course, with just a bit of help from caretakers, of which there must be an army.
For instance, there was a hillside supporting a grove of huge American beeches, not noted for quick growth, that might predate the cemetery. They are well spaced apart, and range up to 4 feet or more in diameter.
The cemetery is surrounded by a high masonry wall capped with razor wire. Considering the value of the monuments and other appurtenances inside, it is a necessity. Security patrols are continuously making rounds, and we saw them several times during our hour or so there.
Cave Hill is worth a visit. It should inspire us to be more cognizant of the lack of green in some of our local burial grounds, particularly Memorial Cemetery.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger on 10.09.07

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