Giving tours at the cemetery is just as important as maintaining them. Here’s why

Head Tour Guide Shannon Stafford leads a tour. (Southside Daily Photo/courtesy of Susan Platt)
Head Tour Guide Shannon Stafford leads a tour. (Southside Daily Photo/courtesy of Susan Platt)

NORFOLK — When you think of visiting a cemetery you normally wouldn’t think of looking at the headstones of people you don’t know but with volunteer-led cemetery tours you get a chance to learn more about the history of who’s buried there.

The Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation provides volunteers to give free tours to the public, with their main goal being to preserve Norfolk’s outdoor museums.

Donations are encouraged for the tours.

The volunteers dedicate hundreds of hours to learning about the history of the people who are buried in the cemeteries and what they’ve contributed to the city’s history.

The city’s Bureau of Cemeteries owns and operates eight cemeteries where they work to preserve Norfolk’s cultural heritage and the natural beauty of their 350 plus acres of green space.

In partnership with the NSCC, the Bureau of Cemeteries is able to keep the cemeteries in good condition and gives the public a chance to learn about the history of those buried there.

The volunteers

The NSCC has four tour guides who take turns leading themed tours in Elmwood Cemetery.

Each tour guide is responsible for picking the theme, researching the people buried in the cemetery and then presenting it to the Bureau of Cemeteries and the NSCC for approval, said Susan Platt, the bureau’s spokeswoman.

Platt said a big function of the tours is to raise funds for the NSCC as well as to educate the public on the history of the cemetery.

“Historic cemeteries are important, we don’t want to forget our past,” she said.

Shannon Stafford is the head tour guide of the NSCC tours.

A freelance researcher by day, Stafford spends a great deal of time researching the history of the people buried in not just Norfolk’s cemeteries but histories from all over.

He’s been giving tours in cemeteries for 17 years and has been giving tours here for two years.

“Every tour is different,” he said, adding there may be 26 tours on the schedule but even each repeat tour is different in some way.

Another tour guide, Allison Bell, who works as a waitress and mother by day, said she likes to spend time walking around the cemetery, taking photos and then taking her research to the archives and libraries to develop her tours.

Bell came on as a volunteer in October and will be leading her first tours this season.

The tours

It takes a lot of time to develop each tour, Stafford said, and there’s an average of 60 people per tour.

Elmwood Cemetery has been hosting tours for seven years now with the tour season running from April to November, Platt said.

In 2018 the cemetery gave tours to about 1,000 people, a third more than 2017 and the volunteers are projecting around 2,000 will attend tours this year, she said.

Advertising more and offering unique tours such as a First Responder Tour, Women of Norfolk, and strange technology deaths are a drawing in more people, Stafford and Platt said.

The Cemetery Tours Schedule will start on April 6. Each tour usually runs about an hour to an hour and a half.

To learn more about the NSCC, click here.

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