Cemetery tours, starting Friday, cover Norfolk’s past, “Victorians’ macabre obsession with death”

(Courtesy of Norfolksocietyforcemeteryconservation.org)
(Courtesy of Norfolksocietyforcemeteryconservation.org)

Fans of history and death can get close to both in the twilight tours of Elmwood Cemetery beginning tonight.

The Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation kicks off its monthly twilight tours, “Strange Happenings,” at 6:30 p.m.

“Enjoy a stroll through Elmwood’s park-like grounds & explore the Victorians’ macabre obsession with death & dying,” says a flier promoting the tours.

The tours are free, with a suggested $5 donation, and include the exploration of Victorian-era funerary art, mourning rituals and burial practices. They will return the last Friday of every month until September, with 7 p.m. start times for most of the rest of the calendar, at 238 Princess Anne Road.

“The purpose of these tours is to raise awareness of the fact that these are nationally recognized historic sites, and some of them are crumbling,” said tour guide and society board member Joshua Weinstein.

The society began the tours about three years ago as a way to inform residents of the historical value of local cemeteries and grave sites that need attention. Proceeds benefit the society, which aims to preserve Norfolk’s eight historic municipal cemeteries. The Friday evening tours typically draw about 30 people, according to Weinstein.

The society’s other tour series at Elmwood, “Norfolk Notables,” focuses on the graves of people who were instrumental in the city’s history and who have something named after them, Weinstein said. Those tours, which were previously held Saturday mornings, have been moved to the first Friday of every month. They begin May 6 and end Oct. 7.

On both tours, Weinstein winds the group through the cemetery and stops at sites to explain the art and details of people’s lives and to answer questions.

Elmwood was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register as a historic site in 2013. The 50-acre municipal cemetery was established in 1853 and  contains the remains of more than 400 Confederate and Union Civil War veterans, according to a state document. It was also the burial grounds for victims of the area’s 1855 yellow fever outbreak.

Weinstein knows some people may not be fond of cemeteries because they can conjure bad memories. But he said there is sometimes a misunderstanding of the tours and other events the society hosts in the cemetery to help fund their preservation. The group also hosts a 5K run through the cemetery later in the year.

“There’s a difference in the definition of how to respect the dead,” Weinstein said. “Some people view respecting the dead as putting them in the ground and leaving them alone. Some people, like me, view respecting the dead as maintaining the resting places.”

Victoria Jessie, a public information specialist for Norfolk’s Bureau of Cemeteries, said people who take the tours learn about local history and Victorian art.

“By the end of the tour, they can walk away not only knowing more about Norfolk, but knowing a little about who’s in the cemeteries, knowing a little about the art of the cemetery,” Jessie said.

For more information on the tours, contact Weinstein at joshua.akiva@gmail.com or 757-236-3439.

A previous version of this story gave the incorrect date for the last Norfolk Notables tour. The tours will run until Oct. 7.

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact Business reporter Hillary Smith  at Hillary@SouthsideDaily.com or 757-490-2750.

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