Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Death is said to be the great equalizer and there is ample evidence of this throughout Oak Hill Cemetery where cereal magnates with names like Kellogg and Post are interred along with civil rights icon Sojourner Truth, veterans of wars dating back to the Revolutionary War and residents who lived remarkable lives that never made major headlines.
Located in the Post/Franklin neighborhood, the cemetery occupies 55 acres at 255 South Ave. Given the historical figures buried there, one might expect that it would be somewhat of a tourist destination.
With the exception of Seventh-Day Adventists who flock to the grave of their founder, Ellen G. White, during an annual convention that takes place in Battle Creek, those who run the cemetery say that the grounds are not routinely overrun with tourists.
“The Seventh-Day Adventists are by far the largest group that we see here because of Ellen White’s gravesite,” says Stephanie Prough, Oak Hill’s administrative assistant. “They come from all over the world. They don’t speak our language, and we don’t speak theirs, but they are here every year because of their convention.”
Linda Hyslop, Oak Hill’s interim General Manager, said a man who recently fixed the windows in a cemetery chapel, took time out to take photographs of White’s gravesite for his mother, who is a Seventh-Day Adventist. “Seeing her grave is a pilgrimage for many Adventists,” Hyslop says.
Other than this particular group, Prough says there isn’t a high volume of traffic. “If I didn’t work here, I don’t know if honestly, I’d ever come in here. It’s not a priority for my age group as it is for my parents and grandparents,” Prough says. “Visiting the cemetery and helping to put flowers on a grandparents grave…a lot of that stopped with my generation. I don’t see a lot of people my age and up here unless it’s for a funeral.”
While the lack of traffic may be generational, Prough says some of it has to do with the location, driven by C.W. Post, founder of Post Cereals.
C.W. Post’s factory, which manufactured his Postum cereal drink, was flourishing by the time the 1900s arrived. Near the turn of the century, he set his sights on developing a neighborhood for his workers: first, the Cliffs in 1899, and about five years later, the majority of the Post Addition.
Workers at Postum Cereal Co. were able to purchase inexpensive residential lots on a sliding scale based on their income, making $6 monthly payments to pay off the balance. Most homes were built in the 1920s.
Post considered the neighborhood to be an incentive for employees. He believed workers would be more productive as homeowners — and less willing to unionize.
The neighborhood became known for housing immigrants from various backgrounds. It had an active business district, with grocery stores and other small shops. And it became popular among blue-collar families.
By the 1980s, the housing stock there was aging and not being maintained. Supermarkets and small shops were leaving the area along with residents. This started a downhill spiral that the neighborhood continues to strive to recover from.
“This neighborhood back in the 1920s was a prominent neighborhood to live in and it’s no longer viewed that way,” Prough says. "This has steered a lot of people away from the cemetery.
Those who developed the cemetery in the mid-1880s could not have known what would transpire centuries later. Oak Hill was borne out of necessity when the city’s original cemeteries – one located where the Federal Center now stands and the other, a Quaker cemetery, on North Avenue, were relocated because city leaders thought these areas were better suited for economic development.
“They didn’t want a cemetery in the middle of town,” Prough says.
Founded in 1844, Oak Hill originally occupied 10 acres on South Avenue. Cemetery officials were permitted to remove all of the bodies of the deceased from the other cemeteries and re-inter them at Oak Hill after it was platted, according to “Beyond the Gates”, a book about the history of the cemetery.
Esther Cox was the first resident to be buried at Oak Hill. Since her interment, she has been joined by the famous and the not so famous. Unlike other cemeteries, Oak Hill was never segregated or affiliated with any specific church or religion.
Through the years, those interred there have come to reflect the city’s growing diversity. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen more African Americans come in to buy burial plots for their families,” Hyslop says. “We have some Greek Orthodox residents who own some plots and some Burmese families.”
The cemetery also has two crematoriums on site which have been a draw for Hindu residents, she says.
The number of cremations began to increase in the 1970s and Prough says more people are now being cremated than buried. “It’s a lot cheaper to go with cremation than a traditional burial,” she says. “We have about 29,000 people interred here between cremations and traditional burials.”
This total includes more than 1,700 military veterans from the Revolutionary War to the present, some of whom are in unmarked graves because Fort Custer was not yet a national cemetery when they died.
One of those Revolutionary War veterans is related to Hyslop’s father. While he has a headstone, thousands buried there don’t have one because their families couldn’t afford the cost or they had no family. For those who do have marked graves, their headstones tell a story of their death.
“You can see when cars first came out because their cause of death will state ‘kilt by cars’. You can also see when different epidemics came through like scarlet fever,” Prough says. “It’s interesting to look back.”
Although she doesn’t have a background in history and never thought she’d be working at a cemetery, Prough says one of her favorite parts of the job is the genealogy. She gets requests every week which involve looking up causes of death from the 1800s. Diseases that have been eradicated today and things such as tooth infections that now rarely result in death are often causes of death she identifies.
“Someday, people are going to look at us and how we died and say, ‘I don’t think so',” she says.
Besides the genealogy, Prough gives tours to school groups and also does private tours.
Up until 2005, she had never set foot in a cemetery. That was before her mother, Deb Stanley, who was the cemetery’s general manager, needed a vacation and somebody to cover for her.
Prough, who was unemployed at the time, stepped in to help out. Her previous job was a cook/dietary consultant at a nursing home.
“This was the first-ever office job I had ever acquired, so I was learning everything from simple accounting to do the payroll to learning what onion paper was because that’s what a lot of our earlier correspondence is on,” she says. “I’d never even used a typewriter before because I went through Battle Creek Central High School and we had computers.”
At the time, she didn’t know what kind of career she would have and she wasn’t really looking for a job. When her mother retired, Hyslop stepped in as interim, Prough’s job went fulltime, and her learning curve escalated.
Among the biggest misconceptions people have about Oak Hill is that it’s full. Prough says there are thousands of burial plot spaces available and an infinite number for cremations. “I don’t see this cemetery filling up in my lifetime,” she says.
The opening of newer cemeteries such as Memorial Park and Floral Lawn has created competition for Oak Hill. Board members recently approved a half-off sale on gravesites as a way to get the cemetery’s name out there.
Gravesites that typically sell for between $600 to $1,100 are now anywhere between $300 and $550, Prough says. Those sales are how the cemetery makes money.
“We are a nonprofit, so everybody who is a grave space owner actually owns a piece of the cemetery,” she says. “When we sell a grave space, part of that money goes into the plot itself and the other money goes into a memorial trust fund, so we draw dividends off of that every month.”
There is a memorial fund that was established by cemetery board trustees in the 1980s with the intention of getting the money back out. That fund is now up to $3 million, but state officials have prohibited its use at the cemetery.
By state law, Prough says cemeteries are required to have at least $1 million in a memorial fund. She says there have been instances of people coming in and buying cemeteries, draining the memorial funds and walking away.
“There’s no other cemetery in the state with the amount of surplus that we have,” Prough says. “I call us, the richest, poorest cemetery in the state of Michigan.”
Funds to keep maintain Oak Hill comes directly out of what is taken in each month.
“We have a lot of things we could do like fix the roads, update the water system, and put a new roof on our chapel,” Prough says. “It’s a slow process because it’s still a working cemetery.
“As much of the negative that goes on, this is still a beautiful, sacred spot for 29,000 people. Everybody in this life has a story and everybody deserves to have their story told from time to time."
Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.