Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The history surrounding Oak Hill Cemetery is nestled among the gravesites of such notable figures as Sojourner Truth
, John Harvey Kellogg
, C.W. Post
and lesser-known residents of Battle Creek who are buried there.
While the gravestones and grounds are maintained by a core group of staff, a chapel on the cemetery grounds once used for committal service has fallen into disrepair.
Recognizing the historical significance of that chapel to the overall history of Oak Hill, a group of volunteers led by Sydney Morgan, a Funeral Director with Farley, Estes, Dowdle Funeral Home, is undertaking a rehabilitation project designed to restore the structure to its original state.
In August, 2022, Morgan says she was asked by Brenda Hunt, President and CEO of the Battle Creek Community Foundation, to lead the rehab effort as its Consultant Coordinator for the Friends of Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel Committee
which was established by the Oak Hill Cemetery Board of Directors.
“The chapel is a historical and beautiful space which is completely dilapidated,” Morgan says. “We want to restore it and create it as a way to generate revenue and to bring it back to the community. It hasn’t been used in about 15 years. We do have a lot of ideas for what we’d like to do there once we have it restored.”
Those ideas include more traditional uses such as making it available once again for committal services and offering as a space where cremation urns are housed. Morgan says the space also could be used for luncheons, banquets and even wedding ceremonies, although that last idea “might not be a crowd pleaser.”
Constructed in 1926, 82 years after the cemetery was developed, the chapel had originally been used primarily for committal services.
“Before going to the gravesite, families and the officiant would gather in there for final prayers and then proceed to the gravesite,” Morgan says. “About 15 years ago it was let go and upkeep on it was not done. It was completely destroyed by the weather and earth elements and animals got in there and did significant damage to it and to stained glass original to the structure donated by families of loved ones buried in the cemetery.”
The committee established to restore the chapel is looking for donations to cover the estimated $300,000 cost. Those serving on the committee are Mayor Mark Behnke; Ed David; Dave Eddy; Brenda Hunt; Jim Jackson; Jolynn Smith; and Kurt Thornton.
The stained glass windows of the Oak Hill Chapel will be protected on the outside from breakage.
They have already received $90,920 in donations, including $20,000 through BCCF’s competitive grant program. Morgan says the majority of donors are descendants of people buried at Oak Hill.
Hunt says the $300,000 goal for donations is being broken into three phases with the first phase being $100,000 which has almost been reached.
Hunt says the Foundation is serving as the repository for donations and awarded the grant because “the chapel is an historic icon for the cemetery and also has an important business component” attached to it. The renovation of the 25 x 40 square-foot structure, she says, will add to the long-term overall aesthetic value of the Oak Hill Cemetery.
Sydney Morgan, a Funeral Director with Farley, Estes, Dowdle Funeral Home, is undertaking a rehabilitation project designed to restore the structure to its original state of the Oak Hill Chapel.
“There was an overwhelming interest in making sure the chapel was sustained and we had the means to provide support from a fiscal sponsorship end and also were able to provide some staff support,” Hunt says.
In addition to monetary donations, in-kind contributions are being made by Schweitzer Construction Co. and U.S Lumber, Morgan says.
The renovation is a totally volunteer effort and the committee is looking for volunteers to assist with a March 18 Spring cleanup effort that will involve removing debris such as sticks and brush inside and outside of the chapel, picking up trash surrounding it, and cleaning up headstones in close proximity to it. This is the second of three phases that began with the winterization of the building that involved sealing what remained of the roof and covering it with a tarp, tree removal, and cleanup of the chapel’s basement which had “old, rundown equipment” in it, and removal of old plaster.
“On the inside, we have a long list of what we want to do,” Morgan says. “There is masonry work that needs to be done on the stone, plasterwork on the walls, and flooring that needs to be re-done.”
The chapel restoration will be divided into three phases.
Exterior work will include a new slate roof and cleanup of a bulletproof protectant coating that covers the stained-glass windows. That protectant was applied to protect the windows from vandalism that includes rocks being thrown at them or BB gun pellets shot into them that would cause irreparable damage, Morgan says.
Phase Three will begin after everything is repaired and cleaned and will include the addition of paintings and glass niches where individuals can place their loved ones urns. Plans also include making a second crematorium located next to the chapel operational again. Morgan says they are hoping to have all of the renovations completed this Fall.
A rich history reimagined
The cemetery occupies 55 acres at 255 South Avenue in the Post/Franklin neighborhood
. Oak Hill was borne out of necessity when the city’s original cemeteries – one located where the Hart, Dole, Inouye 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, said Stephanie Prough, Oak Hill’s administrative assistant, in an earlier story.
“They didn’t want a cemetery in the middle of town,” Prough said.
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.
Unlike other cemeteries in Michigan that are managed by the municipalities where they are located, Oak Hill Cemetery operates as a nonprofit entity with a board of directors who have plans to do additional revitalization work to the cemetery and are developing a strategic plan to ensure the continued historic presence of this final resting place in the community.
Because of the cemetery’s nonprofit status, everyone who is a grave space owner actually owns a piece of the cemetery. When a grave space is sold, part of that money goes into the plot itself and the other money goes into a memorial trust fund from which dividends are drawn each 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.
The gravesite of Sojourner Truth and a historial marker
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 said in the earlier story. “I call us, the richest, poorest cemetery in the state of Michigan.”
Despite these financial challenges, Morgan sees plenty of opportunities to make the chapel and cemetery a “must-see” destination for anyone and everyone because of its rich history. She says her commitment to the restoration project is an outgrowth of her work in the funeral industry.
After attending a mortuary school in Wheeling, Ill., she took a job as a funeral director in Madison, Wisc. for three years. She came back to Battle Creek in 2021 after her father passed away and went to work for Farley Estes.
“I like to help people navigate through the journey of saying that final farewell to their loved ones," she says. “I think it’s an important job. It’s an honor to be able to do that one last nice thing for that person. This work is a perfect fit for me and I couldn’t imagine not doing funeral services."
Where W.K. Kellogg family rests
More and more Morgan is seeing people opt for cremations over burials and says she thinks this has caused a shift away from the more traditional aspects of funerals. With regard to Oak Hill, she says, “Family members didn’t share the history of how important that cemetery is. The clientele at Oak Hill has been predominantly African American because of its close proximity to an area of the city which is home to many African American residents who have generations of family members buried there. Everyone who lives in the area automatically goes there and it’s the norm and tradition.”
It is these traditions and others that will become the focus for the Chapel Committee members once the renovation work is completed.
“I hope the community sees the work that’s been put into this effort and will recognize Oak Hill for the historical significance it brings to Battle Creek and surrounding areas,” Morgan says.
Individuals interested in making a donation to the chapel renovation project may do so by clicking on this LINK
. Those who would like to volunteer may contact Morgan at email@example.com