I was not raised a spiritual person. I never went to church or was forced to participate in religious activities or had any real interest in being involved in any of that. Christmas was the tree. Easter was a giant rabbit. Even now, for better or worse, I’m not at all interested in organized religion and have only a very nebulous concept of what I hope is really out there.
So maybe I don’t have a deep spirituality to guide me, but I also ain’t afraid of no ghost.
I love exploring the traditional “creepy” aspects of a city because, rather than holding onto fear of the paranormal, these places and their histories simply unfold before me like a really good book come to life. Honestly, the fear that a tormented soul is coming for you really puts a damper on exploring a good many offbeat locations – or so I’d guess.
I’m telling you this all, I guess, because I’m trying to explain that wandering around a cemetery at dusk seems like a good idea to me if not to other people (AKA my ever-patient/terrified husband).
We did just that a while ago, exploring the grounds of Crown Hill Cemetery in attempt to whittle down my Indy bucket list. It’s a great choice for those who like a little adventure in their life: founded in 1863, the cemetery is a massive 555 acres which affords not only a great view of downtown Indianapolis but a few creepy stories to get your heart racing as you crunch across the autumnal leaves.*
*This makes Crown Hill the largest non-government cemetery in the US!
OK, I hear you saying, it’s a graveyard. Of course it’s creepy. What makes this place so special?
Well, let’s start from the beginning.
Crown Hill actually began its major growth period thanks to a rash of grave robbings which occurred in a now-gone downtown graveyard called Greenlawn. The relatives of those buried in the compromised cemetery moved the bodies left en masse in order to get their loved ones to the safer, more secure area Crown Hill provided. What they found was… not that great. At some point at the start of the 20th century, Indianapolis officials found that in reality few, if any, bodies buried before the 1890s were still left in their graves. Why? Our ancestors were a lot less afraid of ghosts than even I am, apparently, as robbers excavated bodies even the night of their burial and sold them as medical cadavers.
Pro: scientists had the chance to learn more about the human body.
Con: well, grandpa was no longer in his final resting place.
What else ups Crown Hill’s creepy factor?
Some paranormal experts claim that Crown Hill could be one of the most haunted cemeteries in the United States (of course they do). While there may not be many individual stories, Crown Hill has several mass graves full of unidentified bodies ripe for producing restless spirits:
- It’s no surprise that every night brings tales of wounded Civil War soldiers returning to the battle fields since 1600 Confederate and 700 Union soldiers call Crown Hill their final resting place.
- If you’re wandering around late at night, be sure to head to section 37: a mass grave from the start of the 20th century holding the remains of nearly 700 orphans who died while living in local orphanages. Many believe that these small spirits are still searching for their parents and a sense of peace or a place to belong in safety. On the other hand, others claim you can often hear the children playing happily since someone has come to care for them… so who knows?
I’m pretty disinclined to think there are spirits anywhere, but Crown Hill is just such a pleasant, peaceful place it’s really hard to imagine that anyone interred here would be too upset.
So who’s here?
Crown Hill Cemetery isn’t just notable for its sheer size, but also for the well-known (well, at least in Indiana) historical people it hosts. Highlights include:
John Dillinger [section 44, lot 94] a notorious bank robber during the Depression
Benjamin Harrison [section 13, lot 57] 23rd President of the United States
Colonel Eli Lilly [section 13, lot 19] colonel during the Civil War, failed plantation owner, pharmacist, and general rich guy who went on to found Eli Lilly & Company.
Plus innumerable Illinois politicians, US vice presidents, artists, soldiers, and more. Other points of interest include the eerie Gothic chapel built in 1875. The Indiana AIDS Memorial and the Hearts Remembered Memorial (dedicated to the orphaned and abandoned children buried here in unmarked graves) are both incredibly touching.
Oh, and don’t forget to trudge up to the very tippy top of the hill and get an epic view of downtown Indy from James Whitcomb Riley’s memorial. Known as the “Hoosier Poet” and the “Children’s Poet”, Riley is famous in Indiana and has been honored with a large memorial in Crown Hill (the little girl in the first picture of this post is reading one of his stories on his grave).
There! little girl; don’t cry!
There! little girl; don’t cry!
They have broken your heart I know;
And the rainbow gleams
Of your youthful dreams
Are things of the long ago;
But Heaven holds all for which you sigh. —
There! little girl; don’t cry! James Whitcomb Riley
While I’m not a huge believer in the paranormal, I am pretty susceptible to suggestion so just the idea of tromping through a cemetery without another soul in sight (aside from the jumpy Russian with me, which wasn’t much consolation) was pretty frightening in the best way possible. Particularly as the light began to wane and we tried to get out. Trust me when I say: Crown Hill is gigantic. Even armed with a handy map, we didn’t see everything we wanted.
We got turned around and couldn’t find unit markers for several areas leaving us all confused. Finally we began crossing through the lawn in the general direction we thought we ought to be going in. It worked out well enough but… at some point when we were looking for John Dillinger’s grave, we just got tired. With over 25 miles of paved road (seriously), Crown Hill is definitely meant to be driven.
- 700 W 38th St, Indianapolis, IN 46208 (main entrance on 38th street, gates open until 6 PM)
- Oh and by the way: if you’re like my husband and I, who decided to stroll from the funeral home to the 34th Street exit later in the evening, know that the gates on 34th close at 5 PM. We did not know this. Luckily, the cop who was stationed right outside of the gates (this area may not be ripe for grave robbings now, but is still not the cleanest neighborhood) just stared at us as we clambered over the gates. So yeah, not really a big deal apparently.
- Here’s a map of Crown Hill Cemetery, denoting all the high points to visit
- Interested in taking an official tour of Crown Hill? They’re offered in spring and fall yearly. Find out more here.
Overall the experience at Crown Hill was pretty cool and a definite must-do for visitors, particularly when the leaves are changing so spectacularly. If you’re a bit of a wimp, don’t be too scared: overall the cemetery was incredibly peaceful and the space is so large there are actually whole herds of deer prancing around to put you at ease.