Crown Hill Cemetery Is a 156-Year-Old Historic & Scenic Destination

Photographer / Michael Durr

Former-president Benjamin Harrison, novelist Booth Tarkington, and businessman Eli Lilly all share one thing in common — they’re all buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Crown Hill Cemetery, the nation’s third-largest non-government cemetery, has been serving the Indianapolis community for more than 150 years. Although it’s a cemetery and final resting place for upwards of 200,000 people, it’s a popular destination for tourists, school children and residents alike.

“First and foremost, we are a place to bury loved ones and provide a lot of benefits that impact the city,” says David Rieck, President of the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation and Crown Hill Cemetery.

As a major cultural tourist attraction, the cemetery memorializes countless public figures and loved ones and is home to more than 4,000 inventoried trees, which brings a steady flow of visitors year-round. Debatably, its most popular feature — The Crown — draws large crowds seeking an iconic view of the Indianapolis skyline from the highest hill in the county.

Constructing and Dedicating the Cemetery    

Crown Hill was established in the mid-1800s. The historic cemetery is nestled between Newfields and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, along 38th Street and right off of Interstate 65. However, it looks a lot different today than when it was founded in 1863.

“When Crown Hill was founded in 1863, there was a movement within the country called a rural cemetery,” Rieck says. “The cities around the U.S. were getting overpopulated, if you will, with burials. There was a need for large amounts of land where they could bury loved ones.”

With rural cemeteries, the representative from cities would buy up big plots of land in the county and create cemeteries.

“The cemeteries were also then used as parks and outdoor recreational spaces,” Rieck says. “They were the parks before the public parks we know today.”

According to the Crown Hill History page, on Oct. 15, 1863, its first 236 acres were purchased from three local farmers for just $51,000. In today’s value, that would equate out to nearly $1M.

Today, Crown Hill boasts 555 acres.

The new cemetery was dedicated on June 1, 1864. The very next day it had its first burial, that of Lucy Ann Seaton. She was the wife of Civil War Union Captain, John Seaton, and succumbed to tuberculosis at 33. New to Indianapolis and describing himself as a “stranger to this city,” John advertised her funeral in the newspaper seeking attendees, which proved successful.

Gothic Architecture 

By 1866, a total of 480 burials were recorded. In present-day, it’s estimated that there are some 200,000 burials at Crown Hill. That same year, on August 27, the U.S. Government purchased land on Crown Hill’s campus to create a national cemetery. According to its history timeline, the first 707 soldiers were moved to this section in November 1866.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Crown Hill National Cemetery is closed to new interments. Those buried within Crown Hill National Cemetery are members of the armed forces dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Notable features of Crown Hill also include its abundance of gothic architecture. The cemetery’s first piece, it’s Gothic Chapel, was designed by D.H. Bohlen and constructed by Peter Routiers in 1875 for $48,922.25. According to the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, “This building stands as a remarkable example of Gothic architecture and was the first of a number of historic structures and landmarks to be erected over the next 135-plus years, all which stand alongside generations of monuments to human achievements and epitaphs of remembrance.”

According to the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, the chapel, which was originally named the Gothic Vault, once held the body of James Whitcomb Riley while “those in charge of his affairs debated his proper place of interment.” He was later buried on The Crown, and in present-day, the chapel is used to host public and private events, including lectures, tours, funerals, memorial services, weddings, concerts and dinners.

Other notable pieces of architecture on Crown Hill’s grounds are its Gothic Gate and Waiting Station, which are located at the intersection of 34th Street and Boulevard Place, and its mausoleum, constructed in 1951.

The Crown

Aside from its burials, Crown Hill is a popular destination for visitors all-around. It’s currently No. 9 out of 144 things to do in Indianapolis on TripAdvisor.

“We are a major cultural tourist attraction,” Rieck says. “The cemetery provides many educational opportunities and programs for the community, from the events that we host to our popular tours that we offer throughout the year.”

Rieck says that Crown Hill is a place where people can get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Indianapolis, while still being in the city. Its property has 25 miles of road, which is popular among walkers, runners, bikers or those looking to have a scenic view with their picnic. Visitors also enjoy its tree tours and tours of the cemetery’s history.

“The enjoyment of nature is certainly another reason why people come here,” Rieck adds.

One of its most popular features is The Crown, a hill with an elevation of 842 feet. The Crown is the highest hill in the county and gives visitors a 360-degree panoramic view of the Indianapolis skyline.

“The iconic view from The Crown, is another reason why people come and visit Crown Hill — to take in the view and beauty of the cemetery and the city from one of the highest points in Marion County,” Rieck says.

Crown Hill Cemetery is located at 700 West 38th St. For more information about the cemetery, such as its history or tours, visit crownhillfoundation.org.

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