Introducing Jack Koppel, aka the Cemetery Man

Writer / Sam Dunn
Photography Provided 

Jack KoppelJack Koppel might have one of the most interesting nicknames, and hobbies, in Jefferson County. Koppel is sometimes known as the Cemetery Man, and he has been exploring and cataloging hidden cemeteries for more than 20 years. Because of his efforts, the government has been able to save many small cemeteries from construction. Equally as impressive, his work has highlighted forgotten people and their stories, and proved that history is everywhere in Louisville, Kentucky. As he has said, “My main goal is to try and find every cemetery in Jefferson County.”

Koppel’s interest in hidden history, specifically cemeteries, started at a young age.

“When I was a kid I was always fascinated by cemeteries,” he says.

His passion for the subject grew when he lived in the historic home of Abraham Hite Jr., where he discovered an old and neglected cemetery. Koppel’s first efforts at restoration and conservation were relatively modest. He dragged brush away from the site and performed other acts of maintenance. Compared to his current efforts, these first steps were small, but they led to decades of passionate historic research and a dedication to the respectful treatment of our ancestors.

“My main goal is to show respect in some way,” he says. “There’s so much history on those stones.”

Koppel’s interest in historic cemeteries grew through the years, as he discovered locations all around him. One of his earliest discoveries was purely by chance, when he discovered Eastern Cemetery in the late 1990s. As he tells it, he was on a lunch break from work when he stumbled upon the cemetery and was shocked to find that the site had not been maintained for some time. Since then, Koppel and others, like the group Friends of Eastern Cemetery, have worked to improve this site and others that have been found. Koppel’s passion for historical cemeteries, and history in general, has led him to devote several decades of his life to the search for forgotten gravesites, and he doesn’t think that the search will be over anytime soon.

“Cemeteries are just everywhere,” he says. “There are a lot of other ones I haven’t found yet.”

The scope of Koppel’s work has expanded greatly, as have the methods that he uses to search for and protect these sites. He spends hours each day on a computer, researching old records, manuscripts and newspapers. When he has identified a site and gotten permission to visit from the owner, he begins to clean the site and preserve the gravestones. In this respect, his processes of preservation have also gotten more complex. He is able to identify older stones that have sunk below the surface of the ground. These are brought up, cleaned, and restored if necessary. When he is cleaning the stones, Koppel doesn’t use normal soap and water. Instead he uses a special biological solution that is specifically made for cleaning older stone and will not damage the stone or inscriptions. In fact, he uses the same solution that is used to clean the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. When gravestones are broken, whether by nature or vandalism, Koppel works to clean and reassemble the stone. Using epoxy, he is able to join the stone back together and restore the original inscription.

Jack KoppelOne of the main focuses of Koppel’s work is to not only to preserve the gravesite, but also make it easier for others to visit.

“I probably am more passionate about it because I’ve learned more over the years,” he says. “When I first started the search for these cemeteries, there were no good directions on how to find them.”

Now, Koppel’s goal is to get a GPS location for each cemetery, along with a house number. Once he has this information, he passes it along to the local city and county government. Local government, besides saving this information in the public record, also stops harmful construction that might damage or completely destroy the site. Koppel often refers to this as saving the site before the bulldozer gets to it. This part of his work is especially important because more and more historic cemeteries are being threatened by development. Koppel knows of at least one cemetery that was paved over by the development of a car wash, and says that there are similar situations like that all over the city. When volunteers like Koppel and local government work together, they can save these sites. 

When these historic cemeteries are saved from demolition, they sometimes end up in surprising areas. Shoppers at the shopping center off of Dutchmans and Breckenridge lanes might be familiar with this interesting phenomenon, because there is a small historic cemetery right outside the popular stores. The small plot, ringed around with tall shrubs, is easy to miss, but it contains the remains of at least five people. The cemetery holds James and Matilda Burks, wealthy farmers from the 1800s, as well as several of their children. Descendants of the Burks decided that the cemetery should not be moved, and their decision has been honored by the local government and developers ever since. This small example shows a respect for the dead and a commitment to the preservation of small but important cemeteries. Both are morals that Koppel has put into practice for many years. 

The sheer volume of Koppel’s work is impressive.

“Cemeteries are just everywhere,“ he says. “We only know of about 300 cemeteries here in Jefferson County but there are probably thousands.”

Koppel has been instrumental in the discovery and preservation of many of these sites, but he is quick to give credit to others who have assisted him throughout the years. He has gotten a lot of assistance from Joe Walko, a friend from Middletown. Walko is very knowledgeable about historic maps and deeds of ownership, and has been instrumental in the discovery of several historic cemeteries. Koppel also works with members of the local metro government, who log the cemeteries in a database and prevent new buildings from encroaching on them. Throughout the course of his work. Koppel has interacted with many members of the public, most of whom have responded well to his mission. In his own words, he has had “a lot of experiences and have met a lot of people. Most of the people have been terrific.”

Koppel continues to research and preserve historic cemeteries, although COVID-19 has impacted his ability to go out and physically search for sites. Because of current limitations on social gatherings, he is also unable to interact with landowners or other members of the public. However, he is undeterred. He continues to research and monitor historic cemeteries, knowing that these important sites have endured crises of this magnitude before. He is also eager to talk to members of the public who are interested in his work or may have further information about historic cemeteries in their area. He is especially interested in speaking with anyone who has knowledge about a historic cemetery in Jeffersontown, near Skyview Park. Anyone who has information on this location, or any other, may reach out to Koppel using the contact information below.

“I’ll talk all day about cemeteries,” he says.

Koppel can be reached via email at

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