Art from the grave: Old Gray Cemetery

Angel in Old Gray Cemetery

Close-up of one of the many angels in Old Gray Cemetery, Knoxville, TN

It’s not just at All Hallows’ Eve that thoughts turn to the realm of the underworld and the tributes the living pay to those who have gone before.  Old Gray Cemetery of Knoxville celebrates the “dying” art of carefully crafted tombstones set among majestic trees with a tribute befitting the many forefathers who made names for themselves in the area with the annual Lantern and Carriage Tour.  To some, it may seem a bit eerie to wander the grounds and hear reenactors take on the persona of the deceased.  But to others, it’s historical and artistic preservation.

Each year, Old Gray Cemetery (named in honor of Thomas Gray, author of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”) holds an “open house,” if you will, showcasing the beautifully wrought markers of Knoxville’s legends and setting up stations where period-clad actors tell about “themselves” when they were alive.  It’s quite a tour.  Come along, if you dare.

Carriage Ride

Carriage Ride at the Lantern and Carriage Tour, Old Gray Cemetery

The Art of Dramatic Interpretation

At each station, a person, dressed in the attire that they imagine the deceased would have worn when alive, recounts major accomplishments of the person they represent.  They tell of births, travels, marriages, and encounters with war or adversity or illness. And they tell it in first person, bringing to life those who could have been forgotten but never will be as long as the story is told.

The Art of Tombstone Renderings

A source of art in their own right, old tombstones contrast interestingly with their modern counterparts, the almost-sterile blocks of granite emboldened with a single family name and little more.  Old cemeteries like Old Gray form a rich repository of symbols and representative markings indicating links to biblical creatures such as angels or natural elements like flowers or tree trunks.  Some tombstones bear quotes (humorous, religious, or otherwise) that the deceased may have selected, or someone thought they would like in perpetuity. Old Gray has its share of angels, Civil War memorabilia (since both Confederate and Union soldiers are buried there), and graves of children sometimes indicated with simple headstones in a family plot.

The Art of Reenactment

The Lantern and Carriage Tour is not about somber roamings among the tombstones.  Cannons fire, wagons roll, and crowds stroll the grounds in search of famous names.  In fact, it’s not meant to be spooky at all.  Just a tribute to the preservation of Knoxville’s history and the art of this cherished resting place founded in 1850 and part of the Civil War Heritage Trail.

Old Gray Cemetery

543 North Broadway

Knoxville, TN 37917

12 thoughts on “Art from the grave: Old Gray Cemetery


    I loved this post Rusha, and I love old cemeteries. Charleston, SC is one of my favorite cities for graveyard art. In addition to being an indicator of social values of the time, tombstones are rock markers of history: yellow fever epidemics, wars, etc. Interesting stuff. ~James

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      Glad you mentioned Charleston. Would love to take a Ghost Tour, Cemetery Tour, etc. Love that city. We took a Ghost Tour in Savannah once and loved it — just wandering around in the night listening to tall tales and spooky encounters. True or not, it made for a memorable evening!

  2. susanissima

    Love this post, Rusha! My hubster and I are absolutely drawn to the art of cemeteries, but not for an extended stay! We adore painting watercolors and writing poetry in them, all over the world. Thank you!

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      Thanks for this comment — it shows we have a lot in common. We don’t, however, have the artistic talents you have, but we love roaming through old cemeteries. It’s fascinating to read about people and their families and to see the art on many of the headstones.

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      We’ve taken to visiting more and more cemeteries — lovin’ the old headstones with the sayings, carvings, etc. And the reenactments at Old Gray make for a great touch. They repeat what they say over and over during the two-hour tour, so a lot of people get history without really realizing it! Come see us!

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