Elmwood Cemetery at 4900 Truman Road was the venue for KC Crew’s annual Graveyard 5K Race on Saturday, October 30.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 43-acre cemetery was designed by renowned landscape architect George Kessler, the creator of Kansas City’s parks and boulevard system.
Hundreds of participants turned out to exercise on a crisp autumn morning in the historic cemetery, weaving twice through the mausoleums and headstones before enjoying a beer tasting, sandwiches and other post-race refreshments.
For the fourth year – taking a break because of COVID-19 in 2020 – KC Crew made a $1,000 donation to Elmwood Cemetery. This year, 260 runners participated.
“KC Crew basically takes care of everything, I just have to open the gate for them about 6:30 a.m., and they do all the setup,” said Paul Benson, Elmwood Cemetery Society treasurer. “They mark the course, they blow all the leaves off, they just do everything, and at the end of the day they just pack up and leave, the gates are open and everybody’s happy.”
Elmwood is the resting place of nearly 36,000 Kansas Citians. When the cemetery opened in 1872, more than 30 graves were relocated by the McGee family to Elmwood. Contrary to popular belief, the cemetery is not full and they are still selling plots.
“You can’t go out and buy a lot for 15 people anymore, those are gone, but singles, doubles, triples, those are still available,” Benson said. “They’re just kind of spread all over the place.”
Being as old as it is, everything is deteriorating. A section of the cemetery near the west wall has been blocked off because the wall is leaning due to pressure from overgrown tree roots on a neighboring property. The office needs a new roof and its radiators need serviced. Outside, the sidewalks and steps are crumbling. Eventually, the entire wall and wrought iron fence bordering the cemetery will need serious attention.
“Anything extra that we happen to get will go for some maintenance,” Benson said. “Luckily, we do have a lot of very good volunteers who are well versed in a lot of things. We have a retired fire captain who is very handy with doing all kinds of mechanical things and he also knows a lot of firemen who do plumbing work and that kind of thing. That really helps us out, and if they don’t do it for free, they give us a discount.”
Earlier this year, apprentices from Ironworkers Local 10 came out to repair a section of fence for free that was the victim of a hit-and-run on Truman Road.
Recently, they had the stone wall that surrounds the cemetery repaired where another car ran into it, knocking a section over.
“We finally had a gentleman who volunteered to raise the money for us,” Benson said. “His wife apparently has family buried nearby and she got tired of looking at the wall back there, so he said, ‘Okay, let me be in charge of fundraising for six weeks,’ and we did raise enough money to get it fixed.”
In the long term, the Elmwood Cemetery Society is fundraising to add a functioning bathroom to the chapel on-site, and add an ADA compliant entrance for weddings, funerals and other events.
Beginning in 2003, Elmwood hosted its own 5K race. They also used to host an annual picnic organized by well-known civic leader Adele Hall, which the Society hopes to resurrect in some form next year for the cemetery’s 150th anniversary.
“We’ve got some younger people on the board now who have ideas that us old folks never even think about,” Benson said. “We’re stuck in kind of a traditional mode, but the younger people come up with these ideas like instead of having someone barbecue, why don’t we have food trucks? We’ll see what comes from that.”
For years, local historians and reenactors gave history tours, telling stories of those buried at Elmwood. Next year, Benson plans to give a one-hour tour of the cemetery after the race, pointing out some of the lesser known historical figures.
The volunteers occasionally discover people who have had an impact on daily life are buried in the cemetery, or have people doing their own genealogy research reach out to them asking for information. Benson said it’s common for families to purchase headstones for their ancestors who couldn’t afford one at the time of their death.
The cemetery is fortunate to have quite a few Boy Scouts who do their Eagle Scout projects at the cemetery, raising 20 or 30 headstones at a time, Benson said. Cemetery volunteer Jim Taylor also supervises community service hours for minor offenders.
The cemetery’s largest expense is mowing, and they depend on volunteers to pick up trash and branches to make the mowers’ job easier.
“We do count on volunteers quite a bit,” Benson said. “We’re always looking for more volunteers with skills – anyone who can do plumbing and electricity, stone masons, anything like that – we’re more than happy to have them come out and give us a hand sometime.”
The Elmwood Cemetery Society organizes a cleanup every fourth Saturday of the month, during the spring, summer and fall. While they’re done for this year, more info can be found on Elmwood Cemetery Society’s Facebook page. They accept donations through their website, elmwoodcem-kc.org.