Is it weird to like photographing cemeteries? I’m drawn to them. When I’m on a road trip I stop to tour even the most ragtag patch of graves. But I prefer beautiful cemeteries, and Crown Hill is easily the most beautiful of any of the cemeteries I’ve photographed. It could be my favorite favorite subject of all.
A cemetery could be the best place for an introverted photographer to go when he needs some alone time. I seldom encounter other people in cemeteries, and when I do, they leave me alone. But my wife sometimes comes along. I know it’s love because being with her is nearly as good as pure alone time. We love to take photo walks together. She took this photo of me at Crown Hill on one of our walks.
The Civil War still raged when Crown Hill was founded in 1863. It was the city’s second major cemetery even though it was located, at the time, outside the city limits.
Spanning 38th Street along the Michigan Road, Crown Hill started at 236 acres and expanded over the years to its current 555 acres. More than 200,000 people are interred here, from everyday citizens to titans of industry, celebrities of their time, one President, and three Vice Presidents.
The cemetery got its name from a notable hill on the property that came to be called the “crown” of Indianapolis. It’s the highest elevation in a notably flat city. Standing on the crown, you can see for miles.
Let’s start our photo tour at the crown and take in the view. I’ve shot it over and over. I love it.
Many of the most prominent names in Indianapolis have tombs on this hill. But at the very top lies a poet who, in his day, had rock-star celebrity status.
It’s hard to imagine now how any poet could be so adored as Riley was. At around the turn of the 20th century he was the nation’s most-read poet. His public appearances could bring out thousands of people. Indiana schools were required to teach his poems in the 1910s! His 1916 death was front-page news across the country. His body was allowed to lie in state in the Indiana Statehouse, an honor previously bestowed only on Abraham Lincoln. So it was small wonder that he was buried at such a prominent and visible place.
Schoolchildren traditionally leave coins on his tomb. It is all donated to the Riley Hospital for Children.
This little child, sitting next to Riley’s tomb, will forever read Riley’s rhymes.
Many of Crown Hill’s most interesting grave markers are on the hill.
Crown Hill is also a showplace of cemetery architecture. As a bridgefan, I love the bridge that carries 38th Street over a road that connects the north and south portions of the cemetery. When you drive along 38th Street you might never know the bridge is here. It was built in 1925.
On one visit, we met mama deer and her fawns at the bridge.
One of my favorite photos from Crown Hill is this one from under the bridge.
Crown Hill has two entrances. This gate, built 1885, awaits at the south entrance.
The actual gates are ornate iron affairs.
Just beyond the gate stands the Waiting Station, built the same year.
The 1875 Gothic Chapel is just down the road from the Gate and the Waiting Station. It held James Whitcomb Riley’s body for a year while his burial site was prepared.
57 private mausoleums dot the grounds, and they can be stunning.
This mausoleum holds the body of Carl Fisher, who founded the Indianapolis 500 and the Lincoln and Dixie Highways.
Many of the less prominent gravesites have interesting markers, too.
Even graves that have plainer markers seem more interesting because of the lovely setting.
Autumn is stunning at Crown Hill. It’s my favorite time to go.
My favorite subject within this favorite subject is the National Cemetery. Established in 1866 and administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, this 1.4-acre site inters primarily Union Army soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
795 soldiers are buried here.
The plain markers’ sober, dignified typography makes them compelling.
I have regularly taken my sons to Crown Hill for the portraits I make of them. There are plenty of places to make portraits that are not obviously in a cemetery. But this spot before military graves was interesting enough to me that I photographed it anyway.
Let’s take one last trip up the big hill for a parting view of the city.
I believe I will miss Crown Hill the most of my favorite photographic subjects. Maybe I can get Margaret to drive down with me sometimes. This is one worth hanging onto even if it does take me a lot longer to drive to it now.
Last updated on 14 March 2020 by Jim Grey