At the edge of Hillsdale, where the town meets the woods, lies Oak Grove Cemetery.  It is a peaceful spot, settled on rolling hills beneath oak trees that litter the ground with orange leaves in the fall and gave the cemetery its name.

Oak Grove is an amal­ga­mation of graves.  Some are over a century old with faded names and crum­bling pedestals. Others have only been around for a matter of months, all shining granite and crisp verses in modern fonts.  Flowers, American flags, and an occa­sional wind chime reveal the presence of the friends and family who visit to pay their respects.

Oak Grove is a cen­ter­piece of Hillsdale’s her­itage.  According to his­torian and former Hillsdale pro­fessor Arlan Gilbert, four Hillsdale pro­fessors orig­i­nally estab­lished the graveyard in 1859.  It was never a college-owned cemetery, but because so many of Hillsdale’s founders, sup­porters, and staff lay buried there, the cemetery has always been closely asso­ciated with the school.

Pro­fessor of History Brad Birzer has lived across the street from Oak Grove Cemetery since 2007.

“It’s an extremely important spot for the com­munity and the college — not just because of its beauty in design, but also because of how many prominent persons are buried there,” Birzer says. “Each stone, of course, tells a story, and each person buried there – prominent or not – rep­re­sents some­thing unique never to be seen again in this world.”

According to Birzer, there are close to 300 Civil War vet­erans buried in the cemetery.  Near the center of the graveyard stands a Civil War statue of a soldier on a pedestal engraved with the words “in memory of our com­rades.”  It is ded­i­cated to the Free Masons.  Encir­cling the figure in the tra­di­tional Mason burial pattern are a number of veteran graves and, rumor has it, a loyal Civil War horse.

Among the vet­erans lies Richmond W. Melendy, a judge-turned-pauper whose mil­lionaire friends buried him in Oak Grove. Gilbert writes of Melendy in his book “His­toric Hillsdale College,” saying, “Just before Melendy’s body was lowered into the grave, a crippled veteran stepped forward and asked to see the face of his beloved officer one more time. The request for a moving silent interview of the living and the dead was granted.”

Gilbert’s words speak to the great sig­nif­i­cance of the cemetery.  He points out, “Back then [mid-1800s], death came early.  Suf­fering and death were prominent on the frontier…the attitude towards death was that it was part of God’s plan and it was inevitable.  The beau­tiful cemetery rec­og­nizes that.  It is almost poetic.”

Gilbert says that after reading hun­dreds of per­sonal doc­u­ments and diaries “you get a feeling for the poor souls who are lying there.”  He shows one section of the cemetery where a mother, father, and their children lay buried.  They died within two weeks of each other, probably from small pox.

As Gilbert points out, the modern world often fears and attempts to hide the reality of death.  In estab­lishing a graveyard asso­ciated with the college the founders rec­og­nized the even­tu­ality of death, not as some­thing to be feared but as some­thing to be faced with for­titude.

“It was a part of life,” says Gilbert.  “Birth, life, and death.  I do think that there was a greater reality about death back then.”

The graveyard is now seen as a symbol of life’s tragedy; yet, its mono­liths and mon­u­ments pointing to the sky serve as a com­forting reminder of the promise of life to come.  As Birzer says, “it’s laid out to be a place of con­tem­plation and hope.”

The cemetery plays an integral role in student and faculty life.  According to Birzer, stu­dents some­times visit Oak Grove.  He has taken his own classes to the cemetery in the past.

“I’ve led several excur­sions through the cemetery,” he says.  “Stu­dents always respond well.  The cemetery, dating back about 160 years, is a pretty perfect 19th century cemetery.”

Oak Grove played an even bigger role in campus life during the 19th century.  Gilbert says that after the Civil War, once a year stu­dents and faculty lined up and marched down to the cemetery.  There, they held a cel­e­bration to honor the young men who died in the war.  This tra­dition con­tinued up until the 20th century.

Today, stu­dents are more cav­alier.

“People have told me it’s a good place to study, visit, and just hang out,” says senior Emily Whitaker.

Several decades ago, the pond in the middle of the cemetery was filled in to prevent stu­dents from holding “baptism” parties there.

A number of campus faculty visit the cemetery reg­u­larly.

“Pro­fessor of History and Pol­itics Paul Rahe and his family walk through the cemetery almost every Sunday; retired edu­cation pro­fessor Walt Lewke walks his dog there almost every day; and Pro­fessor of English John Somerville runs through the graveyard several times a week,” Birzer said.

Of course, every cemetery has its fair share of ghost stories.  Gilbert says the ghost of a Civil War horse has been rumored to appear on occasion.  Birzer and his wife say they’ve had several odd encounters living near the cemetery.

“We’ve had some weird expe­ri­ences,” he says, “seen some strange lights, heard some strange noises, and thought we’ve seen some ghostly things crossing our property.”

“I’ve only been there once,” says senior Joshua Koczman. “My friend and I bought McDonalds and went at night.  We got nervous and left when the pit in the cemetery started filling with mist.”

According to the City of Hillsdale, Oak Grove is approx­i­mately 40 acres and con­tains over 9,000 gravesites, adding an average of 60 burials per year.  Eugene Goodlock serves as the graveyard’s sexton, but was unavailable for ques­tions due to medical leave.