Mount Hope Cemetery

Mount Hope Cemetery, located on the southern edge of the University of Illinois campus on the Champaign/Urbana line, is the oldest operating cemetery in Champaign-Urbana. Mt. Hope began interment in 1856, twenty-three years after the official incorporation of Champaign County with Urbana as its county seat and eleven years before the Illinois Industrial College, later University of Illinois, opened its doors. Walking through this cemetery, you will see over 150 years of local history reflected in the names and designs on the grave markers and the organization and the architecture of the cemetery. In this cemetery are graves with names that can also be found connected to local streets and buildings named after pioneer families: Busey and Cunningham. The evolution of grave-marker styles from the early symbolic stones to the more recent flat stones can be traced. The cemetery is also reflective of the diversity of people and burial customs in Champaign-Urbana over the years with ethnic and veteran burial sections as well as a potters field. The cemetery has had many additions since its establishment in 1856. Mt. Hope currently consists of 52 acres between Florida and Pennsylvania Avenues.

Prior to Mt. Hope, locals were buried in the Old Urbana Cemetery (now Leal Park), the Old Jewish Cemetery, or on family farmland. Jesse Burt, a local farmer, recognized that the growing community of Urbana needed a larger and more organized burial ground with scenic walks more in keeping with the park-like cemeteries then popular and contributed land for this purpose [1]. The cemetery was plotted and surveyed in 1856. Many families moved their ancestors' graves from the old burial grounds to Mt. Hope. The drives through the cemetery were named after trees. Once, numerous footpaths weaved through the cemetery making it a popular place for walks and picnics; however, this space has been reclaimed over the years for burial lots. After it opened, it became the primary cemetery for burials until 1907 when Woodlawn and Roselawn Cemeteries began operation.

Two years before Mt. Hope Cemetery was established, a rail-line was constructed near Urbana, passing through what is now Champaign. The impact of the arrival of the railroad cannot be underestimated: people, supplies and culture could now come and go more easily from Urbana. The population and infrastructure began to grow rapidly at this point, perhaps leading in part to the establishment of a larger cemetery. The railroad also had another impact: the ability to transport the bodies of the dead. People who died elsewhere could be transported back to Champaign-Urbana quickly enough for burial here.

Funeral processions to Mount Hope Cemetery up until the early 1900s would drive through the University of Illinois campus on their way from either Champaign or Urbana. The university maintained the main north and south drive in better condition for these processions. Through the early 1900s, following the death of a prominent citizen, businesses would shut down in the afternoons [2]. Funeral and burial proceedings then, as now, very much depended on the traditions of the deceased.

Within the cemetery are several ethnic and veteran sections, including a Jewish section, currently owned by the Sinai Temple of Champaign-Urbana in stewardship of the Jewish community, and a Muslim section. The oldest part of the Jewish section in Mount Hope Cemetery dates back to 1899 when the B'nai B'rith Lodge purchased twenty-one 8-plot lots from Mount Hope for $300. Many of the first burials in this section were re-interments of graves from the Old Jewish Cemetery. The Jewish section operates separately from Mount Hope Cemetery; while the section is under the ownership of a specific Jewish organization, the operation of the cemetery has been described as a “cooperative activity” between the diversity of Jewish organizations within the community [3]. In June of 2013, there were 392 burials and 13 entombments in the Jewish section. Members of the Sinai Temple maintain an up-to-date publication on the Jewish section including its history and those buried there, you can find information on how to access this publication in the footnotes.

Veterans from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II are buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery [4].
The veteran sections of the cemetery includes soldiers primarily from the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a national organization started by veterans of the Civil War, maintains a veteran section marked by a flagpole and canon from the Civil War. The canon is a 32-pounder seacoast defense coat model from 1845. It was built in 1851 at the West Point Foundry. The two G.A.R. posts of Champaign and Urbana came together to operate this section of the cemetery for Civil War veterans. Over the years, veterans of other wars have been buried in this section. G.A.R. continues to decorate the veteran graves in this section and to maintain the cannon [5].

The northwest corner of the cemetery along Pennsylvania Avenue is a potters field which is where the poor, unknown, criminals and suicide victims were buried. The poor and unknown were also buried at the Champaign County Poor Farm Burial Ground.

Among the graves, one will find many Lodge and Union members. For single men and working-class men with families, involvement in these unions and lodges meant having someone to bury you when you died. The lodge would take care of the funeral arrangements for their brothers and would decorate the graves of their deceased members. The gravestones of those buried were often marked with a Free Masons symbol.

In Mount Hope Cemetery, the gravestones of immigrants to Champaign County often hold clues of their experiences in life. Some of these graves have inscriptions in other languages. Some have inscriptions indicating that the person did not adapt to life in a new land before death. One grave reads “A Stranger in a Strange Land” [6].

Mt. Hope has struggled with upkeep over the years. A reporter for the Champaign County Gazette published an article in August of 1879 on a recent visit to Mt. Hope. Tall grass, deteriorating roads and fallen grave stones were reported. The article concluded with: until improvement are made, “it is not a place to which we should like to take a stranger to visit” [7]. Articles on the subject continued to occasionally appear in local newspapers for several decades. The expenses of the cemetery far outweighed the income, generated primarily from selling lots. The low income could be “accounted for by all the old residents being supplied as a lot provided for 15 to 20 bodies, three generations used one lot. And further, on account of so many bodies of new residents being taken back to their former home” [8]. Though the cemetery tried to keep up with improvements to the cemetery, there simply was not enough money. In the early 1900s, the cemetery began a campaign in the local newspapers trying to persuade the community to endow their family lots by contributing to a 'perpetual care fund'. Un-endowed lots were to be cared for only once a year; but endowed lots would receive regularly attention [9].

In November of 1906, land in Section 18, west of the original cemetery land, was sold to the New Mount Hope Cemetery, now called Roselawn, for $50,000 in an effort to raise funds for improvements. The New Mount Hope Cemetery took advantage of the poor condition of Mt. Hope Cemetery in their advertisements. They described New Mount Hope as “a beautiful tract of land being developed and made into a modern up-to-date cemetery, that the public should and will feel proud of” [10]. The announcements also ripped apart Mt. Hope's perpetual care fund, saying “Are you contributing toward the perpetual care fund? And then have the dead grass set afire, burning up the shrubbery, smoking up your monuments, and giving some unscrupulous person the use of your money?” [11]. Unsurprisingly, this created some ill-feelings between the old Mt. Hope and New Mt. Hope cemetery. Mt. Hope Cemetery brought legal action against New Mt. Hope to “prevent [New Mt. Hope] from advertising the cemeteries as connected, and from removing or destroying the hedge of fence between the two and from benefiting by the name 'New Mount Hope” [12]. The new cemetery was then renamed 'Roselawn.'

See the connected images for more information on the cemetery, including some people buried in Mt. Hope.