There are more than 200 burial grounds in Champaign County. The majority of these are no longer active and a good many have been lost to time and nature. Local historians and genealogists have endeavored to keep these cemeteries alive in our memories through research, discussions and preservation. They recognize that cemeteries are sites where past and present, life and death meet to reveal who the community was and who the community is now. Considering the changes in the architectural design of the grounds, the shapes and inscriptions on the grave markers, who was buried where creates a narrative of development in Champaign-Urbana. This tour explores Champaign-Urbana history by Looking at how the community dealt with death and how they have remembered the dead.
The burials of the earliest settlers in Champaign County were primarily on family farms if the settlers had survived long enough to establish a farm, or along the road if the person died while traveling through the area. In the 1830s, land was dedicated for a community burial ground (now Leal Park). The land was available for anyone to use but was unorganized and not kept up. Among the hardships of early life in Champaign County, death was an expected event and generally burials occurred with small ceremonies and were marked with small and disintegrable material such as wood.
After the rail line passed through the area in the 1850s, the community began to develop quickly. Some of the hardships of the first settlers were eased and medicine became more available, somewhat distancing the threat of death from everyday existence. The cities’ first organized and designed cemetery, Mount Hope, with a staff of groundskeepers was established in the 1850s. Funerals became more ceremonial and grave markers became more ornate and permanent. Financial troubles plagued Mount Hope since the beginning. As Champaign-Urbana continued to grow, more cemeteries were established to accommodate the increase in population. These cemeteries began to operate like businesses in order to sustain themselves while continue to provide affordable burial options to the local community.
This has been introductory overview of cemeteries in Champaign-Urbana. The entries in this tour discuss in greater detail the social histories and tensions surrounding the cemeteries as well as some of the people buried there.