What if we told you there were expansive urban parks with miles of car-free roads and beautiful scenery that most runners completely overlook? There’s only one catch: There are dead people in those parks.
The South is home to a number of rural garden cemeteries, which were built in the 1800s and designed to be green spaces enjoyed by a city’s public. Some may think that running through a burial ground is too morbid, or even disrespectful, but many of these cemeteries host concerts, picnics, and walking tours. And more urban runners are finding them to be a peaceful destination for logging road miles without the hassle of traffic.
“All it takes to overcome that feeling of morbidity is to walk through here once,” says David Moore, executive director of the Oakland Cemetery Foundation. “It’s so much more than a place to bury the dead. It’s a place to celebrate life.”
Tim Grotenhaus is a runner and race director who lives next to Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, which is known for its famous literary residents and hilly terrain. “The cemetery is basically a park; it just has bones in the ground. It’s a good place to reflect while you’re running.”
Here are three regional cemeteries ripe for running.
Paved paths roll through small valleys and over hills in this cemetery with pockets of graves and memorials set amongst trees and shrubs. Hollywood sits on the edge of downtown Richmond, making it a popular run for city dwellers. Several vantage points inside the cemetery overlook the James River. You could stage an entire run within the borders of the 135-acre cemetery.
Famous Residents: James Monroe, our fifth president; John Tyler, our tenth president (famous for vetoing most bills passed by Congress in an attempt to keep federal government small); Lewis Ginter, inventor of the mass-produced cigarette.
Must See: The Pyramid, a 90-foot granite pyramid built in 1869 to commemorate the 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried there.
Ghost Story: The Poole Vampire breaks out of the mausoleum tomb of William Wortham Poole. Also, a cast-iron statue of a dog comes alive and roams the cemetery at night.
Miles of paved, skinny roads circumnavigate this sloping cemetery speckled with ancient oak, poplar, and dogwood trees a mile from downtown Asheville. The narrow paths twist past marble mausoleums of this 87-acre cemetery established in 1885. Follow the roads to the bottom of the cemetery and you’ll be faced with a monster climb coming back out. Download an iPhone app with a map and self-guided historic tour, and the Thomas Wolfe 8K takes runners through the cemetery every October.
Famous Residents: Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel; William Sidney Porter (O. Henry); James H. Posey, a bodyguard to Abraham Lincoln.
Must See: The False Angel. You’d expect to see an angel at Thomas Wolfe’s grave, but in fact the most prominent angel in Riverside towers over a Methodist preacher’s wife’s grave. This same angel was misidentified by a newspaper reporter in 1930 as the statue made famous by Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel, but Wolfe claimed he’d never laid eyes on the statue before. Muse or not, it’s an impressive angel.
Ghost Story: Riverside is home to a number of Confederate soldiers, including a Robert E. Lee relative, and an entire Confederate regiment has been seen marching in formation at dusk. Also, a macabre group of zombie enthusiasts have been known to hang out at the cemetery dressed as zombies at night. Seriously.
Oakland covers just 48 acres, but its narrow streets cruise through an oasis of magnolias, oaks, and roses not far from Peachtree Street, making it a popular destination for Atlanta runners. The Bell Tower sits in the center of the cemetery at the second highest point in the city of Atlanta. You can run a couple of miles within the cemetery, or include the adjacent Grant Park for a longer run. Hop into the visitor’s center for a self-guided tour map. Join hundreds of runners for the Run Like Hell 5K on October 2. oaklandcemetery.org
Famous Residents: Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind; Golf great Bobby Jones. You’ll recognize his grave by the pile of golf-balls that pilgrims leave next to his tomb.
Must See: The Lion of Atlanta, a sleeping lion sculpted from granite from Stone Mountain, marking the graves of 3,000 unknown Confederate soldiers. The archangel Gabriel, on top of Governor Joseph Brown’s Monument, is also impressive.
Ghost Story: In the Confederate portion of Oakland Cemetery, listen for the “roll call of the dead,” as soldiers’ names are called and responded to with “present.” Some visitors have also reported seeing apparitions of Union soldiers hanging from trees.