Tom Davis, Crown Hill Cemetery Guide

The docent leads the living through the realm of the dead.

November 2017Add a comment

Tom Davis moonlights at Crown Hill Cemetery, telling stories about soldiers, politicians, and angels. As a tour guide—and the cemetery’s unofficial historian—Davis has spent more than 20 years walking backward through the third largest non-government cemetery in the nation. More than 200,000 people are buried in this Indy landmark. That’s twice the population of South Bend.

His first decade as a guide, Davis did a lot of research, reading the novels of Hoosier authors Booth Tarkington and Meredith Nicholson—both interred here—and a slew of history books. In the process, he compiled 500 pages of notes. Since then, he has developed a dozen tours, from Authors to African Americans to The Women of Crown Hill.

“I know a little about a lot and a lot about very little,” he says.

Tonight, Davis is giving a sunset Angel tour. Of the 100-plus statues on the grounds, 30 are angels, fashioned from marble, granite, and stained glass. Between cherubs, Davis, 64, a soft-spoken accountant, weaves in the occasional joke.

“The primary statue in most cemeteries is a lady looking sad,” he tells guests. “It’s called a habitual mourner. Every man wants a lady looking sad at his grave. Most of the time, the only way he can do it is to build a statue.”

The Angel tour was a late birthday present for Meredith Sickmeier from Greenwood. Like Davis, Sickmeier visits graveyards when she travels. “Growing up, my backyard was right against one,” she says. “We played in it. We rode our bikes in it. I was never afraid of cemeteries. I love them.”

Crown Hill was established in 1863 as part of the Rural Cemetery movement, which advocated that graveyards be built away from churches and metropolitan centers. Cities were often short on open space and museums, so cemeteries served as both parks and centers of art.

As Indianapolis grew, so did Crown Hill. Now, standing in the center of its 555 acres, you can forget you’re in a big city. Some 110 species of trees grow here. Deer wander. Its eponymous hill, the highest point in Marion County, offers a stunning view of the Indianapolis skyline.

Influential people are buried in Crown Hill: U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, three vice presidents, 14 senators, 11 Indiana governors, Congresswoman Julia Carson, artist Otto Stark, Colts owner Robert Irsay, poet Etheridge Knight, and Colonel Eli Lilly. But the biggest draw was no angel. The cemetery closed the day outlaw John Dillinger was buried, but onlookers pressed their faces against the fence. Almost 85 years later, people still bring offerings. A bullet. A baseball. A child’s drawing. Tonight, his gravestone is decorated with loose change, a sodden cigarette, and a tulip.

As Davis strolls, stories pour forth. David Letterman came to visit his father’s gravesite and couldn’t recall its exact location. The comedian wandered the grounds calling, “Dad? Dad?” Suffragist May Wright Sewall discovered spiritualism later in life and claimed to communicate with her dead husband, Theodore. Governor James Whitcomb donated books to the DePauw University library with the stipulation they not be removed. “The story goes that some students have taken them out of the library, and his ghost hunts them down,” Davis says.

Though Davis offers a Skeletons in the Closet tour, he’s no Ghostbuster.

“There are some people who think parts of Crown Hill are haunted,” he says. “That’s their business. I’ve been here at midnight and maybe I’m not in touch with the spirits—I am no May Wright Sewall—but I think of it more as a people museum.”

And a family place. His wife, Marty Davis, works at Crown Hill, and his father is buried here. Like the best tour guides, Davis will personalize a private tour with specialized research. “There are eight Elizabeth Wrights,” he tells me. “And seven or eight Tom Davises, too.”

The last angel is the smallest, not quite 18 inches tall, marble and mossy. The words “Silent Night” are engraved in German: “Stille Nacht.” When the final visitor drives out the Gothic gates—leaving Davis alone with the dead, the deer, and the dark—it is.

 

This is the latest piece in a new series called Work, exploring interesting jobs in Indiana. Its author, Lili Wright, teaches English at DePauw University and has been published in The New York Times and Newsweek. Her recent novel, Dancing with the Tiger, was an Edgar Awards finalist. 

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