A Mississippi woman finds a path through her own grief in a historic Memphis cemetery.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
It’s no exaggeration to say one very bad week in May 2020 nearly sucked the life out of Sheena Barnett. Figuratively speaking, of course.
On May 10 (Mother’s Day), after he had been hospitalized a week or more, Barnett’s dad, Jesse, died from complications of COVID-19. The last time she was able to speak with her dad, via FaceTime, was May 5, the day before her birthday.
Exactly one week later, on another Sunday in May, Barnett received word that her position at Graceland was terminated, another large loss, thanks to COVID.
Grieving the loss of her father and a job she loved, Barnett wrestled daily with a combustive mixture of emotions running the gamut from extreme sadness to unacceptance and everything in between.
A journalist by profession, Barnett, then 37, had long been intrigued by cemeteries and the multitude of stories to be found among the headstones.
When she started working at Graceland, in 2014, a Facebook friend mentioned a cemetery in Memphis with a child’s wooden swing near a burial plot.
“I had to see it,” said the Pontotoc native. “I first stepped foot in Elmwood Cemetery in 2014, and I fell in love with it. It is truly a reflection of the city of Memphis — past, present and future. Elmwood has never said no to anyone. There are Grammy-winning musicians, war heroes, Civil Rights leaders, madams and more buried here. People of all races, all faiths.”
Barnett began volunteering as a tour guide at Elmwood in 2016. It’s a place where she’d found joy sharing Elmwood stories with others and a place she’d found peace just by visiting. So, when she felt completely out of sorts in 2020, Barnett reached out to Kim Bearden, Elmwood’s executive director since 2005.
“I told her I was jobless, and Elmwood was the only place that I could think of that brought me happiness,” Barnett said. “I asked her what I could do. I did not job search at all during June — I couldn’t even function. Kim immediately said, ‘stone cleaning,’ and I jumped at it.”
Bearden, who has been with Elmwood for 24 years, understood Barnett’s love of the Memphis cemetery. It’s a love she and her husband, Willy Bearden, a filmmaker and historian, share.
“To lose a parent to the pandemic — such a terrible thing,” Kim Bearden said. “I am so glad Sheena was able to get some solace at Elmwood in the stone cleaning project.
“She has a passion for history, she has a passion for preservation and conservation. There are just some people with very special and unique interests. Sheena is one of those people. Her commitment is amazing.”
It was a sweltering Southern summer when Barnett began scrubbing stones. But she was seeking solace for a heavy load of suffering, so she dared the heat to interfere. After some how-to education, Barnett drove across Morgan Bridge, a span bridge that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, and entered Elmwood Cemetery. Armed with a scrub brush, water and a spray bottle containing D/2, a nontoxic biological solution, Barnett cleaned her first stones on July 1, 2020. She has cleaned more than 400 stones since that day.
In the early weeks, while she was job searching, Barnett could be found in Elmwood three or four days a week. When she became digital media manager with Ray Rico Freelance in Memphis, her stone cleaning continued. Now she scrubs head stones one or two days a week.
Barnett has learned a lot about the art of stone cleaning in the past few years, like it’s not a good idea to clean stones in direct sunlight or when the temperature is below 50 degrees; there are certain necessary fashion accessories that are useful while cleaning — hats, umbrellas, cooling scarves; frozen water or Gatorade can be lifesavers, as can frequent breaks when it’s hot; and working in the shade when possible is wise.
There are sometimes family requests for the complimentary headstone or memorial cleaning, but mostly, Barnett just finds stones that need her care and then begins her work.
“When I’m cleaning stones, I feel peace,” said the Ole Miss journalism graduate and former editor of The Daily Mississippian. “And I feel love. Every stone in this cemetery represents love. The person buried beneath this stone was someone who mattered.
“When I’m here cleaning, it makes me feel less alone. It’s nice to focus on something besides my own problems or the world’s problems. And I can’t stand not being able to read a person’s name. These people deserve to be remembered.”
Elmwood Cemetery, located at 824 S. Dudley St., in Memphis, is 80 acres with nearly 80,000 inhabitants and room for others who might choose Elmwood. The cemetery was established in 1852, when 50 men each gave $500 to buy the land for a cemetery. Two decades later, Elmwood became a nonprofit, one of the oldest in the state of Tennessee. Part of the Rural Cemetery Movement, Elmwood is known for its natural beauty and park-like setting.
“It’s a park for the living and a resting place for the dead,” Barnett said. “In addition to funerals, Elmwood hosts Cemetery Cinema from time to time, and every year, there’s Soul of the City.”
Soul of the City is a themed event that sells out quickly. Live actors dress in costume and portray some of those buried in Elmwood. This year’s event takes place Oct. 6 to Oct. 8.
By her own admission, Sheena Barnett, 39, is a shy introvert. She lives quietly in Hernando with her cat McDuff, a tabby rescued from Graceland. But when she’s leading a tour of Elmwood Cemetery — whether large or for one or two friends who happened by — Barnett bubbles over in sharing her passion.
In fact, Barnett introduced visiting friends to her beloved Elmwood before she became an official tour guide. She and one friend even got locked in the cemetery after hours once.
“I thought we had until 4:30,” she said, laughing. “We found a way out.”
In the summer of 2021, Barnett helped create the True Crimes of Bygone Times tour, which sells out almost every time it’s offered. New ideas for themed tours are never far from Barnett’s brain. Currently, the journalist longs to create a storytellers’ tour.
Such a tour might start with her sharing that a bell tolls every time a hearse bears a body over the bridge into Elmwood.
“That bell rang so much during the height of COVID,” she said.
In addition to being a historic burial place, Elmwood is a Level III Arboretum with over 90 species of trees. Arboretum tours are offered in the spring and fall.
“Elmwood is a bird sanctuary, too,” Barnett proudly said before adding, “And I saw a squirrel do a backflip off a headstone once.”
During tours, Barnett masterfully shares tales about some of Elmwood’s inhabitants. Her stories range from poignant to historical to downright comical. And all are riveting:
A grassy area with few stones is a mass grave where thousands of Memphians were laid to rest during the yellow fever epidemics of 1873 and 1878.
There’s a spot in Elmwood for people who donated their bodies to science, and there’s the grave of Sister Thea Bowman, a Yazoo City-born, Catholic nun who is up for canonization. A few Tuskegee Airmen rest in Elmwood as do the grandparents of Alabama-born actress, Tallulah Bankhead. Helen Keller’s grandparents rest in Elmwood, too.
The grave of Wayne Jackson stirs something in the music-loving Barnett.
“He was one half of the Memphis Horns, and he played horn on just about every hit song of the ’60s,” she said. “You know in ‘Sweet Caroline,’ the bum, bum, bum? That was Wayne Jackson. His tombstone was paid for by the Doobie Brothers.”
A single wooden swing was erected by the grave of a father for his 5-year-old son — it’s the story that first drew Barnett to Elmwood.
Emily Sutton was a Memphis madam whose brothel was closed because of yellow fever. Sutton reopened her brothel as a hospital and helped care for fellow Memphians until she caught the fever and died. She is buried in Elmwood.
Barnett, who has always loved scary stuff, admits to some ghostly experiences during her hours spent cleaning the stones of strangers in Elmwood.
“It was summer, in the middle of a heat wave,” she said. “I was cleaning the headstone of James Kirkland, who died at the age of 40 in 1882. His grave is on the corner of Howard Drive and Toof Avenue.”
Barnett does not like to spend time cleaning stones without getting to know the person to whom it belongs. She researches and learns what she can. She found out Kirkland was a music lover, a choir director and lived near the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
“I also learned that he died of sunstroke,” Barnett said. “And on that hot, hot day while I was cleaning his stone, I suddenly felt the coldest breeze. And I honestly feel like he was trying to keep me from the same fate.”
Barnett’s love of cemeteries did not begin with Elmwood. When she was a little girl, she would visit the Wilkins Cemetery in Union County, Mississippi, with Kathie Barnett, her mom, and also with her grandmother. They would go there and tell stories about family members buried there, and Barnett was fascinated.
“I realized early that cemeteries were more than big fields with stones,” she said. “Oh, my. There were real people with real lives buried there, so I have always loved cemeteries. Cemeterying is a verb for Mama and me when we check out cemeteries.
“When folks ask me why I love Elmwood, I tell them, ‘if you’d come here, you’d get it.’ And I believe they would.”
Elmwood and Beyond
Sheena Barnett and friends Lori Pope of Byhalia and Hannah Donegan of Chicago, who were Daily Mississippian staffers when Barnett was editor in 2005-2006, started a podcast, “Cemetery Row,” in February 2021. The podcast features stories about fascinating dead people and cemeteries. There are two each month, every other Monday.
To learn more about Elmwood Cemetery, its tours and other events, visit elmwoodcemetery.org