Forest Hill Cemetery

By Tobias Wayland

Forest Hill Cemetery is a real life horror movie premise. This ghostly graveyard sprawls over 100 acres, encompasses seven Native American effigy mounds, and has areas devoted to every major American conflict—including the section for confederate soldiers who died at Madison’s Camp Randall POW camp. Naturally, as one might expect, a cemetery with Civil War dead built on an Indian burial ground comes complete with its own rumors of supernatural suspense, and if you’re looking for a ghost of a good time on a pleasant fall afternoon in Wisconsin, you could do much worse. Of particular interest are the Civil War plots, and the granite boulder monument to the “Unknown Dead,” donated by Women’s Relief Corp No. 37 in 1891. Many reports of unsettling feelings and strange shadows originate around these sites. While my own visits to the historic burial site have yet to reveal any evidence of ethereal idlers, strange tales of the funerary grounds abound, and once you’ve seen Forest Hill, it’s easy to see why.

It was a chilly, gray October afternoon when Emily and I decided to visit Forest Hill. Emily is my girlfriend, an exceptional photographer, and exactly the sort of intuitive conversationalist that you would want with you when strolling through a cemetery. There are full-sized roads built to navigate the expansive graveyard by car if you so choose, but we decide to park on the street and explore the area on foot. History of this magnitude and gravity should be experienced intimately, and you have to be willing to immerse yourself in the environment. Haunted places aren’t meant to be viewed from a safe, comfortable distance. And so we walked into Forest Hill; me with my map and Emily with her camera.

It’s striking how quiet it is in the cemetery. I suppose we tend to associate graveyards with silence, but Forest Hill is in the middle of the city, and I expected more ambient noise than the stillness with which we were greeted. The gravitas of the enormous city of the dead hushes any intrusive disturbances from the living world that surrounds it. The muted environment lends the area an otherworldly air, and the urge to respect the solemnity of the necropolis is overpowering. As such, our conversation is reserved, and we limit ourselves to hushed sentences spoken in a tone of subdued reverence.

Our shared love of history leads us directly to the Civil War plots. The Union Soldiers Lot is the closest to the entrance and is thus the first stop of our tour. This lot is row after row of identical grave markers, their ancient inscriptions weathered almost smooth against the stone out of which they’re carved. Emily wanders amongst the field of white gravestones taking pictures, while I drift from one to the next, reading the inscriptions. They’re nearly identical, save for those whose residents are designated as unknown. These are often gifted with a single penny left atop the marker, presumably to follow the tradition of leaving a coin of this denomination to show that someone has visited the grave. I imagine that the people who left the small copper treasures wished to let these fallen soldiers know that despite being unknown, they are not forgotten, and I find that distinctly comforting in its simple humanity.

Behind the guy-wire supported flagpole atop which rests the United States flag that stands sentinel over the soldiers’ graves lies the monument to the unknown dead. This large granite boulder is inscribed “To the Unknown Dead—By Women’s Relief Corps No. 37 1891,” and is said to be a focal point of Forest Hill’s paranormal activity. There is speculation that the unquiet spirits of this place are drawn to it, perhaps because of its representation of their own tragic end. The somber tribute certainly feels eerie to me, but the disquieting ambience of this dread place could be the cause of my discomfort as easily as any supernatural explanation.

The nearby confederate plot is its own world. The 140 graves of the men who died in Camp Randall are separated from the rest of Forest Hill by a low stone wall, and watched over by an empty flagpole. I have no idea what, if any, flag once flew over this monument, but the lack of its presence emphasizes the otherness of the area. There is a palpable sadness that surrounds the final resting place of these men who died for a cause that is now despised. The grave markers are rougher and grayer than those in the union plot. Nobody has left any coins.

Woven throughout the expansive eternal homes of Madison’s most restful residents are the effigy mounds of the region’s indigenous people. These beautiful tributes to the native population’s fallen ancestors blur the line between the natural and the artificial. The goose mound on the edge of Forest Hill’s southeast side is said to be home to the warriors of Wisconsin’s distant past, and yet the harmonious gravesite yields none of the spiritual unrest of the cemetery’s other fallen fighters. There is a sanctity surrounding the raised mounds that inspires peace over the uneasiness so prevalent in the soldiers’ final abode, perhaps because of the harmony with which they exist within their environment; although I have to wonder if this peace comes from the cultural detachment with which I am able to view them. Many of the wounds inflicted upon our society by the Civil War are still felt widely amongst the mainstream population today, despite the fact that the divisive conflict was fought well before any currently living person’s time. This is not to say that the mounds do not inspire such dreadful associations among the native population, but if they do, my separation from the culture leaves me well out of it. The experience for me is the same, regardless of its cause, though, and since this is an experiential article, I dare not speculate further. In any case, it is a fitting end to our tour, as its calming influence helps shed the anxiety of the graveyard’s more tumultuous tombstones.

Emily stops to take photographs of Forest Hill’s ornate mausoleum on our way out, having visually documented the rest of our journey. Our mood lightens as we draw nearer to the exit, the overbearing atmosphere of the cemetery waning in inverse proportion to its proximity. And as we trek back to our car and the mundane suburban environment in which we left it, we are sure of two things: that we need to discuss this experience over strong Irish coffee, and that this will not be our last visit to Forest Hill.