Q & A: Jorja Frazier

As the historian of Elmwood Cemetery, Jorja Frazier knows where the bodies are — more than 70,000 of them. She helps family members locate the graves of loved ones, maintains the archives, helps conduct school tours, and — in her spare time — ponders the identity of the mysterious "Elmfoot." >>>

Why does Elmwood need a historian?

Because this cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places, our goal has been to preserve its unique history, and part of my job has been to maintain the amazing archives here. They are critical to finding old graves, and the Elmwood archives go back to the very first burial, in 1853.

Do other cemeteries in the Memphis area have full-time historians?

Not that I'm aware of. And the sad thing is so many old cemeteries have lost their archives, too. Ownership of the property changes, the books get lost, maybe there are fires, and sometimes it's just not considered a priority. Even in times of great stress or calamity, such as during the yellow fever epidemics of the 1800s, Elmwood kept lists of the people who died, and where they are buried. But it's not just the books. The Elmwood archives contain maps, photographs, business records, obituaries, and inquiries from family members. And of course the monuments themselves are historical documents, too.

How did you land this unusual job?

I earned a master's degree in education from the University of Illinois and came to Memphis when my husband started a business here. I first began working with the Mallory-Neely House and the Magevney House and when budget cuts closed those properties, I came to Elmwood.

What's a typical day like for you?

There's no typical day. It just depends on who walks in the door, and what they are looking for. And thanks to the Internet, I get inquiries from all over the world. I've recently answered questions from England, Switzerland, and India.

What are these people asking about?

Many are family members trying to locate a grave. But a lot of people come here for research because there are so many avenues available — not just of specific people, but burial customs, social trends, cemetery art. Last month there was a professor from the University of Pennsylvania researching a book on yellow fever. The really interesting part of this job is to follow the lead, to find something that somebody has been looking for. And you never can tell when just one piece of paper can put you on the right track.

One person was looking for a Civil War soldier, and she thought his name was C.O. Reilly but she hadn't been able to trace him. Well, I discovered that his name was actually C. O'Reilly, and that's when we knew we really did have him here. I can't tell you how grateful people are for our assistance, because you've made their day — or sometimes their year — when they've been searching for somebody so long.

You actually make working in a cemetery seem like fun.

People tell me that I have the best job! I'm like a dog with a bone, and I won't stop until I find what they need. Researching this is like treasure hunting, but you're on a hunt for people. And finding somebody, or that one little link that provides an answer, can be just as rewarding as finding any treasure.

Are there any special challenges?

One of my pet peeves is trying to find married women, who are often listed just by their married name, as Mrs. So-and-So. Women have their own identities, but sometimes even on their death certificates it will say that. And if they remarry, you can lose track of them. It's just hard to find women sometimes.

What do school groups get out of their experience here?

Children are sometimes skeptical — they think a tour through a cemetery will be boring. But once you start talking about the people and they can see the monuments and learn what their lives were like, they are really fascinated. It's an opportunity to make history be a story about people.

Any spooky experiences working in the city's oldest cemetery?

No, and I never had them at the houses [in Victorian Village] either, which is supposed to be haunted. Sometimes I feel maybe I should make up a story, but no — nothing has ever happened to me here.

So who — or what — is this "Elmfoot" creature?

We don't know. The caretakers have seen a ground-running fuzzy creature. We have foxes here, but it wasn't a fox, and it was too large for a squirrel. He burrowed in beside a tree, but we never knew what it was.

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