Community Connections - Oakhill Cemetery

Oakhill Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Grand Rapids. It provides us with a window into the lives of the people buried there. Important figures from the early history of Grand Rapids were laid to rest in this cemetery, including former mayors, founders, Civil War veterans, and prominent business leaders.

By the end of these activities, students will be able to: 

  • Create dialogues between themselves and their families about Grand Rapids and its historic residents
  • Compare their own lives to the lives of those that lived in the 19th or 20th centuries 
  • Summarize the legacy of the Grand Rapidian they researched
  • Observe the value and impact of cemeteries in cities

Kendall gravestone in Oakhill Cemetery

These activities are based in the northern section of the cemetery, although many of the prompts can be applied to any area. The intent behind these activities is to engage students in the history of the city.

Resources:


Scavenger Hunts (any grade level - challenge varies by depth of research)

This scavenger hunt will lead you through the cemetery on a hunt to find the final resting places of notable Grand Rapidians. Pick your favorite (or more than one!) and learn more about the person and their contributions to Grand Rapids history. For each person you choose:

  • Brainstorm 2-3 questions you want to know about the person
  • Use local history resources to answer your questions. Links to several resources are listed above.
Find the tallest manmade structure
Find the tallest manmade structure

Photo of Herpolsheimer monument in Oakhill Cemetery


Find the tomb with colored glass
Find the tomb with colored glass

Quick access to information about this person:

Photo of colored glass in Austin tomb


Find the mythical twins
Find the mythical twins

Quick access to information about this person:

A.B. Watson's tomb in Oakhill Cemetery


Find the group of gravestones with six-pointed stars
Find the group of gravestones with six-pointed stars

Oakhill Cemetery was created as a resting place for Jewish residents of Grand Rapids. In 1853, when the cemetery was first established, the area was at the edge of the city, with forest and farmland to the south.

Julius Houseman, the mayor of Grand Rapids in 1872, is buried in this part of the cemetery.

Quick access to information about the history of the cemetery and Houseman:

Photo of Jewish section of Oakhill Cemetery


Open-ended Exploration (grades 6-12)

Pick any person buried in Oakhill Cemetery. Visit their burial site and start your exploration using one (or more) of these prompts:

  • Why did they or their family move to Grand Rapids? What about the city at that time made it a place so many people wanted to live?  
  • What major historical events took place during their lifetime? How do you think these events affected their life and/or business? 
  • What kind of technological changes happened while they were alive? 
  • What was the design inspiration behind the choice of the grave/tomb? What might have prompted the person buried there to choose that kind of architecture? Who else in the cemetery to chose that style?

 

***Note: The challenge level of this activity will depend on the person you choose. It is easier to find information about some people, but much harder to find information about other people. (Why do you think that is?) You can use the photos at the bottom of this page to choose someone who is easier to research.


Diving Deeper (grades 5-12)

Pick any person buried in Oakhill Cemetery. Visit their burial site and start your exploration using one (or more) of these prompts:

  • Research what Grand Rapids was like during the time period this person was alive 5-12:
    • What were the city boundaries? 
    • What manufacturing businesses existed? 
    • What industrial progress occurred?
    • What did people use for transportation? 
    • What sanitation and healthcare technologies existed?
    • What immigrant communities were present?
  • What business did they work for, own, or were affiliated with? 7-12
    • Is that business (or a branch of it) still around?
    • What do they do now?
  • Where in Grand Rapids did this person live? 5-12
    • Find their property on Google Maps (NOTE: In 1912, Grand Rapids changed how address numbers were assigned.)
    • What is it still standing?
    • What is the area like now?
    • Draw a Venn diagram and compare life in that neighborhood now versus life when that individual lived there. 
  • Create a family tree for this person: https://tinyurl.com/t3c9uqh 7-12

 

***Note: The challenge level of this activity will depend on the person you choose. It is easier to find information about some people, but much harder to find information about other people. (Why do you think that is?) You can use the photos at the bottom of this page to choose someone who is easier to research.