The brief May 4, 1865, entry in the well-used volume is just one of many for funerals held at Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery, but it’s enough to inspire a major fundraising drive aimed at restoring and preserving two of the cemetery’s oldest record books.
“It has the name, ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ the cause of death, ‘assassinated,’ and the place of birth, ‘Kentucky,’” said Oak Ridge Cemetery executive director Michael Lelys. “It’s all in the old, fancy handwritten script by the sextons (cemetery caretakers) of that time.”
The simple, one-inch-thick book is the first volume of interment records beginning in 1858 at Oak Ridge, which was officially founded in 1860. The second volume contains the record of Mary Lincoln’s 1882 funeral at the cemetery, among many others. Both books have deteriorated over time, and a $40,000 fundraising drive has been launched to restore, preserve and allow frequent public display of both interment record books.
“Time has not been kind to them after 150 years of people looking at the books. If nothing is done, they will deteriorate to the point of not being readable,” Lelys said. “This is not insurmountable. It’s a lot of money, but according to the conservator, these are priceless documents.
“There is only one handwritten record of the Lincolns’ funerals. It’s kind of awe-inspiring and somewhat chilling, because how many people have the opportunity to do something like this?”
The Oak Ridge Cemetery Board decided to proceed with restoration of the two books, which is estimated to cost $30,000, and to construct an archival display case for $6,000. Facsimile copies of the documents will be produced for $2,300 so the information contained in the originals can be closely examined without disturbing the 150-year-old records. A donor plaque and other minor expenses will bring the total to approximately $39,500.
The nonprofit Oak Ridge Cemetery Foundation will accept tax-deductible contributions for the effort, and organizers are busy developing a GoFundMe page to facilitate donations. Special events will also be planned to encourage contributions.
The restoration effort is already on its way toward the goal. When it disbanded, the Lincoln Funeral Coalition donated approximately $5,000 in funds that remained after the 2015 sesquicentennial observance to the foundation.
“We had the books analyzed by a company in Chicago that has done quite a bit of restoration of historic books,” Lelys said. “It’s a lot of tedious work. They retain the books right now in their laboratory, and once we come up with a 50 percent deposit for the restoration, they will start the work and it will take several months to complete.
“The plans are to have an environmentally controlled case, nothing fancy, out here at the cemetery to store the books in our vault. We can possibly have it on wheels or something so we can bring it out for display and lock it back up at night.”
Katie Spindell is on the cemetery board, and as executive director of the Lincoln Funeral Coalition, she helped guide the coalition’s remaining $5,000 to Oak Ridge for projects like the interment books’ restoration.
“When we had a graphic conservator come to the office to look at these books, his response was, ‘This is a national treasure,’” Spindell said. “It is a powerful feeling when you know that there is only one in the world, and this is it.”
Spindell said the board will review any institution’s request to temporarily display the restored interment books so more people can experience them. But the board is adamant that the books remain the property of Oak Ridge.
“We here in Springfield are so privileged to have Lincoln in our back yard, and this is just one more example of how we should respect this man, by taking care of his records,” Spindell said.
Whether on display at Oak Ridge or loaned to an area institution, the restored interment books are one more reason for people to visit the Springfield area, according to Sarah Watson, executive director of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition.
“Anything new about the Lincolns is always of great interest and brings more visitors to learn about Lincoln,” Watson said. “The burial records add to the richness of the Lincoln story in Illinois.”
More than Lincoln
Although the Lincoln name opens a lot of fundraising doors, their records aren’t the only ones being preserved by the interment book restoration project.
“It’s important to remember Abraham and Mary Lincoln are not the only names listed on these pages,” said Illinois State Historian Samuel Wheeler. “Their names appear alongside those of their friends, family and neighbors. In many cases, those are the ancestors of our friends and neighbors today.”
“Documents like these help us, and will no doubt help our descendants, appreciate how thoroughly the past and present are sometimes connected,” Wheeler said. “By preserving these interment books, the Oak Ridge Cemetery Foundation is preserving history and providing a public service. Original documents like these provide a tangible link to our collective past.”
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s Lincoln curator, James Cornelius, said the interment records offer a quiet witness to one of the most public funerals in U.S. history.
“Lincoln’s death was a horrible turn for the nation, and of course was extensively covered in all places,” Cornelius said. “But the intimacy of something so quiet and final as his burial record at Oak Ridge Cemetery provides a unique personal touch to his life in Springfield.”
Lincoln’s May 4, 1865, funeral service began with a procession that started at what is now known as the Old State Capitol, where more than 75,000 people had paid their final respects over the previous 24 hours. The procession slowly wound its way to Oak Ridge Cemetery, where his body was placed in the Old Burial Vault while a permanent memorial tomb was being built.
— Contact David Blanchette through the metro desk: 788-1517.