Solitude and Specters at Highland Lawn Cemetery


All Highland Lawn photos by Joy Neighbors.

by Joy Neighbors

Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana, has provided me with many great afternoons. Located on 139 acres of “hills and hollows,” the rural-style cemetery offers seclusion and peace as you stroll along meandering paths that lead to several lakes. It is a cemetery designed to focus on the beauty of the grounds, not belabor itself as a place of death. It does the job admirably.

The entrance features a Romanesque Revival Bell Tower constructed of Indiana limestone. As a Hoosier, born and bred, I know the stories of the Bedford limestone rock queries, the grueling work required to remove the stones, and how Bedford, Indiana was once home to some of the most skilled stone carvers in the world. These limestone monuments hold a special appeal to me, not only for their appearance, but also for the stories about the men who did the work.

ChapelThe cemetery’s chapel can be found by trekking up the highest hill, but it’s well worth the exertion. Built in 1893, the Richardsonian Romanesque-style chapel features gabled roofs, a domed brick casement, and stained glass windows throughout.

Highland Lawn is the second largest cemetery in Indiana, with close to 27,000 graves and numerous mausoleums, each individually owned. Some crypts hold only one body; others hold up to sixteen. Although mausoleums are scattered throughout the grounds, there is one path that makes up a “Mausoleum Row.” It’s interesting to see how much detail certain stones depict along this thoroughfare. Many are covered in funerary art and sculpture: just another way the Victorian’s promoted their social standing. After all, the larger the monument, the more prosperous and well–known the family. (A fact they didn’t want forgotten in death.)
Among those mausoleums in the cemetery, there are two legends that I love to share.

Companionable Souls

John-Hinkl-MausoleumTwo pleasant specters at the cemetery are of Terre Haute businessman John Hienl and his dog, Stiffy Green. Hienl was a former businessman from the early part of the 20th century. With pipe in hand, elderly Heinl would stroll the streets with his faithful dog, Stiffy Green, so named because of his stiff walking gait and startling greenish eyes. Stiffy was friendly, but ferociously protective of Mr. Heinl. He didn’t allow anyone to get too close to his beloved master.

When John Heinl passed away on December 31st, 1920, Stiffy was inconsolable. He sat by the coffin at the funeral, then followed the family to the graveyard, where he took up post at the mausoleum doors. There he remained, guarding his master in death as he had in life. Family and friends made many trips to the cemetery that winter to retrieve Stiffy and take him home, only for him to return to his master’s crypt the next day.

Within a couple of months, Stiffy had mourned himself to death. Heinl’s wife was so touched by the little dog’s unwavering love and devotion that she had him stuffed in the sitting position he had assumed for so long on those cold mausoleum steps. Stiffy was then placed inside the tomb, reunited at last with his master.

Stiffy-GreenIt wasn’t long before visitors began noticing that Stiffy had mysteriously moved from one side of the crypt to the other, and then back. Sightseers and vandals wouldn’t leave the mausoleum alone, damaging doors and windows trying to see inside. In 1985, thugs shot out Stiffy’s right glass eye. The family decided it was time for the guard dog to be moved. The Vigo County Historical Society Museum agreed to take him. There, the Terre Haute Lions Club built a replica of the Heinl mausoleum so that today, Stiffy Green is still on guard, awaiting his master.

Rumors still spread that at twilight, on cool autumn evenings, you can sometimes see an elderly man and his small dog walking near the Heinl crypt. The rich smell of pipe smoke hangs in the air. A low voice can be heard talking to his devoted companion, who answers back with a happy bark. Rest assured, there’s nothing to fear; it’s just John Hinel and Stiffy Green enjoying another evening stroll together through Highland Lawn Cemetery.

One Ringy Dingy

Sheets-MausoleumThe second eerie legend involves the Sheets family mausoleum, where Martin Sheets, his wife Susan, and baby Ethel are interred. Born in 1853, Martin lived into his early 70s, passing in 1926. He saw many technological changes come about during that time. The one newfangled invention he found an odd use for was the telephone.

You see, Martin had a fear of being buried alive, so he had a wall-hanging phone installed in the family mausoleum, just in case he was buried unconscious, woke up, and needed to summon help. His will stipulated that a phone line be run from his crypt to the cemetery office, where it was to be monitored. Martin set up an account in his name with Indiana Bell Telephone that kept the line paid for and active, just in case.

Now, the story could end here as a very odd, interesting bit of cemetery lore, but it doesn’t. When Sheets’ wife, Susan died years later of a stroke, she was found in the kitchen of their home with the phone in her hand. Many assumed she had been attempting to summon help. According to legend, when the mausoleum was unlocked to place Susan’s casket next to her husband’s, cemetery workers discovered the phone in the crypt was off the hook …

Eighty years after Martin Sheets was placed in the family mausoleum, the phone line was disconnected from the cemetery office – never known to have been physically used.

If you crave a day away in a fascinating cemetery, Highland Lawn is an excellent choice. Located at 4420 Wabash Avenue, it is just east of Terre Haute. I usually picnic on the grounds during a day of cemetery shooting, but fast food restaurants are located nearby. Remember: once you leave the cemetery, you’ll break the spell of tranquility that prevails here.

With its legacies, lore, and legends, this is one cemetery is well worth any Tombstone Tourist’s time.

Joy in cemeteryJoy Neighbors is an avowed “Tombstone Tourist” with an avid interest in cemeteries, history, photography, and travel. She has researched and written her weekly cemetery culture blog, A Grave Interest, for over five years, and speaks throughout the Midwest and South on cemetery topics for genealogy, history, library, and education conferences. Visit her web page for a listing of presentations, or message her through A Grave Interest’s Facebook page or on Google+.

Editor’s note:  I interviewed Joy a couple of years ago about A Grave Interest.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

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