Kalamazoo’s First Cemetery
Kalamazoo's original cemetery was first named West Street Cemetery, but was also called South West Cemetery and in more recent years has been referred to as the Pioneer Cemetery. The three acre parcel was originally donated by Cyren and Mary Ann Burdick in 1832. From that time until the opening of Riverside Cemetery in 1862 South West Cemetery was the only public burial ground in Kalamazoo. As such, many of the city's earliest pioneers and citizens were buried there.
The first person buried in the new cemetery was Joseph Wood, a member of the family that gave Woods Lake its name. The names and exact numbers of people buried there will probably never be known. However, a thorough study conducted in 1987 has shed some light on the subject. The study concluded that between 325 and 500 people were buried in South West Cemetery at one time or another. In addition, it identified the names of 270 people who are likely still buried there. Many of the familiar names of Kalamazoo's founding families grace the list: Axtells, Shakespeares, Sutherlands, Burdicks and den Bleykers all rest there. The cemetery was probably near its capacity when the Kalamazoo Board of Health ordered it closed in 1862. Some of the bodies were moved to the privately owned Mountain Home, others to the newly opened public Riverside, but many remain where they were originally placed. Probably the last person to be interred there was Rev. H. G. Klyn, who was the second pastor of First Reformed Church. He was buried beside his wife the year after the cemetery closed.
Conversion to a Park
The cemetery apparently was not well maintained for twenty years or so after its closure. After a public petition in 1884, the city decided to convert it to a park. It was graded, seeded, the trees trimmed, the decayed grave markers sunk beneath the soil, and a record made of the location of the graves. Later walkways and benches were added, and the park was used for political rallies and social occasions. These developments shocked the Burdicks’ son R. Carlyle Burdick, when he visited from his home in Minneapolis. He filed suit against the city in Circuit Court in 1895, requesting that possession of the land be returned to his family, or that they be compensated for its value, then estimated at $12,000. The court held that since bodies were still buried there, it was still being used for its intended purpose, however distasteful some of the surface activities might be to some people. The city retains title to the land, and it has remained a park ever since.