Cemeteries don’t have to be spooky. These historic cemeteries share unique pieces of Iowa’s past that any history buff can appreciate. Admire the bravery of Civil War soldiers and all veterans, gaze at uncommon headstones and enjoy the beauty behind the our state's buried stories.
1. Keokuk National Cemetery, Keokuk
Located just west of Keokuk, this historic cemetery is recognized as one of the nation’s original places of burial and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As Keokuk was once the location of five Civil War hospitals, the local cemetery was expanded to offer a final resting place for Union soldiers. Then, in 1866, the cemetery was sold to the federal government.
Today, the Keokuk National Cemetery is divided into two sections. The western section holds the Civil War casualties while the eastern section is for burials from the late 20th century, including 61,000 veterans. You can dive into the cemetery’s history daily from dawn to dusk.
2. Woodland Cemetery, Des Moines
Established in 1848 before Des Moines was the state capital, the Woodland Cemetery has since grown to be a 65-acre site. It is home to more than 80,000 souls, including some of Iowa’s and Des Moines’ most prestigious residents. Hoyt Sherman, the city’s first Postmaster; Ebenezer J. Ingersoll, the founder of Hawkeye Insurance Company; and Samuel Merrill, Iowa’s seventh governor, are all buried here.
The stories buried at the Woodland Cemetery come to life through its series of graves marked with QR codes. Linking to short videos, the QR codes help to tell the tales of some of the city’s earliest residents. Today, the project consists of 71 videos between 30 seconds and three minutes long which are sourced from Iowa historians. So, grab your phone and head to the cemetery to look at history in a truly unique way.
3. Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City
Home to the infamously menacing eight-foot-tall Black Angel statue, the Oakland Cemetery was created in 1843. Today, the cemetery encompasses 40 acres and marks the final resting place of many men and women who played an important role in Iowa and the University of Iowa’s history. This includes Samuel J. Kirkwood, who was governor during the Civil War and later a U.S. senator.
Whether you’re visiting for the thrill of laying eyes on the Black Angel or simply to enjoy a quiet and beautiful landscape in Iowa City, you can do so daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
4. Elmwood - St. Joseph Cemetery, Mason City
Known by the community as a sacred setting to celebrate life and history, the Elmwood-St. Joseph Cemetery is now home to many historical figures. Listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery includes Meredith Willson’s burial site, along with the rest of his family including his mother Rosalie, brother Cedric, sister Dixie and former wife Rini. Many of his friends and kinsmen whom he immortalized in his “River City” hometown are also buried nearby.
The 70-acre cemetery is also known for the historic Melson Mausoleum, which was built in 1815 by Joshua Melson, a Mason City contractor-developer, for his wife Minnie, a popular schoolteacher.
Visitors can see these gravesites for themselves, along with a collection of Civil War and Iraq veteran burials, daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
5. Fairview Cemetery, Council Bluffs
With the oldest known burial dating back to 1826, this historic piece of Council Bluffs includes all aspects of the river town’s history: another supposedly-haunted Black Angel statue, Mormon pioneers, the Civil War and the battle for women’s rights.
Here, you’ll find the final resting place for several Mormon pioneers who joined Brigham Young and the rest of the Church of Latter Day Saints on their relocation journey. The group stopped and created the Grand Encampment as a resting place while they built a bridge across the West Nishnabotna River.
Another notable soul buried within the Fairview Cemetery is Amelia Bloomer, an early suffragist, editor and social activist. Amelia played a major role in women’s dress reform and the adoption of the pantaloons, now called Bloomers. Though born in New York, Amelia eventually settled in Council Bluffs with her husband and served as the President of the Iowa Suffrage Association from 1871-73.
The most eye-catching piece of the cemetery is the Kinsman Monument, which was built in 1902 to honor Colonel William Kinsman, commanding officer of the 23rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry regiment, and Civil War veterans. The monument is surrounded by four Civil War cannons.
You can view all these amazing pieces of Iowa’s history daily, dawn to dusk.
6. Merle Hay Memorial Cemetery, Glidden
Perhaps the most patriotic cemetery on our list, the Merle Hay Memorial Cemetery celebrate our veterans through the decades. The most prominent is the cemetery’s namesake. Merle Hay was born and raised in Glidden and was the first American soldier to be killed in the trenches of France during WWI. His stunning monument was erected in 1930, inscribed with intricate artwork drawn by the famous Iowa newspaper cartoonist Ding Darling. It shows Uncle Sam carrying the lifeless body of a young soldier.
The cemetery celebrates all veterans and their sacrifices with the Veterans Memorial and the Avenue of Flags. It is open daily, dawn to dusk.
7. Villisca Cemetery, Villisca
The Villisca Cemetery is a hub for area history. It is here that the victims of the infamous Villisca Ax Murder house are buried. The Moore family has one large surname tombstone accompanied by a long, low flat stone listing their names and dates. Visitors often leave coins, toy cars and other trinkets on the stones to honor the Moore children. Nearby, the other victims, the Stillinger sisters, are buried beneath one stone also covered with trinkets.
Visitors may also stumble across an oddly shaped tombstone that marks the final resting place of General William W. Ellis. The Pennsylvania native fought in the Civil War and moved to Villisca after being honorably discharged. Ellis’ service is honored by his tombstone which is carved in the shape of a Civil War-era pup tent, and includes intricate details including a canteen, knapsack and sword.
Explore the Iowa Culture App to discover more historic cemeteries.
- Hickory Grove Cemetery, Avery - Home to three small Egyptian-style pyramids that are remnants of a man's dream to be entombed inside one.
- The Mule Cemetery, Oskaloosa - Iowa's only marked mule cemetery memorializes two mules, Becky and Jennie, who pulled artillery during the Civil War before being bought by an Iowa farmer.
- Huston Cemetery, West Des Moines - A 150+ year old cemetery located in the middle of the roundabout intersection of Mills Civic Parkway and 88th Street.
- Sergeant Floyd's Grave, Sioux City - A 100-foot-tall obelisk dedicated to Sgt. Charles Floyd, who was the only fatality of the Lewis & Clark expedition.