- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

Washington is a city with two great Victorian cemeteries: the public graveyard of Arlington National Cemetery and private Rock Creek Cemetery.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. The Victorians were half in love with death. Many pictures show them in funeral black, and every other novel of the era tells of lifelong grief they seemed to treasure.

Their Edwardian children despised them for it, of course. To read the Edwardians is to discover a generation who believed that their parents were not merely wrong but sick — psychologically and socially perverse, as infatuated with displaying death as they were obsessed with hiding sex.

Not that the Victorians didn’t complain about death themselves. Charles Dickens took swipes at undertakers. He gave them names such as “Mould” and “Sowerberry,” and when one of his mortician ghouls looks at little Oliver Twist’s pale, underfed face, he promptly announces that the boy will make a marvelous mourner for children’s funerals.

However, the same Dickens was also willing to indulge the Victorian view of death. Think of Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” or young Paul Dombey on his deathbed. Dying people in such novels have gravity and dignity just because they are dying, and their graves act as symbols of community either gained or lost.

The Victorian view of death is horribly sentimentalized, in other words — but why, exactly?

With the Industrial Revolution and the disruption and deracination entailed by mass urban migration, Victorians saw that something profound had been lost. In truth, they were using cemeteries to solve a particular social and cultural problem — and there’s a lesson for us today in how they attempted that task.

The Victorians were, in many ways, a fully modern people, but with the difference that they had child-mortality rates that could approach 30 percent. They were a people besieged by hearses and graveyard processions of infants and their mothers lost in childbirth. “Little wasted bodies, ah, so light to lower down,” as Rudyard Kipling would write.

Out of all this, they built a funeral society unlike any other the world has ever seen. This was not worship of ancestors; this was, instead, the living mourning the dead they had actually known.

Nor was it a culture of tombs, calling upon the line of its fathers back to the beginning; this was, instead, a culture of grief, building the family and the nation out of private and public losses.

In America, the best examples of both these attempts are in Washington — although neither began with such purposes in mind.

Rock Creek Cemetery was established in 1719, years before Washington was founded.It was, in part, a typical 18th-century resting place, with small, ephemeral markers tied closely to the local community. And it was, in part, an effort to establish what Jane Austen would have called “a wilderness,” a deliberately preserved natural setting as a kind of park.

Meanwhile, Arlington National Cemetery was created in 1864. Born from the pressing need to bury the coffins flowing north from the Civil War battlefields, it also owes its existence to the pettiness of Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who insisted on confiscating Robert E. Lee’s family property in Arlington.

“The grounds about the mansion,” wrote Meigs, “are admirably adapted to such a use,” and he took it over by fiat, burying soldiers right up to the front steps of the house so that no Lee would ever be able to live there again.

Both cemeteries, however, were soon adapted to the new 19th-century purposes of defining the family and nation.

Rock Creek has its share of interesting monuments, beginning with the 1886 Adams Memorial, built for Henry Adams’ wife Clover and graced by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famous “Grief” statue.

There’s something interestingly wrong about the Saint-Gaudens sculpture. Nearly all the human figures in Rock Creek have a shallow look. Carved after the discovery of photography, they are about the play of light on surfaces rather than the occupation of space. They’re three-dimensional photographs, rather than traditional sculpture.

Indeed, every Victorian cemetery has something slightly off about it. Even as funeral design was expanding — Roman courtyards, Egyptian temples, Greek porticos, Gothic gestures — the results were becoming awkward and inorganic.

Traditional architecture was in serious disarray in those days, and the human figures attempted were insufficient to tie it all back together.

Look carefully at Saint-Gaudens’ “Grief.” The deliberate androgyny of the figure sends one message. The hooded face sends another. The squared-off, smooth-edged tomb speaks one way about death; the broken-off, unfinished stone of the statue’s footrest says something else.

Yet, in their failed combination, these graves are still striving for a way to express the unity of culture in private grief and domestic deaths.

So, too, in its way, the design disaster of Arlington National Cemetery is trying to achieve a unity of culture — not, in this case, from private mourning but, rather, from public deaths and great national grief.

Oddly, the graves in the tucked-away privacy of Rock Creek are much more elaborate than the graves amid the open hillside grandeur of Arlington. Even the famous military graves are surprisingly small and understated. Arlington, however, achieves its effect with repetition, with the markers in row after row.

Across the city, the urban design is highly memorialized — the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, statues of Gen. Philip Sheridan and Daniel Webster, for that matter, scattered around town as permanent traffic hazards. Washington gains real national gravity, however, from the graves of Arlington, a shadow on the hill across the river.

The cemetery has its own problems with design. All sorts of stray bits have always threatened to creep in. Today, it’s postmodernism, but long before the public grandeur of European-style memorials weakened the cemetery’s coherence. The Tomb of the Unknowns is moving but surprisingly ugly. Memorials built since World War I add little to the weight of the cemetery, and private funeral practices have often tried to worm their way into the stately public purpose.

Still, the Victorians at least felt the cultural problem they faced. They had places for death, and they had community as a result. The private places were oversentimentalized, and the public places were overnationalized. But the Edwardian turn against them has left us, years later, without much community at all these days — without the communion that belongs to a culture when it is haunted by its ghosts.

Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, will give a lecture on Monday at Georgetown University”s ICC Auditorium titled “Living With the Dead: Why Cities Need Cemeteries and Nations Need Memorials.”

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