Author: Maggie Latimer

Religious Differences in Richmond National Cemetery

The uniformity of Richmond National Cemetery lends itself to the study of difference.  Like a troop of soldiers at attention, the headstones stand upright in straight lines that stretch out in all directions.  With so many graves looking so similar, the smallest, minutest differences seem to stand out the most.

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The gravestone of Union soldier Tom Cheaton exemplifies this phenomenon.  In many ways, this stone very much fits in with the rest of the cemetery.  It is made of solid, bright marble and stands about mid-thigh high.  Like the hundreds of others surrounding it, it is straight on the edges and gently curved on top.  The same stiff uppercase lettering spells out his name and date of death in the center the stone.

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Most graves in the cemetery have a circled cross at the top of the stone above the name, signifying the Christian faith.  Some notable graves have different religious symbols, such as the Jewish Star of David or Islamic crescent moon.  But the Cheaton stone has no such symbol.  Even the graves of the unknown soldiers, where five or six people are often buried together, are marked by default with a cross.  While it is possible that Tom’s faith traditions may simply have been unknown at the time of his funeral, it still seems unlikely that the military would have made the decision to purposefully omit the cross from his stone, especially when soldiers that no one could name at the time of their deaths were essentially designated Christian after death.

This means that either Tom or his loved ones were the ones to finalize the headstone design.  In this case, the lack of religious iconography tells a more intricate story than the graves that are more overt in their depiction.  When burying Tom Cheaton, someone must have specifically requested that his headstone not be adorned with any religious iconography.  This suggests he felt strongly enough about his own spiritual convictions (or the lack thereof) to break tradition of the US military and set his grave apart from the rest in the cemetery.

The silences of the Cheaton grave speak to the American ideal of Christianity as the expected normal faith tradition, the culture of homogeny in national battlefields, and the power of personal petitions that create differences in them.

Calling on the Dead in East End Cemetery

Conch shells – put one up to your ear and you can hear waves lapping upon the shore.  A hundred miles inland from the Atlantic, the City of Richmond is not typically strewn with seashells.  Amble through the underbrush of historic East End Cemetery, however, and you’ll notice a few of these unusual, if not charming decorations resting on some graves.

This conch shell sits at the foot of the Van Jackson family grave in East End.  While other shells on surrounding plots are real, the Van Jackson conch is actually a concrete cast, dirty white and rough to the touch.  It’s rather substantial as well, about the size of a human head and heavy enough to require two hands to pick it up.

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Conch shells are not only admired for their beautiful colors and massive spiral shape; they are also useful tools.  Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America have used them for centuries to make powerful horn sounds by blowing through the tip like a trumpet.  A skilled blower could communicate messages over large distances using conchs.

To place a shell on the grave of a loved one could be a comforting symbol of communication – it reminds visitors that while the dead may seem distant, they’re still, in a way, contactable.  It encourages mourners to “call” their lost loved ones, reach out to them and their image as they were in life.  This outlook on death preserves the memory of the loved one in a way that is not so much lost in death as simply gone for a while.

A major reason East End has fallen into disrepair stems from its prominence as an African American cemetery and the history of racial tensions in the South.  When examining these gravesites, it is vital to remember that enslaved people were not only Africans, but were people of color from multiple regions of the world, including the East Indies and Caribbean islands.  These people kept their culture with them as they migrated, preserving it even in death.  The Van Jackson conch possibly highlights a narrative of traditional coastal Afro-American or Caribbean American communities by honoring the custom of conch shells as a means of communication with those who have passed on.

Sitting Pretty: Benches in Hollywood Cemetery

Walking up and down the slopes of Hollywood Cemetery is sure to get tiring after a while.  If you’re feeling a bit weary, perhaps you might want to take a rest on one of the many benches scattered about the grounds.  While some of these benches have been positioned in the most-visited places by the cemetery management, most are located on plots themselves.  Usually made of granite or wrought iron, families build them as a place for loved ones to rest while they visit the gravesite.

This iron bench, woven in intricate branch and floral designs, sits near the Alsop grave in the middle of a shady glen.  It is of some poor condition – the once shiny black metal has begun to corrode and peel away, leaving it rough and discolored.  It creaks when sat upon and leaves rust stains on your hands when touched, but still stands firm.

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Interestingly, the bench does not face the grave itself, but stands next to it and faces the neighboring hill of graves.  This position indicates the visitor is not meant to merely contemplate the headstone, but admire the garden-esque grounds.  Hollywood, with its old trees and short-cut grasses and graves of all shapes and sizes, represents something more than simply a burial ground.  It is a place in keeping with the message of the rural cemetery movement and resembles a park, a cross between urban structures and the wilderness, rather than a crowded city churchyard.  Meticulously sculpted so that it has no overlook point, the cemetery reflects the classic American ideal of natural beauty: variations in the landscape, hills and dells, streams and woodlands.

Sitting on the Alsop bench illustrates how the striking scenery exists for the pleasure of cemetery visitors who seek a retreat from urban setting.  This notion suggests Hollywood Cemetery, and by extension the entire rural cemetery movement, strives for a change in the image of gravesites from the traditional small graveyard to a spacious recreational site.  The benches are somewhere for the living to rest within the dead’s final resting place.

Regardless of its state of slight disrepair, this functional feature gives a welcoming feel to the plots, inviting passersby not only to sit and reflect on those who’ve passed on, but simply to enjoy the day.

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There’s something to be said for healing.  At the very least, there’s something to be said for coping.

Losing a friend or a loved one can be an overwhelming experience.  The healing process, while different for every person, is rarely ever a short one.  It does not happen overnight, nor do we adjust to loss in the same way that we might embrace getting a job or moving to a new city.  Dealing with grief is a process, not a task.

No one knew long grieving practices better than mourners in Antebellum America, who mourned for years at a minimum following the death of a family member.  Women especially, dressed in black from head to toe, were expected to show outward signs of mourning through their entire wardrobe, from dresses to bonnets to hairclips.  An outward symbol of her sorrow, mourning clothes created a physical barrier between the woman and the rest of society.  The “closing-off” of the mourner gave them space to readjust to a life that was a little more independent, a little lonelier.

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This item, displayed at the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, is a ladies mourning hand fan from the late 1800’s.  It is plain, simply constructed from sheer black fabric and wood, decorated with an intricate floral design in bright colors.  Most likely plucked from a basket of nearly-identical black fans in a market, the flowers were probably painted on afterward by the purchaser and almost assuredly by a woman.  And while we may never know for sure who did the delicate painting, I like to think a grieving widow used the craft as part of her healing process.

For many, crafting can be a great method to keep your hands busy while simultaneously letting your mind wander.  In the Antebellum Period, the ability to create works of art, especially through sewing or painting, was seen as a softer, more feminine talent.  I can picture the sorrowful widow making careful brushstroke after brushstroke on the fan.  While she focuses on her art, she lets the methodical motion soothe her heartache as she struggles to move on.  As a constructive way to wade through her grief, the widow uses painting as a cathartic cleanse.

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Perhaps the cheery colors brought a bit of relief to her all black attire, or maybe she was transitioning from her initial mourning phase garments to more comfortable “half mourning” accessories.  I don’t, however, believe the fan itself is necessarily the most important piece to this puzzle, but the practice that personalized it.  The action in crafting, illustrated through the painted flowers on this fan, helped the mourner cope with loss in a healthy way and reconnect with society after a time of grieving.

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