Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death & Art: Rock Creek Church Yard

Allison Nailor, Jr
1836 - 1908
He was tired and lay down to rest
Art and death pair up in a sometimes flowing, sometimes awkward dance. In art, we search for our immortality, that which will live on beyond us; faced with the death of our loved ones, we pretty up the occasion with the art of remembrance, spiritual connection, and expressions of longing.

Two weekends ago, on Saturday and again on Sunday, I walked through Rock Creek Church Yard, a cemetery dating back to 1719, and wandered into the bits of story that its markers highlight. In the unfolding horror of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan, a graveyard on a sunny day in early spring ended up being strangely comforting. 

In graveyards, at first sweeping view, the numbers of dead demand attention. Acres and acres of markers go in the distance at Rock Creek, and the numbers have impact. The uniformity of Arlington Cemetery draws on this, with its sea of carefully spaced gravestones in the same way that the Vietnam Memorial, the listing of thousands of names, highlights the scope of  tragedy and sacrifice. Rock Creek Church Yard has rolling hills and deep-rooted trees that change the landscape, has diverse grave markers based off the tastes of family and the historical era of the death, but there is no escaping the message of the graveyard size: everybody dies, and we've been doing it for a long, long time.

Grass, shadows, trees, gravestones.

Once you get beyond the long historical view, however, death is personal.


Baby Paul
Aged 26 days

Those buried were individuals part of a web of people, family and friend, and when that string is broken, the whole framework changes, shifts and trembles as weights are carried differently by those left behind.

Our rituals surrounding death, like any other societal, cultural tradition, reflect out own take on the world. The pretentious in life may very well be gaudy in death.  The simple may opt for plain speak in death. And there is no way of knowing if someone's aunt Martha chose some strange angel because her dead nephew loved angels, hated them, laughed at them, or because she chose something to her own liking or budget without considering the deceased view on how his eternity would be labeled. 

An era of mausoleum design.

Stained glass


Undoubtedly, some of the dead saw Martha's work and rolled over in their graves so they didn't have to look (not photographed - I only shot that which I found appealing).  And some rejoiced that their loved ones chose something so apt or so lovely or so unusual. Obviously, rolling or not, they're not talking.

Angel with book
That's what a lot of grief is, that you turn to ask someone who is no longer there to answer. The classic comment of the recently bereaved when they say they picked up the phone and dialed a number only to realize no one would be picking up. We forget and re-remember over and over. 

And that homage to grief shows up on graveyards. Some markers have benches, the suggestion being, sit and stay a while, tell the departed what you want to say even if they're no longer there to hear. In a way, sitting with grief helps carry us through to the other side, a point clearly illustrated by the Kaufman Memorial.  Also known as Seven Ages of Memory, the artwork was created by William Ordway Partridge.

Kauffmann Memorial
The life-size sculpture of a woman on the bench is disconcertingly warm, a person to be with you in sadness, with a hand left open enough that, should you be inclined, you could sit and hold hands.This is the sort of thing the grieving do, or try not to do. 

There are not a lot of places where crying in public is acceptable. A graveyard makes that list. In a cemetery, you get quiet sympathetic looks; in Kmart, you get folks shuffling away, with nervous backward looks as they ponder your mental and physical health. 

The Mystery of the Hereafter and The
Peace of God that Passeth Understanding
If you prefer privacy at Rock Creek, I recommend the Adams Memorial designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White. The bronze sculpture of a hooded figure rests behind high hedges. The grave marker is for Marian Hooper “Clover" Adams and was commissioned by her husband Henry Adams after her suicide. Sometimes referred to as Grief (which apparently irritated Henry Adams no end, as he wrote, "Every magazine writer wants to label it as some American patent medicine for popular consumption—Grief, Despair, Pear's Soap, or Macy's Mens' Suits Made to Measure"), Saint-Gaudens entitled it The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.

Henry Adams never spoke his wife's name again after her death and omitted her from his book The Eduction of Henry Adams, details that tug at me.

While wandering the graves, I came across a gravestone on which someone had left Mardi Gras beads.

Dalrymple and Mautner grave markers

The story there -- Who left the beads? Had they gone to Mardi Gras together? Had they always talked about it but never gone? Was it some private joke about the inappropriateness of plastic as daywear? -- I have no way of knowing. 

I can tell you, courtesy of google, that Helen W. Dalrymple was a researcher at the Library of Congress for most of her career and co-authored several books.

Buried next to her is Mary-Helen Mautner. After her death, her partner started a nonprofit to support lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals and their families when dealing with life threatening illness. An activist in life, Mautner's death also promoted a cause.

In personal and public ways, the deaths of Clover Adams, Helen Dalrymple, Mary-Helen Mautner and the many other people buried at Rock Creek Church Yard changed people and changed society. A nonprofit helps other people suffering. A statue at a grave marker adds to our cultural understanding and provides solace in its beauty. I'm sitting here writing about women I never met and the universals and particulars of mourning. And someone went to Mardi Gras.  

Family tree, roots running through graves.


  1. Sobering and beautiful at the same time.

    I've never been much of a fan of monuments to the dead, but these are remarkable. Art, emotion, and history, all rolled up into a single expression.

  2. I was surprised by how much the stories of unknown people and some amazing art moved me. It really is a lovely, peaceful place that inspires ruminations on the circle of life, and other things that are hard to talk about without sounding hokey.

  3. I always have enjoyed (not sure if that's the correct emotional phrase for this) cemeteries. I recently found a modest one down the road here in Carroll Cty with some beautiful greenstone markers from the 1830s. There is a plaque by 6 of them that attributes the carving to Sebastian Boss Hammond - a slave that bought his freedom by carving these grave markers and bought his family's freedom as well. We will have to take a walk down there one day - the detail is amazing and the internet says he was an illiterate man.

  4. Oh wow, definitely worth a stroll to check it out. What a story, buying freedom/life by creating monuments to death.

  5. I wonder if this blogger was inspired by you? I have to say I like the comments that accompany your photos.

  6. Lovely photos on that link - some interesting angles. Much as I'd like to claim inspiration, I think graveyards and photography just tend to go together somehow...I remember going with a photographer friend to shoot in that graveyard in Georgetown.