Once upon a time in Maplewood Cemetery in Durham, N.C., there was a large SE corner plot bounded by two roads. It was bought by Durham magnate “General” Julian Shakespeare Carr and turned into his family plot.
Carr (1845-1924) was an unrepentant former Confederate. On one well-publicized occasion late in his life he was such a jerk about it that his injudicious off-script remarks have displaced just about everything else that can be said for or against him. He headed the North Carolina UCV (United Confederate Veterans) organization at the height of the age of reconciliation, and, like so many Confederate veterans (of whatever rank) who lived to old age, was styled “General” as a courtesy; we find him so titled on his headstone. At the foot of his grave is an inscription reading “HE WAS A CONFEDERATE SOLDIER.” I ask you to bear in mind as you read this that I come not to praise Carr but to bury him.
The Carr plot’s original well-ordered complexity now looks like an overcrowded mishmash thanks to vandalism and neglect of the landscape architecture. In its final intended form, however, it was surely one of the more ambitious family plots of the United States, and this once handsome plot owes a lot to the fact that the 1915 death of Carr’s wife, Nannie (Nancy), fell during the heyday of American funerary art, a period running from roughly 1890 to 1930.
From the north (figure 1), the plot can be seen to front on a north-south road at the left, but instead of filling out its rectangular area, a kerb marking a privileged area gently curves away from the road like a giant capital letter D. Some sense of the plot’s complexity can be made out even from a distance.
The plot is organized around three axes. The primary axis, oriented east-west, coincides with the axis of symmetry of the
D; a secondary axis perpendicular to that is anchored by two major monuments nestled in the top and bottom corners of the D; and a tertiary axis runs from a lesser statue of a kneeling angel to Nannie’s headstone.
The principal axis is defined by the formal entrance and an exhedra echoing and abutting the curve of the plot’s D (figure 2, looking west). The symmetry is apparent, but it takes an effort of will to restore symmetrical plantings, such as a mate to the scrubby, overgrown boxwood on the left, south side of the entry.
Things are not helped by the tree just to the north side of Carr’s grave (the one with the North Carolina flag; the other is Nannie’s). It was toppled or felled at some point and suckers were allowed to emerge and grow into a hideous inverted octopus. Plantings to the north of the exhedra and behind it, such as azaleas, have generally been lost. What remains is scrappy. Vastly overgrown trees, magnolias on the south and cyprus on the north, have changed the plot’s once sunny, well-trimmed neoclassicism into a grimmer, shaggy romanticism. Try to imagine all of the plantings smaller, shorter, symmetrical, and well groomed. As it is, the towering magnolias on the south side of the plot have killed the grass with excessive shade.
The threshold, like so many, bears the family name but interestingly also the words (as you step over it) “ASHES TO ASHES” and “DUST TO DUST” (figures 3, 4).
On the far side of the plot the broad granite exhedra rises with its tall back and a shallow bench. It forms a backdrop which stages the presentation of Nannie’s and Julian’s graves, and you can see the landscape architect’s conscious exploitation of R.H. Wright’s Greek Doric mausoleum in the distance as a further classical backdrop (figure 2). Wright’s temple was built in 1912, a couple of years before Nannie died. It adds a pastoral element in this otherwise unpastorally crowded cemetery, and in fact the lay of the land mostly obscures a north-south city street that runs between Carr’s plot and Wright’s mausoleum.
Truncated obelisks or small pylons mark the edges of the threshold, and granite plinths bearing bronze bases stand immediately behind them. Those bronze bases are all that is left of now-lost decorations like urns. Symmetrically situated behind these are the graves of the two principals Nannie (1853-1915) and Julian. Hers is the first burial, and I take the plot’s creation to have been occasioned by her death.
Still on the principal axis, between the graves and the exhedra, is a large round three-tiered base which has lost its original bronze decoration which was surely grander than the two lost ones at the sides of the threshold. If there were traces of a water supply I might have guessed it was a fountain. It does not appear to have the attachment marks for a statue, only a central attaching bolt and a circle of stone almost as wide as the top of the base which has been left rough and was clearly originally meant to be covered by the correspondingly circular base of a metal decoration (see figure 10).
Nannie’s (figure 7) and Julian’s (figure 8) cradle graves, straddling the axis, are but two of four within the plot. Off axis to Nannie’s left is her son Austin (figure 6), and his left is his wife Laura (figure 5). The headstones of the men bear oak leaves, those of the women lilies, all in low relief. We should bear in mind that cradle graves were intended to be filled with decorative plants tended by the grieving family. In Carr’s case, the family, which was rather large, as you can see here, jumped ship except for Austin, the youngest son. The rest are scattered about the cemetery in less imposing plots. Perhaps Austin and Laura added themselves as an afterthought, breaking the symmetry planned by the landscape architect. Such intra-family politics are imponderable at this point.
The exhedra (figure 9) is a curved bench with a high back bearing the words of John 11:25, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE,” above a sunburst with undulating rays of alternating lengths. The floor of the exhedra is covered with irregular pavers of a reddish stone. The large central base I mentioned overlaps this paved area, its top tier bearing an attractive Greek wave pattern around it (figure 10). The ends of the exhedra are carved with trumpets wrapped in ribbons (figure 11).
The two texts we’ve encountered so far, on the threshold and the exhedra, as well as the trumpets, betray a lively religious sentiment, and in fact Carr is remembered by his commemorators and biographers as a devout worshipper at Durham’s Trinity Methodist Church. The program of the secondary axis with its two major monuments is even more strongly tied to Carr’s olde tyme religion.
The north monument comprises an angular granite exhedra with three Italian marble statues integrated into it. A central block with wings surmounted by cornucopiae (figure 13) has, on a plinth in front, the image of a kneeling female figure with her back to us clinging to a cross (figures 14, 15). The base of the figure has the famous line, “SIMPLY TO THY CROSS I CLING” from Augustus Toplady’s 1726 hymn, “Rock of Ages” (number 361 in the United Methodist Hymnal). The mainline protestantism here is echoed by the inscription running in 4 verses in the top register of the central block of the architectural frame:
IN THE CROSS OF CHRIST I GLORY
TOWERING O~ER THE WRECKS OF TIME
ALL THE LIGHT OF SACRED STORY
GATHERS ~ROUND ITS HEAD SUBLIME
“In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring’s 1825 hymn, is number 295 in the United Methodist Hymnal.
Carr displays traditional pious devotion here. The kneeling figure, an allegory of Nannie’s and his faith, clings to a large cross in low relief (figure 14), her adoring gaze fixed upon the top of it (figure 15). See the delicately mannered pose of the hands (figure 17), the loosely grasping right and histrionic pose of the left that would become familiar in silent films (and Sunset Boulevard).
At the base of the cross and rising up alongside it are lilies, which we’ve already seen on the women’s headstones (figures 5, 7, 14). The female figure is barefooted but wears classical garb; she is depicted young, the garb quite voluminous with draping and folds. There is no indication that it was intended as a portrait of Nannie.
Benches extend from this central block at a fairly steep angle, and at the end of the benches sit two symmetrical kneeling angels on plinths (figures 12, 16), their gaze also adoringly focused on the cross.
A stunning monument anchors the south end of the secondary axis. Anyone familiar with allegorical representations of virtues (or other abstractions) in this period will find the Carr monument very familiar. For example, Henry Adams caused a typologically similar monument to be created for his wife when she died in 1885 (figure 18a). This was, of course, the famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens Grief inserted in a Stanford White architectural framework. There is even an exhedra and landscaping in this monumental complex in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery.
Carr’s monument for his wife draws upon that tradition for the overall typology. As to the statue group, the sculptor, seeking to depict a nurturing mother with children, has adopted a grouping nearly identical to that hit upon by G.F.C. Smillie for his obverse of the 1896 two-dollar United States silver certificate (figure 19).
On the certificate, Science presents her offspring, steam and electricity, to Commerce and Manufacture. Understandably, the group of mother and children is outwardly focused, in service of the allegory. The Nannie Carr monument, which might be titled “Nurturing Motherhood,” has the mother figure seeking to enclose her children, though not too tightly, in her embrace and cloak. She also bends her head down, whereas ‘Science’ keeps her head aimed at the viewer with only her eyes turned down. For the sake of brevity I will call it the ‘matron monument.’
The Carr group’s optimal vantage point is directly in front of it: the ruddy halo of red stone just behind the matron’s head is proof of that. The halo is well exampled as a framing device in contemporary art. Mucha’s Sarah Bernhardt (figure) is a good example from 1895.
Alexander Calder’s 1911 Lea monument in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill (figure 20a) echoes the Carr matron monument in its framing halo, here a bronze wreath, even to having words incised within the frame, though not arranged radially as on the Carr monument.
Blashfield’s 1923 Alma Mater panel in the Walker Memorial Mural at MIT (figure) is another work with halos framing the heads of secular abstract qualities. Here there is text in the halo running around its circumference as in the Carr matron monument.
But the halo is not simply an emphatic frame. In the Blashfield mural it clearly builds upon its Christian roots to confer a sacred quality to the disciplines saluting Alma Mater, and the Carr artist has intended to confer something similar upon the concept of motherhood and thence upon Nannie. This interpretation becomes inevitable, I think, when one considers Carr’s marked conventional religiosity as attested in his personal life and in the monumental complex on his plot.
Carr’s religion comes again to the fore in the inscriptions on this monument. Three texts, Proverbs 31:28, 31:29, and 31:30 are inscribed, in that order, in the highest register of the architectural framework, in the halo, and on the base of the statue group, respectively.
At the top, Proverbs 31:28. HER CHILDREN ARISE UP AND CALL HER BLESSED; HER HUSBAND ALSO, AND HE PRAISETH HER (figure 22).
In the halo, positioned to be visible around the matron’s head and not be interrupted by her shoulders is the text of Proverbs 31:29: MANY DAUGHTERS HAVE DONE VIRTUOUSLY BUT THOU EXCELLEST THEM ALL (figure 23).
On the base of the statue group is Proverbs 31:30, FAVOUR IS DECEITFUL AND BEAUTY IS VAIN. BUT A WOMAN THAT FEARETH THE LORD, SHE SHALL BE PRAISED (figure 24).
The seated matron leans forward with her arms around two young children, a boy on her right and a girl on her left, I think, to judge by their hair styles (figures 18, 25, 26, 27, 28). The matron’s cape is extended by her hands to cover the children, who are in thin wraps not unlike an exomis (an “off the shoulder” tunic that exposes one breast). The figures of the children are too young to have expressed secondary sexual characteristics. This allegorical family grouping is generic, I think, and not an attempt to create actual portraits of Nannie and two of her several children within the allegorical framework.
I thought at first that the heads of the figures might be portraits. The matron’s head, however, has a fillet and is in a typical generic Greek goddess style. And while photography existed early enough to have provided exemplars of any of Nannie’s children to the sculptor, these faces also seem generic to me, and it would seem invidious to choose only two of Nannie’s children to serve as proxies for the rest.
Finally, and surprisingly, there is a tertiary axis on Carr’s plot that runs from a figure of a kneeling angel directly through Nannie’s headstone (figures 33, 34, 35, 36a). The angel bends over deeply in prayer and bears upon its wings an open book upon which are affixed two bronze tablets as pages (figure 36). If the threshold is at zero degrees, the cross monument at 90 degrees, the exhedra at 180 degrees, and the matron monument at 270 degrees, the tertiary axis has been tucked out of the way at something like 315 degrees.
And whereas the primary axis is a formal axis presenting the burials, and the secondary axis a religious or ‘sacred’ axis, the tertiary axis is Carr’s axis of personal grief for his wife. He even provided a bench for himself (or any reader) behind the angel to enable the visitor to peruse the two texts on the facing pages of the angel’s book. On those pages are truncated versions of a popular song, Forgotten, and the poem Mine.
Forgotten is by Eugene Cowles with lyrics by Flora Wulschner, dating to 1894 (figure 37).
Here is a link to a performance by Cowles in the US Library of Congress collection.
Forgotten you? well, if forgetting
Be thinking all the day
How the long hours drag since you left me
Days seem years with you away
Or hearing through all the strange babble
Of voices, now grave, now gay
Only your voice: can this be forgetting?
Yet I have forgotten, you say
Or counting each moment with longing
Till the one when I’ll see you again
If this be forgetting, you’re right, dear
And I have forgotten you then
Forgotten you? Well if forgetting
Be reading each face that I see
With eyes that mark never a feature
Save yours as you last looked at me
Forgotten you? well, if forgetting
Be yearning with all my heart
With a longing, half pain and half rapture
For the time when we never shall part
If the wild wish to see you and hear you
To be held in your arms again
If this be forgetting, you’re right, dear
And I have forgotten you then
Forgotten, you say!
Mine is not a song, it seems, but a poem. I find it printed as early as 1879 on page 509 of volume 37 of Mothers’ Journal (figure 38), and again at intervals well into the 20th century.
A few odds and ends are worth observing closely. First, it is useful to see how the marble statue and the red halo were inserted into the monumental frame (figure 39), and to observe the care with which cherubs and crosses were carved into the pilaster capitals of the architectural frame of the matron monument (figure 40).
When Nannie died, Carr appears to have thrown himself into the task of appropriately and religiously commemorating her. Victorian sentimentality, religious fervor, and social competition appear in equal measures in the Carr plot. I regret that there are no period photographs available of the plot, because it was a wonder of American funerary art.