Figure 1. Bresnahan monument. Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. Photo: author.

I came across the Bresnahan monument (figure 1) while doing some research today. The monument does not stand out for good or for ill as an example of the rustic faced style, a sort of menhir standing in Arlington National Cemetery. The surname at an angle in a cleared surface like a bumper sticker slapped on carelessly isn’t what I would do, but it’s actually common enough.

Yet I wore out a pair of reading glasses trying to read the silly name in its crazy rustic log font. I get it, that the log font complements the rustic face of the stone, but the name is so long that the letters must be packed together, and the little twiggy serifs and other bric-a-brac-y ornamentation of the letters tend to elide the space separating the letters, making it hard to read them, and they also tend to make the letters read as sort of generic squarish ovals (figure 2).

Figure 2. Bresnahan monument. Detail: typography of name. Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. Photo: author.

Once one thinks it through this far, one can deduce the story: Bresnahan, or “SKESHAKAH” as I shall ever think of him, was sold on the rustic package by the monument contractor. But to make these ornate letters work at all, they have to be of a size that the cutter can visibly form the little twigs and lopped branches. The naturally low contrast of granite compounds the problem.

It evidently became apparent that the long name Skeshakah needed to be tilted, since 9 characters would not fit at the required size horizontally on the desired stone. Even then the letters had to be squished together, lest the angle of the name become so steep that it pass over into complete illegibility. This combines about 10 different errors of typesetting and design.

Thank God the daughter had her name inscribed below! It was my rosetta stone to avoid burning through another pair of glasses. Her inscription also shows how the long name on the stone diminishes to invisibility when written across it, though she (or her commemorators) at least used a high contrast black paint in the letters.


Here is the Simpson monument in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia (figure 3). You can see that Simpson has made almost all of the same choices as Bresnahan but the letters are more distinctly carved, the deep cuts around the letters provide much-needed contrast, and the spacing is better. It’s still a typographical disaster, but better. The subtle curve of the ground line of the inscription is interesting, too.

Figure 3. Simpson monument. Presbyterian Cemetery, Wilkes Street cemetery complex, Alexandria, Virginia. Photo: author.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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