The John monument in Rosemont Cemetery in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, manifestly erected by caring coworkers and fellow citizens, is a monumental example of American middle-class funerary commemoration.
IN ABIDING MEMORY
J. STACEY JOHN M.D.
FELLOW OF THE AMERICAN
COLLEGE OF SURGEONS
PRESIDENT OF THE BLOOMSBURG
HOSPITAL. HE DEDICATED HIS
LIFE TO HUMANITY, TO HIS
PROFESSION AND TO THE
COMMUNITY HE LOVED AND
SERVED SO UNSELFISHLY
E’EN AS HE TROD THAT DAY TO GOD
SO WALKED HE FROM HIS BIRTH
IN SIMPLENESS IN GENTLENESS
IN HONOR AND CLEAN MIRTH
AND HIS WIFE
MAE A. EVANS
In his imperishable book Class (1983), Paul Fussell pointed out characteristics of the middle: above all insecurity, fearing to make a misstep and suffer demotion, and ambitious striving, seeking to climb by signaling our virtue.
We in the middle class identify with our profession and education. A middle-class doctor would probably bristle at having her work called a trade, for example. We take care to be ‘appropriate’ for fear of saying something in the wrong way.
See how this works out in the John monument: John is identified by name and two professional credentials, M.D. and F.A.C.S. These are spelled out, the first with an image of a caduceus and second with the explicit words “Fellow of the American College of Surgeons,” each ponderous syllable adding its commendatory weight. John’s virtue is signaled through assertion of his philanthropy, a claim anchored in his work as (and let’s note the explicit office title) President of the Bloomsburg Hospital. It’s as though his commemorators feared he would have counted for nothing if these claims had not been registered—that’s middle-class insecurity in action.
One remembers FDR’s instructions for a monument to himself: “something about this size” (pointing to his Oval Office desk) at the National Archives. This was built at his friends’ expense and duly erected at the National Archives (where you can see it today), simply inscribed “In memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945” (figure 3). Roosevelt exemplified his class by being secure in his worth without insisting on the external validation supplied by credentials. I do not assert that Roosevelt was a better human than John or his commemorators; only that each played their role in the American class system in a characteristic way. I have my diploma on the wall of my office, and that’s all you need to know about me!
If in middles I see the image of God no less than in uppers and lowers, there certainly are bad middle-class behaviors. It’s precisely at this point that I have to bite my tongue and not write an unsolicited and unwanted screed against the dreadful, earnestly didactic, profoundly middle-class Roosevelt memorial by the Tidal Basin. Ouch! I bit my tongue. Onward.
The working class usually has the cleverest, most interesting monuments. One thread that unites a lot of them is an emphasis on sentimental reminiscence of quotidian existence or explicit mourning. An example of the latter, in Australia, is the Matheson monument. Both can be seen in the caricature portrait of Trimalchio, a very rich man with low origins, in Petronius’ Satyricon, a novel of the first century C.E.
[Concerning his tomb, practically out of breath, Trimalchio tells his contractor:]
“I beg you earnestly to put up round the feet of my statue my little dog, and some wreaths, and bottles of perfume, and all the fights of Petraites [a gladiator], so that your kindness may bring me a life after death; and I want the monument to have a frontage of one hundred feet and to be two hundred feet in depth. For I should like to have all kinds of fruit growing round my ashes, and plenty of vines. It is quite wrong for a man to decorate his house while he is alive, and not to trouble about the house where he must make a longer stay. . . . I beg you to put ships in full sail on the monument, and me sitting in official robes on my official seat, wearing five gold rings and distributing coin publicly out of a bag; you remember that I gave a free dinner worth two denarii a head. I should like a dining-room table put in too, if you can arrange it. And let me have the whole people there enjoying themselves. On my right hand put a statue of dear Fortunata [my wife] holding a dove, and let her be leading a little dog with a waistband on; and my dear little boy, and big jars sealed with gypsum, so that the wine may not run out. And have a broken urn carved with a boy weeping over it. And a sundial in the middle, so that anyone who looks at the time will read my name whether he likes it or not . . . .”
In a sense it’s like these folks want to bring their life with their pleasures into the afterlife like an Egyptian Pharaoh.
Returning to the John monument, Kipling’s Barracks-Room Ballads furnishes the verse at the foot of John’s epitaph, all prim and proper Victorian sentiment, and the excerptor was careful to end with another assertion that responds to the middles’ fear of saying the wrong thing: the deceased met his God “in honor and clean mirth.” No blue ribaldry from him to make us suspect he was blue collar!