It was a wonderful day in March, 2017. We’d walked Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and emerged at the exit by the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall. It was by then mid afternoon, cool and breezy. The air was clear, and the sky bright blue with cumulus clouds. So I took some photos of the Albert Memorial, by Goerge Gilbert Scott (1872; statue, by John Henry Foley, 1874).
I offer here a small gallery of images reflecting my idiosyncratic choices of views (sometimes in defiance of where the sun was) and my idiosyncratic choices of which of those to edit and present. My camera was an iPhone 6, which, looking back from the viewpoint of having used an X with a Moment lens for some time now, was pretty meh.
Having seized the high ground and resisting the encroachments of lesser lights, is John Cleve Green (figure 2), or rather, his ponderous but spare family monument (figure 1).
He made a fortune in the China trade in the mid-nineteenth century, and gave much of it away to schools and other charities in his native state of New Jersey, such as Princeton and the Lawrenceville Academy, his alma mater. In New York, he occupied a house on Washington Square Park.
So, yes, in this case, the grandness of the tomb was planned to match his grand situation in life. Its landscaping in Green-Wood Cemetery, a hilltop aerie, has been artfully curated (figure 1); you can see that in warmer seasons the monument would be framed by giant trees (figure 3), and whereas it is really on the end of a longer ridge, in season the framing trees would make it look as though it sits alone on a high eminence. I suspect the earth has been heaped up a bit to make the site of the monument higher.
I think this relatively soft fill heaped up to raise the monument is responsible for its settling into the earth (figure 3).
JOHN CLEVE GREEN; Born April 4, 1800, Died April 28, 1875. “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” SARAH HELEN GRISWOLD; Wife of JOHN CLEVE GREEN. Born January 25, 1815, Died May 21, 1893. MARIA MATILDA GREEN; Born March 14, 1843, Died April 13, 1848. MARY EDITH GREEN; Born June 18, 1849, Died August 17, 1856. HELEN GRISWOLD GREEN; Born Sept’r. 25, 1845, Died August 20, 1859. CHILDREN of JOHN CLEVE and SARAH HELEN GREEN.
Unfortunately, the Green’s children—all of them—died young: Maria at 5 years, Mary at 7, and Helen at 13. As they say, money can’t buy you happiness.
I took a very long walk on 19 January 2020 from the Capitol down to the Lincoln Memorial. I stopped for a moment at the Vietnam Memorial and noticed the sunset colors reflected off the clouds around the obelisk. I took the photo with my iPhone.
Saturation and vibrance up, shadows and black point down. Contrast goosed.
It may be that you recognize this acronym for the colors in the spectrum of visible light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I learned it maybe 40 years ago as a backyard amateur astronomer.
This was a sunset photograph taken on 28 November 2019 while vacationing in Nags Head, North Carolina. I noticed the colors in the sky and I went to a balcony and shot this.
In the original, and to my eye, it was mostly just a bright red sunset, and that’s why I took the image. But back in our room, I edited it and played with the saturation and vibrance settings in the iPhone photos editor, and bang! out popped a spectrum.
The sun’s natural yellow color and the sky’s blue affect the colors here, and the clouds complicate things further by reflecting light. In a pure, real sunset, the shorter-wave light goes over the horizon first, as it is bent more by the atmosphere’s prismatic effect. So the spectrum here is spurious and reversed from a sunset (and a rainbow, for that matter). Red should be higher in the sky than the blues.
Green is missing, and this is a double misfortune for me, because in years of living on the coast in San Diego and consciously looking for it, I never managed to see the so-called ‘green flash’ which commonly (they say) occurs as the slender green part of the sun’s light gets preferentially refracted for a moment just after the sun has set over water.
Well, I’ll just say Roy Biv signed without his middle initial here.
I choose as my text for today the monument erected in Blandford Cemetery by the widow of Mr. John T. Cardwell. It’s a simple gray marble tablet with some very low-relief designs framing the central message.
In memory of My Husband JOHN T. CARDWELL Born Feb. 22, 1840. Departed this life Feb. 10, 1907.
A precious one from me has gone, The voice I loved is stilled; The place made vacant in my home Can never more be filled. God in His wisdom has recalled The boon his love had given; Though the body slumbers here, The soul is safe in Heaven.
The odd-numbered iambic tetrameters rise, and the even-numbered trimeters sink with simple rhythm and rhymes. One can tell it’s not a stray quote from Tennyson because one finds these same verses altered at will, something one would not expect people to do with a famous poet’s literary verse. One also finds these verses over and over next to one another in the same cemetery, as with the three examples in Belen Cemetery in Marks, Mississippi.
In First Lobo Cemetery in Komoka, Ontario, we find a version on the tombstone of Annie E. Challoner (1888) preferring to face an unpleasant fact by having ‘moulders’ over the ‘slumbers’ we saw above.
A precious one from me has gone, A voice I loved is still, A place is vacant in my home Which never can be filled. God in his wisdom has recalled The boon his love had given; And though the body moulders here The soul is safe in heaven.
And over the 1853 grave of Maria Edwards in the same cemetery we have (with dizzying metrical folly meant to break our spirit):
God in his wisdom has called The precious boon his love has given; And though the casket moulders here The gem is sparkling now in heaven.
I could go on, but you get the point: these are conventional verses that were adapted as need required and sentiment willed. Yet before we write them off as meaningless pieties urged upon the grieving by salesmen, we should recall the ‘only a topos‘ fallacy. I’ll quote from Professor Peter Rhodes, who employed the concept in an argument about the veracity of battle-speeches by ancient generals reported by ancient historians:
Before I go any further, I should like to expose what I call the ‘only a topos‘ fallacy. This is the fallacy of supposing that, once you have decided that a passage is a topos, a conventional remark, you can dismiss it from further consideration and need never ask whether the remark is true. At the beginning of my lecture I said, and asked people to remember that I had said, that it was a great honour and pleasure to have been invited to visit the place in which it was delivered and to address my audience. That is an extremely well-known topos of visiting lecturers: audiences have heard it many times. Now it may be that some speakers visiting some universities have been hypocrites, and in spite of what they have said have not been honoured and pleased by their invitation; but I should guess that most of them have been honoured and pleased, and it is certainly true that I have been honoured and pleased. The fact that a passage is a topos, that is says what is conventionally said in a particular situation and perhaps expresses it in a conventional way, does not exclude the possibility that it is an authentic report, or that what is stated is true. Topoi have always been used, in all kinds of writing; but detecting topoi is not enough in deciding whether we should believe what we read.
Peter Rhodes, “In Defense of Greek Historians,” Greece and Rome 41.2 (1994) pp. 156-171
Put another way, when Mrs. Cardwell was shown the book of sayings people commonly placed on tombstones, and when she chose the one she did, we cannot just say that she put her finger down on one with her eyes effectively closed, as though in a lottery. She may have chosen—probably did choose—the one that suited her feelings at the time.
This doesn’t get her a free pass for putting doggerel onto her husband’s stone; but it does mean we must back off and abandon a presumption that she was just filling up space or that she was a pliable customer. It’s also worth remembering that culturally insecure people often flee to the safe haven of authority. If the salesman told her it was right to put poetry onto a tombstone, or if she came to the task of selecting a marker with that predisposition, she would have been reassured to choose verse that was ‘tried and true,’ and had been chosen by many respectable people before.
I was taken aback to find a six-foot-tall Celtic cross of excellent quality in Saint James Catholic Cemetery, a tiny little burial ground in Falls Church, Virginia. I don’t know Celtic crosses too well, but a little searching quickly showed that it is a replica of Muiredach’s Cross, one of several preserved in Monasterboice, IRE. If you went to Ireland and did the full tour, you’ll have seen this one.
I’ve paired views of the Saint James Cross with the Muiredach Cross in the galleries below, and you can see how fine a reproduction it is, though at only 1/3 scale.
The Saint James Cross was cast in cement, I believe, in four pieces, a base, the shaft, the cross piece, and the top, doubtless to facilitate transport. (You can get an up-to-date resin cast by Toscano Design which ships in two pieces for $1299.00. Order yours today!)
At some point, perhaps when it was assembled in the cemetery, the central cross section was reversed from the way it is in the original. I’ve paired the major faces on the basis of the central cross sections; I’m afraid you’ll have to do a bit of scrolling to compare the minor images on the two crosses.
The most interesting thing that emerges from such a comparison is that the crucifixion image has been misinterpreted by the copying artist. See how in the original, (figure 6) Jesus is ministered by two angels hovering over his shoulders, whereas in the Saint James replica (figure 5) the artist has taken those angels to be birds perched on his arms!
People’s Memorial Cemetery, a historic black burial ground in Petersburg, Virginia, dates back to 1840. The scanty evidence presented by the tombstones usually makes it hard to distinguish between monuments of free blacks, freed ones, or (if the date is appropriate) enslaved ones. The historical marker states that all three categories are present, and it’s worth knowing the status of the deceased, for my experience with the ancient Romans suggests that there might be interesting differences between the ways free and freed persons tell their stories.
Let’s dip our toes into these waters with the monument of Violet Pegram (figures 1, 2). I am no expert on the prosopography and demography of black Americans of the nineteenth century, but it is well worth thinking through the puzzles posed by their monuments.
VIOLET PEGRAM The affectionate Mother of Roberta Lewis Died April 22, 1880, Aged 65 Yrs. She leaves 6 children to mourn her absence. —— “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” —— Dearest mother thou hast left us, Here thy loss we deeply feel; But its God who hath bereft us, He can all our sorrows heal.
The Pegram monument teaches me three things. The first thing is that I’m pretty sure she was black given where she was buried, the evidence is equivocal as to her status. She was old enough to have been enslaved, while she died late enough to ensure she had been free for at least 15 years. There is no direct evidence one way or another.
Does it mean something that Roberta Lewis, whom I take to have been the commissioner of the monument, chose not to honor both her mother and father? Do the names help sort things out? Lewis seems to me to be Roberta’s married name, so there’s no reason not to think that Pegram was Violet’s married name, even if a Mr. Pegram is not mentioned. You see the problem: living on 15 years after slavery ended, Violet had time to marry under law (and change her name) even if she had been enslaved until 1865, assuming Mr. Pegram lived. Leaving behind six children strongly suggests an enduring and fairly lengthy connection. Still, there are numerous imponderables here.
Maybe we can go a little further with the second thing the monument teaches me. It is very conventional, with traditional appeals to piety (figure 2), and the very common image of a weeping willow (figure 3). What I mean by this is that were the Pegram monument not in People’s Memorial but across the street in Blandford Cemetery, there is nothing about it that would make you say, ‘ah, this is the monument of a black citizen.’
That’s a banality, of course. Tombstones rarely make a point of stating the race of the deceased: the audience for whom they were intended didn’t need to be told this. Subsidiary information may serve as a proxy for race, such as interment in People’s Memorial or, in the case of the Hoag monument across the street in Blandford (figure 4), the notice on the stone that he died fighting at Petersburg (overdetermined by the Confederate civil flag that the UDC had placed by the grave for Memorial Day).
So we can control for race by comparing these two monuments, and they are closely analogous, which I find instructive. Each bears a willow at the top; and each bears a personal statement or two beyond anagraphical data telling us about them: Pegram that she was the mother of Roberta Lewis and that she was mourned by 6 children; Hoag that he died in battle.
But on both monuments the anagraphic and personal notices are followed by a Biblical quotation. In Pegram’s case, it’s Revelations 14:13 (“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”), whereas Hoag’s commemorator(s) chose John 11:25 (“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live”). The appeals to the Bible to comfort the living about the status of the dead are close equivalents (right down to the same font), and in both cases, since they have the dignity of scripture, they stand above snatches of verse offered below.
The Pegram monument has an extremely common set of verses which have been adapted to the special case here that Violet was a mother:
Dearest mother thou hast left us, Here thy loss we deeply feel; But its God who hath bereft us, He can all our sorrows heal.
Any two syllable word permitting stress on the first could be substituted for ‘mother,’ such as ‘husband.’ My favorite is the version on the monument of Pleasant Stith Roach in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond:
Farewell Stithy thou hast left us We thy loss most deeply feel; But tis God that hath bereft us He can all our sorrows heal.
The Hoag commemorator(s) chose to draw four verses from a hymn by Joseph Barnby, formatted over seven lines:
Thou’rt gone to the Grave but ’twere wrong to deplore thee, When God was thy ransom, thy guardian and guide. He gave thee and took thee, and soon will restore thee, Where death has no sting, since the Savior has died.
Instead of Hoag’s stone I might have brought in any of a hundred others: from Mount Hebron in Winchester, or Hollywood in Richmond, or the Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria, or Green Mount in Baltimore, or Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, or Green-Wood in Brooklyn. Many more can instantly be found on line; for example, I’ve collected a gallery of weeping willow monuments here.
What I see, then, is a continuity in religious and funerary culture even across the racial divide: the “veil,” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it. On this admittedly tenuous basis I hesitantly think that Violet Pegram (and Roberta Lewis) were freeborn citizens; they seem to have the same expectations and manner of telling their story that free white citizens had. In other words, freedom (and all that freedom from birth brought) seems the driver in this similarity, since race, social status, and politics strongly divided Pegram and Hoag.
Yet every example I have in mind from the cemeteries I listed above is very different from the Pegram monument in one key way: whereas they are always from marble or limestone, Pegram’s has been cast in cement. That’s ‘super interesting,’ as we would have said in the 1970s.
Rather than the image of the tree and the words having been cut into stone, therefore, cement has been poured over molds with negatives of the text and images assembled into the overall design. One can easily see the coarser texture of the cement weathering through where it has lost its original smooth surface (see, e.g., figure 3). The cement hasn’t held up any worse than Hoag’s marble tablet, and the cost must have been a fraction.
Such cement markers are common in People’s Memorial; it suggests that Petersburg’s black citizens were predisposed to be cost effective in getting what their white neighbors across the street were willing and able to pay a premium for. But let’s remember, the folks in People’s Memorial were not competing socially with the Blandford people; they had separate and different audiences. If the Hoags are paying more for marble, it’s because the Joneses on one side and the Smiths on the other have opted for marble, and an analogous situation will have held in People’s Memorial.
Table 1. 1870 U.S. Census entry for Violet Pegram. From Ancestry dot com.
This reveals a great deal. First, I’m pretty sure I was wrong in conjecturing that Violet was born free. On Ancestry dot com the first census she appears in is 1870. This makes sense if she were not a citizen before 1865. She is listed as having an “inferred spouse,” Henry Pegram. For my part, I infer that theirs was a common law marriage that emerged from the years of slavery. Roland appears to be the son of Violet and Henry; I do not know about James Walker. Both children are listed as “mulatto,” but I’m well out of my depth in figuring out the legal implications of that designation. Roberta Lewis was already out of the household by 1870. I’ll return here after I’ve done some further research.
Since Roman times a symbol of marital affection has been the dextrarum iunctio, the clasping of right hands. This image has been very common in the United States, especially in the nineteenth century. Above (figure 1) is an image of a dextrarum iunctio on a stone that has fallen and been mostly covered. I find it Romantic and, as the Italians would say, suggestivo. Figure 2 shows a Roman version.