Cemeteries are memory personified.
They are the tangible outcome of the human desire to be remembered. The desire to last beyond our death. They are the pyramids of the masses; each grave a person’s last chance to make their case for God and men. Cemeteries are also a halmark of civilized society … not everyone receives the dignity of a headstone. And because not all headstones are created equal, they’re also a tangible and public investment in the future of the family name.
In his book, The Language of Towns and Cities, Dhiru Thadani writes an entry for cemeteries that includes two photos of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. “Authentic towns and cities have cemeteries,” he writes, “and space should be planned to accommodate this essential component when designing new towns.” When I read this, I appreciated Thadani’s attention to the value of cemeteries in modern life. I also considered it a bit of a coup for Richmond considering the other noteworthy cemeteries in America. Then again, it’s completely justified.
There is something so basic and yet remarkable about the time and care that was taken in the planning and development of Hollywood Cemetery. It’s no wonder Richmond’s aristocracy used to picnic on the hills of Hollywood overlooking the James River. They escaped the smoke of the city, tidied up their family plot, and caught a cool breeze on warm summer days. Since the cemetery was first planned, it has been maintained, improved, and today remains a destination in this old American city. A brick walkway was added to create “President’s Circle” where two former US presidents are buried. The cemetery stands, in part, as a testament to the longevity of power and tradition in American society.
Another remarkable cemetery in Richmond, one that is not highlighted in Thadani’s epic, is Evergreen Cemetery. I visited Evergreen four days before I visited Hollywood and, as anyone would tell you, the difference is stark. Where one has improved, the other has declined. Where one is prominently placed on the hills overlooking the James, the other is beside a highway in Church Hill. Where one is a testament to power, the Other is a testament to the longevity of systemic stigmatization and shame.
At one time, Evergreen Cemetery must have been a place of prominence in the black community. At least a generation of leaders, their family and friends were buried in this place. The most noteworthy resident is of course the famed Maggie L. Walker: the first American woman to “charter a bank in the United States.” Her grave, like many others, is now shaded in the canopy of a forest that has grown where there was once a field. Mausoleums have been raided, pathways are hidden by brush, and the lives of black Richmond are gradually being lost to time.
With cemeteries, it’s always difficult to understand who is responsible for upkeep. The children of the deceased, the businessmen who sold the plots, or the society at large. The more fascinating question to me, of course, is not who, but why? At its most fundamental level, the maintenance of graves is actually a maintenance of one’s personal identity and heritage. In the case of Hollywood, this is both American and Confederate heritage. In both cases, the members of these groups seem totally unashamed of their pride. They live boldly in their past and work tirelessly to maintain the vestiges which prove it’s legitimacy.
In contrast, the people who would have maintained a place such as Evergreen were a vastly more manipulated and displaced group in the twentieth century. The successful class of black Richmonders, once confined to the city, were proud to erect monuments and sustain traditions that defied the white power structure’s condescending narrative of black inferiority. Once segregation was overthrown, however, many left the city behind and perhaps coincidently left behind their heritage as well. Of course, this is true of nearly every American who left the city in the twentieth century. And yet, one cemetery shines and the other is being slowly eroded by time.
“Segregated at Death” was a title that I considered for this post, but I decided that it wasn’t the message with which I wanted to lead. I decided that it would be more worthwhile to simply present these two cemeteries and hopefully develop more of a holistic understanding of both (and cemeteries in general) in the context of the other. Thadani’s omission of Evergreen is unfortunate, but not unexpected: his work is often more concerned with aesthetic than politics. For me, I believe that if if we’re going to talk about cemeteries, we ought to at least consider both sides of the American color line to get the full story.
If anyone else wants to start tearing down trees at Evergreen let me know! I still think it can be saved and I would love to be a part of clearing the brush from old Richmond graves. The task is daunting (if you’ve been there, you know), but I think would be worth it.
Perhaps the more we work the more we will know why.
This post is a part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.