Field Report 5: Only Drowning Men Could See Him

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 “Asleep in Jesus,” reads a fairly recent grave marking dated 1917. This man’s whole life, James Harris, has been boiled down to “husband” who is “asleep in Jesus.”

We can only see that he is Christian and his view on death. He, like so many other decaying Americans, is asleep with his savior waiting for his return. Mr. Harris does not proclaim his sect, only that he patiently awaits sweet Rapture. It is interesting to note that almost no grave marking has any indication of their specific Christianity except that of a kind and loving Jesus who will soon steal them from this sinful plane into the Kingdom of Peace.

If one were to ask an American Christian what their denomination is, they would gladly tell you. But not once have I seen “Devout Methodist” or “Loving Baptist” on a tombstone. Please correct me if you have seen otherwise. The Christian dead in America go down as Catholic or generic Christian.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is the final line, Asleep in Jesus. This is a fairly minimalist, perhaps one could say masculine, grave marking. To be asleep in Jesus is, to the outsider, unmanly. Why is this his final inscription? Why not simply With Jesus? There is an intimacy here. This sort of language and imagery is seen all over Richmond cemeteries.

This is due to a big movement in the late 19th century of what scholars would later call the “Feminine Jesus.” Before, Jesus was not such a celebrity. There is no denying that he is key to the entire religion but God was generally seen as the main figure. It was not until the Victorian Era that Jesus was seen not only as the gateway to Heaven, but a component to a happy life. Artists began to dress him in form fitting robes that accentuated his hips and novelists conveyed that his sacrifice was the essence of Victorian womanhood.

Thus, to be asleep in Jesus is like going back to one’s mother. It is a comfort for both parties and all who witness understand the pain and love within. It is birth and death and rebirth. All of this can be viewed in a Freudian lens but I’d like to think of it as a very American tradition. God is a father and Jesus plays the role of loving mother, but only in America. This role is exacerbated in death.

Walking through the torn Evergreen Cemetery was depressing for the usual reasons. It was the same story I had heard a dozen times before in this class. All of it began to wear on me. But looking on this stone gave me the image of a funeral procession, quiet, serene, probably awkward and hot. I thought of how the family and friends must have viewed his embalmed body, continuously telling themselves that he was asleep in Jesus.

Then I thought that perhaps he was alone in his burial, thus his short epitaph. That maybe he was the only one comforted by the thought, or even the engraver after the fact of death.

I’m uncertain as to how Jesus would take all of this attention or James Harris himself.

Sorry, Mr. Harris. I do sincerely hope you are fast asleep in Jesus.

 

Field Report 3: Look on my works, ye Mighty…

I ask for you to remember the juxtaposition of Shockoe and Hebrew Cemetery. What exactly differentiates these two?

The first thing I noticed about Shockoe Cemetery was its enclosure. Given its relative inclusiveness, it was rather strange. I can’t help but feel that it took a cue from its neighbor, however. Seeman tells us that a distinguishing feature of a beth haim is that it is set apart from its surroundings with a wall. But inside Shockoe there were even more enclosed spaces, generally made of local iron: family plots. It struck me as strangely suburban, even if the plots were there 100 years before that phenomenon. But it is more likely that the planners thought it to be more like city blocks than individual houses. That’s all it was to them – another part of the city. 

Yet it is clear that it meant so much more to those who now rest there. While wandering aimlessly, I was drawn to one grave.

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Yeah, you all saw it too, I know. But that’s why it’s there. It demands attention. On the left is a monument of red granite. Further down (not pictured) is an obelisk with a stack of books on the top. In the Hebrew Cemetery a child’s book bag is carved into the side of a tree of stone. All of these are attempts to stand out from the crowd of decaying bodies and erect slabs with imprinted words.

These unique monuments are the most effective and expensive way to immortalize someone.

Yes, that is what grave stones have always been about but the Victorian era mourners really stepped up their game. More importantly, they did an excellent job at individualizing the dead. We have seen the timeline of western death commemoration: Rome used funerals as a farewell party to ensure the dead transitioned well, early Catholics only wished to remain near relics to become more holy and be accepted into heaven, and it soon became tradition for graves to face east so that the dead may rise more easily when Judgement Day comes. Just as the preservation of the body became more important as time marched on, so too did the need to preserve the memory. Burial was no longer about the passing from one life to the next, but rather a grieving process for the living.

One could argue that it has always been that way but there were always reasons for traditions in the past, which usually involved passing on. But there is no help to be gained by the spirit from these monuments constructed in their name. The concept of family plots further anchors the body to the mortal coil as it gives the peaceful illusion that they are all together, to make the circle unbroken in a tangible, physical way. And here in Shockoe Cemetery lie some of Richmond’s most affluent. They could afford immortality.

While the Jews are perhaps the most traditional when it comes to death compared to other groups in the new world, they were also subject to the fashions of the day. Their burials consists of two objectives: the preparation of the body and it must be lain in a beth haim lest the soul not ascend. All else seems to have been flavor.

On top of the ground the graveyard looks near identical to Shockoe, with its lavish monuments and varied use of stone (and in one case metal) and they all face east. One has to wonder why that is when it is a peculiar Christian tradition, and a fairly new one at that. These two cemeteries seem to have exchanged traditions in some regard, then.