The Richmond National Cemetery is unlike any experience we have had thus far in our course. Upon entering the grounds, one can spin in circles and have a similar view in all 360 degrees. White headstone upon white headstone span out in rows in every direction. This structure gives off an oddly ambiguous ambiance as the sense of honor for the soldiers permeates the air. Each stone demonstrates a culture of respect towards those at rest by standing identically as if they are men of service in uniform. However, the atmosphere is almost unnaturally formal. During our visit last week, I experienced an eerie feeling of impersonality while I inspected the cemetery around me. While I am no expert on the proper manner of honoring soldiers that have been laid to rest, I felt empty and as if I made no connection with the neutral, indifferent graves around me.
While moving from row to row, examining each headstone, one in particular sparked my curiosity. Among a handful of graves marked “Unknown Soldier,” there existed one unlike those surrounding it. The grave had a name on it facing the direction of all of the others: “Lorenzo Barney.” However, the reverse side stated “Three Unknown Soldiers.” This brought many questions to mind about how those that run the cemetery choose to bury the soldiers and if they edit existing graves. My speculation is that one of the three was later identified, his name was added to the stone, and it was reinstalled facing the other direction. This shows how much the soldiers are honored and held in high esteem if work continues to be done to identify the large quantity of unknown soldiers. Nonetheless, the family with the newly identified soldier cannot even personalize the grave with more than an inscription. While permission to be buried in this cemetery, this appears to me to be very cold.
As I wandered through the hills of Hollywood Cemetery on the chilly second day of March, I found that the structures that intrigued (and simultaneously repelled) me the most were the mausoleums. These mini buildings drew my attention because they were relatively foreign to me. I knew of their existence and that they were a type of grave marker, but I never walked up to one- nor felt so minuscule next to a memorial of the dead. My family was buried with simple, non-ornate headstones. To be honest, approaching a mausoleum made me more fearful than the headstones. When I peered through the front doors of one of them to admire the stained glass window on the other side, I felt like I was violating the privacy of the dead inside. I sensed that there would be some sort of spirit-mystical-ghost-force that would approach me and warn me that I have come too close to the memorial. This made me wonder if the large, imposing burial sites were designed to frighten and ward off graveyard visitors more than draw them closer. Of course, the design welcomes the family of the deceased; but for all others the sheer size and structure of a mausoleum holds an air of importance and unease. This combination is not exactly inviting.
The edifice that stood out to me among all of the mausoleums was that of L. H. Jenkins. After circling the grave more than once, I was surprised to find no information aside from the name. I do not even know if a man or a woman lies in this plot. The anonymity and mystery of this burial site add to its air of imposing significance. In my mind, the man (or woman) was too important to have any more details. It reminded me slightly of the Robert E. Lee monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond. The only word on the whole statue is “Lee.” The viewer of the memorial should just know who the structure commemorates. If you do not know, you should not bother approaching.
Jenkins’ mausoleum has two distinctive icons: the cross and the flower. The matching crosses that adorn the front of the mausoleum, which are the primary focus when approaching the grave, exemplify the religion of the deceased. This obvious Christian iconography denotes that religion must have been an important part of Jenkins’ life. Upon a closer look, flower blossoms frame the copper doors into the building. Also, there is a beautiful stained glass window located on the back, depicting a bouquet of white flowers. Flowers can have a plethora of meanings, but these two different representations made me think of eternal life. As these particular flowers are artistic creations, they can never die. This could reveal that Jenkins lives on forever through the memorial.
By far, Hollywood Cemetery has been my favorite visit to date. The wide range of grave markers scattered across the scenic area of land made me feel welcome in a way that I have never before experienced in a cemetery. However, the contrast between the inviting landscape and the haunting mausoleums created a startling dissonance in my experience. My inability to feel fully at peace around the buildings changed the way I look at cemeteries, diverging from the not-so-scary commemoration of my family’s dead.
Mother. My mouth shaped the word soundlessly as I approached this grave from the eastern side of the burial ground at St. John’s Church. It intrigued me that this word stood alone on one of the surfaces of the grave in bold. Facing the direction of the rising sun, these letters are consistently first to see the light of day. As dawn breaks into morning, the world knows the woman buried in this spot as “Mother.” As I ambled around the grave, I began to think that she had no other identification on the grave, and this was the only way this woman wished to be remembered. However, I rounded the last corner, finally coming upon an inscription: “Mary Relict of Florence Downey, Born at Moville, CO, Donegal, Ireland. Aug. 8 1789 – Died July 29, 1880.” Mary Relict of Florence Downey was my mystery mother. I had mixed feelings as I repeated her identifier again and again in my mind. At first, I felt a warmth, knowing that her most descriptive word associates with taking care of others. I thought of my own mom. I thought of protection. The simple grave does not give us any more information about her family, but I imagine she probably had many children. Or, seeing as another prominent aspect of the memorial is a cross, this could relate to the Mother in a religious sense. As she was of Irish descent, one could possibly surmise that she was Catholic- a religion that places large influence on Mother Mary. Either way, she must have led a fulfilled life to want to be remembered as “Mother.” Then the warm feeling began to fade as a result of her word choice. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women generally did not have equal rights as men. Inscriptions and epitaphs essentially are the last thing a person is connected with in the earthly world. Mary, although she could have been brilliantly intelligent, was forever doomed to be attached to the word “mother.” She could never be known as anything more because she was a woman, and mothering was her primary duty. What came off originally as a sweet word ended up leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
In all, this grave struck me as unusual and attractive. The large cross, in a burial ground where religious symbols appeared infrequently, made me arrive at the conclusion that Mary held religion as a high priority. The top of the gravestone itself showed a scroll. It is possible that we can see the end of the scroll because it marks the end of her life on Earth. The shamrocks beautifully symbolize Mary’s country of origin. Although fairly simple, this gravestone holds a lot of meaning. Walking away from Mother, I felt that my time spent at her grave gave me insight to her life in ways that other stones did not.