All posts by Tracy

Knowing the Unknown

Richmond National Cemetery—methodical, uniformed, subdued. Puzzling. Identity seems fickle in this federal burying ground. Along the single road leading into the cemetery, two headstones, side-by-side, form the start (or the end?) of one of the many rigid rows. Both are designated for unknown soldiers. However, there are surprising stylistic differences to these two unknown burials where one expects none.

3unknownside

The first has the designation nestled within an indented shield—proclaiming the soldiers’ allegiance, or perhaps eternal belonging, to the army. In a sense, the shield consumes the soldiers’ identities—even in death, they belong within the shield and within the walls of a soldier’s cemetery. The material of the headstone is consistent with the others, except for its pronounced striations. The pattern elicits a visual sense of weathering, the kind experienced in war. Immediately upon view, this tombstone conditions the minds of the passerby to envision the arduous experience of battle and the continuous struggle for recognition.

3unknownA

The next tombstone reads, “Three Unknown U.S. Soldiers.” The combination of the additional attribute of United States and the corresponding cross on top is no accident—after all, “God bless the U.S.A.” The United States, as a nation, is necessarily entwined with religion despite the rise of secularity. This tombstone, then, pronounces these three American soldiers’ ultimate affiliation with God. The marble used to construct this stone is more pristine, more homogenous, more united.

3unknownB

These two headstones are temporally and spatially close to each other, yet they deliver divergent messages. Nonetheless, they have a known final place despite being “unknown.” In the Richmond National Cemetery, anonymity prevails (without the reference records, even the named stones seem nameless.) In spite of that, each stone commands a known plot in a nationally recognized space.

Hollywood Cemetery: James D. McCarty

Hollywood Cemetery commands a breath-taking view of the James River. The beauty of the flowing water is perhaps only rivaled by the meticulously curated space of the burial ground. The meandering pathways guide visitors through the rolling topography of the cemetery, never revealing the whole to the eyes of the living. Tacitly, this design compels visitors to focus on the deceased loved ones in their immediate surrounding. In this regard, their sorrow and awe are not quite diffused through the vast space. Instead, these mixed emotions are directed inwards, manifested into solemn thought.

View of the James River

View of the James River

Along Oak Avenue lies the McCarty family lot that inspires just that. In particular, the headstone of James D. McCarty seems to embody the workings of Hollywood Cemetery. At first glance, James’ tombstone appears to be consisted of two separate parts: a broken column with a flower wreath draped atop and a simple message block leaning against it. Interestingly, the intentionally destroyed column corresponds with the unfortunate demise of the occupant—murdered by the discharge of his own gun. The life abruptly terminated, illustrated by the broken man-made column, is the result of another man-made weapon. I think this is a distinction from the broken tree trunk motif, where the deceased presumably died of natural causes. Moreover, the flower wreath is assembled from a part of nature, which speaks to the artificiality of the greater natural landscape that encompasses the tomb. The message block, casually leaned against the column, conveys an air of aloofness. Appropriate, given James’ young age when he passed. This lamentation over the loss of a young life is further cemented by this part of the message: “The young, the beautiful, the brave.” Indeed, carved in an indented section and with a different font than the rest of the slab, the sentence is the most pronounced part of the slab.

McCarty Family Plot

McCarty Family Plot

Headstone of James D. McCarty

Headstone of James D. McCarty

Side View

Side View

Close-up of Flower Wreath

Close-up of Flower Wreath

The intricate interaction between the elements of James’ tombstone is demonstrative of the overall tension of natural versus man-made within the cemetery. The picturesque Hollywood Cemetery is a carefully constructed man-made space intended to emulate the natural. In juxtaposition, James’ tombstone underlines the materiality of human life.

Mourning Jewelry: Hair Necklace

Upon first glance, this hair necklace is a modest piece of jewelry—what it lacks in iridescence, it makes up for it in novelty. The necklace is part of a jewelry set specially made by I.M. Bunting for his fiancée, Fannie. Closer inspection reveals that this necklace is simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary—very much like its greater purpose, lamenting loss and expressing love. I say “extraordinary” because the death of a loved one is an almost unbearable experience. Philippe Ariès, a renowned French historian, writes that the “transposition of life into eternity—death became the unaccepted separation.” As one can imagine, mourning is thus an exuberant ordeal. Yet, I suggest death as “ordinary” because it is unavoidable, and the elaborate mourning is pervasive during the Civil War period. This necklace embodies this all-consuming mourning. The worn edges of near the clasp suggest frequent wear and handling. This indicates a great level of attention devoted to the necklace. Either it was worn all the time, or the widower worn it at particular occasions then taken off to preserve this physical link to her fiancé. The crisscrossing woven pattern proclaims a certain order amidst chaotic emotions. Furthermore, it exhibits a living elegance due to the way it continuously wraps around and persists into the next oval. The structure of the ovals is airy, which relieves the severity and morbidity of the item. The weaving pattern combined with the hollow centers gives it a likeness to lanterns—commonly associated with light and hope. The human hair is presumably fragile, such that when fashioned into a memento such as this necklace, illustrates an endurance even after death. My personal speculation is that this “earthliness” and pragmatic appropriation of an actual part of the human body expresses a desire to disguise and improve upon, perhaps for the hair to become a “heavenly” item of adornment.

This hair work is in contrast of locks of hair kept in lockets. Hair made into jewelry are exposed and put on display, whereas locks of hair are preserved in small quantity, and put in the protection of a locket. In this way, the deceased in the former case is somewhat anonymous and public, but kept close to the living body (maybe even in contact with the skin when worn.) The latter, however, has an identity associated with it: the small picture portrait accompanying the hair. The locket insulates the hair from physical contact. This difference leads me to think that hair work in the form of jewelry is a silent declaration of a semblance of “living,” as opposed to the locket that demands distance and respect of a memory.