Category Archives: FieldReport2

Student field reports from our visit to St. John’s churchyard and the African Burial Ground

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.

Sitting Pretty: Benches in Hollywood Cemetery

Walking up and down the slopes of Hollywood Cemetery is sure to get tiring after a while.  If you’re feeling a bit weary, perhaps you might want to take a rest on one of the many benches scattered about the grounds.  While some of these benches have been positioned in the most-visited places by the cemetery management, most are located on plots themselves.  Usually made of granite or wrought iron, families build them as a place for loved ones to rest while they visit the gravesite.

This iron bench, woven in intricate branch and floral designs, sits near the Alsop grave in the middle of a shady glen.  It is of some poor condition – the once shiny black metal has begun to corrode and peel away, leaving it rough and discolored.  It creaks when sat upon and leaves rust stains on your hands when touched, but still stands firm.

alsop bench

Interestingly, the bench does not face the grave itself, but stands next to it and faces the neighboring hill of graves.  This position indicates the visitor is not meant to merely contemplate the headstone, but admire the garden-esque grounds.  Hollywood, with its old trees and short-cut grasses and graves of all shapes and sizes, represents something more than simply a burial ground.  It is a place in keeping with the message of the rural cemetery movement and resembles a park, a cross between urban structures and the wilderness, rather than a crowded city churchyard.  Meticulously sculpted so that it has no overlook point, the cemetery reflects the classic American ideal of natural beauty: variations in the landscape, hills and dells, streams and woodlands.

Sitting on the Alsop bench illustrates how the striking scenery exists for the pleasure of cemetery visitors who seek a retreat from urban setting.  This notion suggests Hollywood Cemetery, and by extension the entire rural cemetery movement, strives for a change in the image of gravesites from the traditional small graveyard to a spacious recreational site.  The benches are somewhere for the living to rest within the dead’s final resting place.

Regardless of its state of slight disrepair, this functional feature gives a welcoming feel to the plots, inviting passersby not only to sit and reflect on those who’ve passed on, but simply to enjoy the day.

Hollywood Field Report


This particular gravestone, standing tallest amongst a family plot in Hollywood Cemetery, captured my attention with its height, detail, and inscriptions. The grave commands the square of the Gray family plot. Smaller stones that mark relatives of James T. Gray surround the monument. A very popular symbol found in cemeteries, the draped urn, sits atop the resting place of James and Elizabeth Gray. This urn is meant to symbolize immortality—the dust to which our bodies return to, yet the eternal life our souls venture to after death. Below the draped urn, is an architecture that looks like a rooftop, evoking ideas of the gravestone serving as a home, a final resting place for the Gray family. The intricate swirls or vine-like feature just under this rooftop design seems to weave itself into a heart shaped figure in the center. Together, this home-like aspect as well as the heart design point to a close familial bond. This grave design perhaps wanted to highlight and represent the love that this family had for one another. Further evidence for this familial love is that husband and wife are commemorated on the same stone. Many other plots would dedicate two separate stones to the husband and wife, however the fact that both are portrayed on this one stone must allude to a closeness of family.

While the love this couple had for one another would likely have inspired the use of symbolism on this grave marker, the inscriptions used suggest a gender tension that was evident in the early 1900s. The man’s name, James T. Gray, comes before the woman, Elizabeth’s name. Beneath each of their names is their date of birth and death. For James, a description of his job, his life’s work, is given. He was part of the 1st Company of the Richmond Howitzers, meaning he must have fought in various battles of the Civil War. The quote, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” follows after James Gray’s brief biography. This scripture displays his spirituality as it is paired with the urn symbolizing immortality. Elizabeth, however, is only described as being the wife of James and the daughter of E.W. Palmer. A quote that follows her name says, “She hath done what she could.” While James is described as faithful, valiant, and honorable, Elizabeth is left to be understood as almost inadequate in comparison. Perhaps doing all that one can do in a lifetime is respectable, yet when that statement is paired with a “Good job, James,” it becomes difficult to see it that way. The coupling of these quotes is almost laughable, but at its root shows the inequalities women faced in this time period and points to the role women ought to play as simply a wife and daughter.

Shockoe Hill Cemetery & Hebrew Cemetery

I was apprehensive about this field trip. I’ve lived in Richmond for nearly ten years and have grown very accustomed to seeing Hebrew Cemetery on the hill near the highway whenever returning home from Richmond International. It’s one of the first landmarks I can recall really noticing in my new city. When I found out about this scheduled field trip, particularly the fact that our class would be splitting the time slot between Hebrew Cemetery and Shockoe Hill Cemetery, I became disappointed. Because of Hebrew Cemetery’s busy prominence on the hill, I assumed we would have a solid two and a half hours to roam the grounds and discuss what we see with the class. This place was after all in the forefront in my repertoire of imagery I associate with my home. How could we be sharing the field trip with Shockoe Hill Cemetery? All I knew about Shockoe Hill was its downtrodden location, missing grave-markers, and general lack of austerity. I never would have assumed that the glaring differences in these two neighboring cemeteries would expose the massive historical differences and rationales in the communities that operated them. These differences also illuminate why the cemeteries are in the conditions that they are in today, and suggest ways in which surrounding communities can get involved in preservation efforts. In spite of my apprehension, visiting both of these cemeteries together was more informative and enlightening than visiting either of them on their own could have ever been.

Shockoe Hill Cemetery is neatly tucked away in a somewhat decrepit corner of Richmond on a neatly squared plot of land. It is the final resting place of remarkably important individuals from Richmond’s history, and was once a property beautified by Tredegar cast iron fences and guardrails. Today it is a crumbling, somber place with few remnants of cast iron remaining. Some important graves have been well taken care of while others lie beneath piles of former-headstone rubble or without markers altogether. Volunteer committees do everything they can to maintain the cemetery and have made impressive strides in marking formerly unmarked graves and repairing headstones. Hundreds of soldiers from the Civil War through the middle of the 20th century lie in unmarked graves with tenuous futures.   In general however, Show Hill Cemetery is a little desolate and exposes the complicated relationship between Christian Richmonders and their dead (and deaths).

The differences between Shockoe Hill Cemtery and Hebrew Cemetery are numerous, but the most glaring disparity is the impressive upkeep and creative aesthetic found in the latter. Regardless of their minority status, Richmond’s Jewish community appears to have stayed tightknit in the face of adversity, even when new waves of culturally diverse Jews immigrated to America and established a separate synagogue. Hebrew Cemetery is beautiful and ornate and could trick any casual visitor into thinking that the occupants of the grounds haven’t been there long. Headstones and monuments don’t sink into the ground and stand lopsided as they do in Shockoe Hill. Wealth shines through with varying high quality materials used for markers. Some markers aren’t even what I consider to be grave markers at all (or at least that’s what I thought before this field trip)! Felled trees carved from stone stand tremendously over the bodies of individuals whose lives were cut tragically short. The caretaker’s facility is grandiose and looks like something out of a medieval revival architecture pamphlet. The striking preservation of this place elucidates the nature of closeness and loyalty in the Jewish community. Their reliance on particular imagery and vernacular illustrates the historic Jewish dedication to tradition, and perhaps served as a way to keep the community as tight as possible in both life and death, especially when it came to military affiliations in the 19th century. Jewish Civil War soldiers, of whom there are not many (comparatively speaking), are showcased front-and-center within an ornate cast iron fenced-plot. Each name is accounted for, and the plot is extremely well tended. This suggests that Jews wanted their Richmond neighbors to know that even though they were a united people, they felt strongly for their city and sacrificed alongside their Christian neighbors. Jewish deathways thus served as both a means of unification of their own people and commemorating their involvement and existence within a community, which may explain why Hebrew Cemetery is so much more well kept than Shockoe Hill Cemetery.

The most major fundamental differences between Shockoe Hill Cemetery and Hebrew Cemetery are the ways in which they are managed. A singular and massive Jewish congregation, Beth Ahabah, has been the only proprietor of Shockoe Hill Cemetery since it was established in 1789 while Shockoe Hill Cemetery relied solely on the families who have had individuals interred there until several non-profit groups came in and took up conservation efforts. With hope and luck in the near future, the City of Richmond will become involved at Shockoe Hill Cemetery and Richmonders like myself will have a “new and improved” place to reflect on our city’s history.

The Richmond African Burial Grounds

When the class visited the African Burial Grounds one of the questions that stuck out to me the most was: Is this site an accomplishment by the city to bring this area to light or a failed half-hearted attempt, constructed to quell disgruntled people? In comparison to the beautifully managed, pretty-well preserved and privately owned state of the St. Johns Church yard, the African Burial Ground could not hold a candle.


As a home-grown Richmonder, it would have been impossible to grow up without 1) taking a field trip in elementary school to go visit the place where Patrick Henry said “Give Me liberty or Give Me death”, and 2) hearing about the site of the African Burial Grounds especially when talk of the Shockoe Stadium come up again every so often. However, as many times as I had heard about the Burial Grounds, I hadn’t been there until the day our class went. When I first got there, the Grounds looked like an athletic field that hadn’t been used in quite a while, there were street lights posted al around, big stretches of open grass area and on the far side of the entrance stood a city issued plaque that had begun to fall apart and rust. On the other side of the Grounds stood the Winfree Cottage, a historic structure that had ben located, moved and placed on blocks where it currently sits against a dirty wall that supports the highway. In stark comparison, St. Johns sits beautifully atop Church Hill with a wonderfully maintained churchyard and a fantastic tour guide who knows many of the stories that go along with the lucky peoples buried there. St. John’s is not quite perfect either. Many of the gravestones there have fallen into a state of disrepair leaving many of them without names to bear or stories to tell. In fact many of the dead buried under the churchyard are not marked because the stones making them had fallen and were not replace, so in a sense, this aspect of the Church is similar to The Burial Ground but it is still much more respected. Now back down the hill, The African Burial Ground has no such guide and no known stories of individuals that gave their lives helping to build the early settlement of Richmond. Much of the debate and discussion about the Burial Grounds now revolves around the building of a baseball stadium relatively close to the site. Many of the proponents for the Stadium have brought up that they would build a memorial to the Grounds and maybe that might bring some more recognition to the area that right now gets no attention and is hidden amongst the city? Maybe. But regardless, to answer the question, the African Burial Grounds, to me, seem like just another attempt to rectify a wrong done by Virginians of the past but by doing so they have only made the wrong worse. The Burial Grounds could offer so much more information to the city about how its was built and who it was built by but it lacks effort and funding. Unfortunately, the Burial Ground is just a half-hearted attempt that was made a few years back and has been once more left by the wayside as the city chooses to spend money on other improvements and developments.

Women in the South (of a Cemetery)

Touring St. John’s Cemetery creates more questions than it answers. The majority of its stones are left, eroding and falling apart. The words that were once inscribed on them have been worn away with time. There are some modern stones or monuments, some intentionally well preserved ones (most often the ones by the church), and some that do still, fortunately, have distinguishable words, dates and sentences. Upon first walking through the cemetery, it seems that all of the stones have been placed randomly. There certainly are no rows formed, there are some clusters of multiple gravestones from varying, wide spacing years, and there are some bald patches. Most of the stones face east. However, when observing and noting the names, sentences, and dates that are distinguishable on the gravestones, there are patterns that can be found. For example, the names Thomas, Daniel, and Mary were common even then. However, most notable to me was the disproportionate number of women and people from Ireland in the southern part of the churchyard. While other gravestones note the places that the deceased come from, they are sporadic in their location in the cemetery. In this southern part of the cemetery, there are fewer gravestones with discernable inscriptions of men’s names, and a large number with discernable inscriptions of the origin of the deceased, specifically Ireland.

Daniel Isabella

These photos illustrate the chest tomb of Isabella Neilson from Donegal, Ireland (buried in the furthers corner of the southern corner, right next to the fence) and Daniel McDermoth from Dunnegol, Ireland.

As evidenced in similarities in style, orientation, messages, and dates on the stone, the Irish and the women were not ostracized from the community. They still conformed to typical death practices, and probably shared religious beliefs with the others that are buried in the cemetery. However, if the most faithful, religious, and prestigious people were buried on the northeastern side of the cemetery close to the church, then the southern placement with distance from the church would indicate that the people buried under these stones were less faithful or prestigious – or they were considered to be worth less within their community in comparison to the equally gender separated stones without specification of birthplace.

Ultimately, it is clear that there were some racist feelings against Irish men and women, and there were some strong feelings of the subordination of women. Because of the disproportionate number of gravestones that were in a small way “hidden away” of these two classes, it is a reasonable to believe that, while they were still memorialized and remembered through the stones, they were not something that the church wanted to show off by putting in a spot close to the church or easily accessible to the front of the church. The placement of stones is less happenstance than the layout of the cemetery suggests.




IMG_9515IMG_9512    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.

St. John’s Church

The power of the divine is very apparent as one walks around the St. John’s Episcopal Church cemetery. The Episcopal Church places a large emphasis and importance on the building itself, believing that the presence of God is strongest and truly real within the walls of a church building. The tombstones make this clear throughout the cemetery as they surround the church and fill up the grounds. There seems to be a clear pattern among the tombstones—they all face towards the east. The east is where Christ is to come again, when the dead will be raised and the kingdom of God will be victorious against evil and death. The people buried here are God’s people, and they will be raised once again and live in eternity with Christ once he returns. The eastern orientation is a testimony of the faith and hope of the deceased, comforting their friends and family with the knowledge that they will soon rise and be with Christ.

Not only is direction important for one’s tombstone, but location relative to the church as well. Just as the stones face east, the most sacred and holy location for one to be buried is on the eastern side of the church building. It is an honor to be buried on the eastern end of St. John’s Church, and many men and women have desired to be laid there at their end. To be not only on the east but also close to the minister’s pulpit is to be close to the divine. The minister is the one who brings the word of God to the hearts of his congregation every week—why would you not want to be placed in that location once your time has passed? The power of God is within those walls and surrounding the pulpit, and the closer one can be the greater the power is in them. One man, however, certainly has the most revered burial location of all—he is buried under the very floorboards from which he spoke to his people when he was the reverend at St. John’s. With a plaque honoring his life directly in front of the original pulpit, the Holy Spirit in all of its power and glory forever surrounds him. In the hearts of these men and women buried here on the grounds of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Christ will return, and they will be ready.

Field Report #2: St. Johns Church

IMG_1205 IMG_1204

This stone is placed on the back side of the church near the entrance to the bathrooms. During the tour, we discussed that most of the buried dead were episcopalian churchgoers. However the difference in gravestones suggest other socioreligious influences. Many non-local stones were of New England origin, but the one shown above is of international origin. The inscription on the side of this stone identifies the deceased as Mary from Ireland who lived from 1789-1880. Her nationality is also exemplified through the shamrocks on top aspect of the stone.  Our knowledge of Ireland from this time period suggests that this person was catholic. Other features of this gravestone confirms this hypothesis.

The stone itself is unlike any other in the cemetery. The shape seems representative of a bed, which is a common theme in gravestone art. However this bed seems more ornate and literally shaped like a bed. Other gravestones that represent beds are not as obvious as this stone. Aside from the shape, the large inscription of “MOTHER” is unique as well. This inscription can be interpreted in many ways. Firstly, the deceased woman was most likely a mother who were close with her children. The inscription may be highlighting her main role as mother for her family. A more religious approach allows us to make sense of the catholicism in this stone. The deceased’s name, in addition to the “MOTHER” inscription, suggests that Mary mother of Jesus Christ is highly valued in the woman’s family. Catholicism is known for representing Mary as a nearly divine figure because she was blessed by God to bring Jesus Christ into the world.

Despite the piety present in this graveyard, many of the stones do not contain overt religious symbols. The religious presence is contained within the inscriptions.  However, this stone contains a very large cross on it which seems consistent with catholic ideals. Catholics are proud of their faith and show their faith through outward measures (i.e. kneeling, communion, etc.). It is clear that this woman wanted to be remembered for her devotion to Christ.

Field Report: St. Johns and African Burial Ground

The stark difference between the burials at St John’s and the state of the African Burial Ground/ Burial Ground for Negroes is not surprising, yet it is disheartening. When first entering St. John’s churchyard, it is obviously a cemetery. Hundreds of gravestones facing east cover the grounds of the church. Monuments and commemorations for those buried there are erected throughout the grounds. Tour guides and reenactors roam the ground ready to give an impromptu performance of famous speeches made on that ground. And then there is the African Burial Ground, located by and under a high way, with only a lone sign to mark the ground as a place of rest. The reasoning behind the difference in appearance (and reverence) of these two areas is apparent, especially when looked at through both the stories behind people interred in the grounds and iconography found at the sites.
The iconography and stories behind the burials at both grounds are most interesting. The fact that only one story behind the bodies buried at the African Burial Ground survives, while the tour guide Ray had numerous stories to tell of the men and women buried at St. John’s is telling of both historical and modern Richmonders’ reactions and opinions of the burial grounds of these two very different groups of people. While the narrative of the black woman dug up from her initial grave and taken to the African burial ground is depressing, the stories told at St. John’s almost had a tone of being mythologized.
Although I do not think it is always necessary, or even a good idea, to read too deeply into stories from the past that might not be grounded in reality or concrete fact, the source describing the woman being treated so vile is important beyond just as a chilling narrative. This nameless woman’s plight can tell us about her economic state and by extension other contemporary Richmond blacks (she was able to be buried on land she owned), while also commenting on the feelings of hatred, fear, ect of early white Virginians towards blacks. They had to be buried in a plot where it was a known fact that they could be swept away by Shockoe Creek. It also has to be asked why this is the only narrative left of any of the people buried in the African Burial Ground. Did this story exist to scare Africans into being buried at this site (which was often ravaged by the environment) in fear of their graves being desecrated? Unlikely, but it could still have served a similar purpose.
In comparison to the lone story of the African Burial Ground, many somewhat fanciful, stories about both St. John’s churchyard and the people buried there were told. One can argue this is because St. John’s was integral to the shaping of Richmond, Virginia and early, colonial North America. While this is true, we all learn about Patrick Henry and Give me liberty or give me death, black Richmonders, both slaves and freemen, were the labor force that allowed Richmond to flourish economically.
The iconography of both burial grounds also brings up the same question of why the burial grounds are so different. The inclusion of the Sankofa symbol on the signage for the African Burial ground was a misguided attempt to add some type of African spiritualism to a ground devoid of any type of memorial to the actual people buried there. I think that it is important to note that it is only speculation to think that the people buried at the Burial Ground for Negroes would have any type of connection to those symbols. The only spiritual symbol found at the African Burial Ground does not do justice to the grounds.