Tag Archives: General Grant National Monument

Cemetery Postcards

“The most interesting of New Orleans’ historic burial places…”

Ten years ago, I started to collect antique postcards of graveyards.  I was entertained that such a thing existed:  why would anyone buy, send, or save a picture of a cemetery?

Things people chose to commemorate fascinated me.  There seemed no end of variety to the images of Grant’s Tomb or New Orleans’s Saint Louis Cemetery #1. Sometimes cards showed a famous person’s grave:  Buffalo Bill Cody’s stone under a lonely leafless tree or Benjamin Franklin’s slab against the fence in Philadelphia.  I understand the star power in those images.

“Where the Famous Scout Rests Forever”

Other photographs displayed the cemetery all gussied up for Decoration Day or All Soul’s Day.  Flags and flowers fluttered everywhere, their colors over-saturated by the printing process.  Women wore brightly flounced dresses and carried parasols; their heads leaned together in earnest conversation.  The cemetery looks fun, full of life.

Some photos showed simple landscapes with a gently reflective lake or a flowering tree, like scenes out of Eden.  When you look closely, there might be a hint of the landscape’s purpose:  a simple headstone, a Grecian temple tucked among the hills.  Sometimes Nature cradles tiny figures:  people picnicking amongst the graves, a man in a straw boater posing beside his Model T, or someone standing with arms draped around a monument like it was part of the family.  I see the appeal of these peaceful scenes.

Sometimes, though, there is nothing special about the view or the graves or the cemetery itself.  Those cards were made to advertise graveyards, like calling cards.  While I understand the purpose behind the creation of the cards, less clear to me is the motivation of their collectors.  Were these memento mori?  Treasured mementos?  Was looking at them a form of armchair travel?  I still don’t know.

Not all of my vintage postcards were sent through the mail.  The posted ones are my favorites, since they hint at the people who wrote or saved cards.  I love to read about the weather or the other places the authors visited.  One phrase that turned up again and again startled me.  “Wish you were here,” the ubiquitous vacation greeting, takes on a whole new meaning when written on the back of a cemetery photograph.

I assume that the senders meant they wished the recipient could have come along for the trip.  However, the phrase could also be read to mean, “I wish you were buried here.”  I found the dual meaning funny.

“This is a picture of something I hope you’ll see someday.”

When I couldn’t decide on a title for my collection of cemetery travel essays, I looked through my box of postcards.  Now I’m calling the book Wish You Were Here.

Every Friday, I plan to display some of my  collection of cemetery postcards.  I think there’s a lot we can learn from them:  about how cemeteries fit into their societies, about the things people treasured and loved and saved, about the past and its reflection in our present.  I hope you’ll find them as fascinating as I do.

The cemeteries featured in this article are:

Cemetery of the Week #6: St. Louis #1 in New Orleans, Louisiana

Cemetery of the Week #11:  General Grant National Monument in New York City

The other postcard essays are:

Cemetery postcards: the earliest years

Cemetery Postcards: The first real postcards

Weekly Photo Challenge: Refreshing

Detail of Grant's tomb

I find the quote which adorns the exterior of Grant’s tomb refreshing. “Let us have peace” are the words which closed the President’s memoirs. For a man who served his country in war, his final wish strikes me as beautiful and timely.

My original post about the General Grant National Monument is here.

Another book about Presidential Gravesites

The Bear Went Over the Mountain-Finding America. Finding Myself.The Bear Went Over the Mountain-Finding America. Finding Myself. by Carll Tucker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book. The author goes on a quest to visit the graves of all the American Presidents and Vice Presidents. Unfortunately, I would have put the emphasis on graves and not on the author’s discovery of himself.

Mr. Tucker starts the book by announcing to his wife of 25 years that he is buying an RV and leaving her for months to go walkabout. He does not allow any discussion. He can’t really justify the trip to her or to his friends (or the reader), not even by calling it a midlife crisis. Whenever he gets lonely on the road, he visits a Wall-Mart to gawk at the rampant consumerism and desperate unhappiness of Americans outside of the privileged enclave where he was born to money. As narrators go, he is not someone I wanted to snuggle up to for 300 pages.

The book unfolds in map-order, following the author as he travels outward from New York. Since I only have a tenuous grasp on the order of American presidents (and no idea whatsoever about the vice presidents), I needed a whole lot more history to understand the chronology. I’m not sure how he could have assembled the book differently, but I was often lost.

The final straw, though, was that I wanted to know about the monuments to the fallen men, as well as the graveyards in which they lay. I wanted a guidebook and not a memoir. If you have a whole lot more historical knowledge than I brought to the book — and you’re interested in midlife quests — you will enjoy the book more than I did. George Soros liked it.

I bought my copy from Amazon: The Bear Went Over the Mountain-Finding America. Finding Myself.

View all my reviews

Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?

Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? A Tour of Presidential GravesitesWho’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? A Tour of Presidential Gravesites by Brian Lamb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every library in America, whether personal or public, should have a copy of this book. It’s a straightforward listing, in presidential order, of our nation’s commanders-in-chief, including burial places, costs of admission to visit, causes of death, and final last words. Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? would be great for doing schoolwork, playing Trivial Pursuit, settling arguments, and as a guidebook for family vacations. I can’t wait to drag my daughter off to visit some presidential gravesites.

All that aside, the book opens with a beautiful foreword by Richard Norton Smith which tries to explain for skeptics why anyone would want to visit a cemetery: “To honor those who have gone before. To draw inspiration from distant lives…. Not to mention the humbling perspective that comes whenever we confront mortality, our own or anyone else’s.” (I’m sure I’ll be in a position to quote that at some point!) Smith’s funereal obsession was with presidential graves, to which he dragged his long-suffering family year after year. He makes a strong case for having that touring information collected into this book. He also provides brief historical asides on many, though not all, presidents.

Lamb’s book is full of interesting facts. Did you know George Washington died taking his own pulse? That he was so afraid of being buried alive that he insisted on lying in state for three days? That Benjamin Harris’s father was actually dug up by resurrectionists? That William Taft was a Unitarian who didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ? That Lincoln’s brain and scalp were removed before he was embalmed and rings made of his hair became treasured mementoes? That five ex-presidents are buried in Ohio? An appendix even lists the amount of time ex-presidents survived after leaving office.

Included in the book are portrait sketches of each president, along with black-and-white photos of the burial sites. Unfortunately, many of the grave images are very dark and hard to make out. The inclusion of color plates adds so much that it’s a shame those photos are separate from (and not referred to in) the text of each listing. Hopefully, those flaws have been tackled in the 2003 edition.

An appendix lists addresses and even number of visitors to the presidential libraries. At the end of the 20th century, many former executive officers were choosing to be buried at their library sites, where presumably security was tighter than in the family boneyard down the road. It’s a sad comment that Lincoln had to be “smothered” beneath 10 feet of cement to protect his corpse from kidnapping. However we might feel about a man’s record in office, there’s no one more helpless than a dead man. As always, I hope that familiarity with graveyards will engender respect for them and for the high and mighty brought so low at last.

A newer edition is available on Amazon: Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites

This is another review from Morbid Curiosity #8.

View all my reviews

Cemetery of the Week #11: General Grant National Monument

Grant’s tomb

General Grant National Memorial
West 122nd Street and Riverside Drive
New York, NY 10027
Visitor Services: (212) 666-1640
Completed: 1897
Number of interments: 2
Open: Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Admission: free

Despite his service as the eighteenth president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant was better loved for winning the Civil War. During his lifetime, many credited him with ending slavery. His feelings on racism were progressive: during the war, he favored arming “negro” soldiers. Unfortunately, scandal and corruption in his cabinet marred his presidency. After two terms, he retired to bankrupt his family with a series of bad investments. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. Racing against time, he wrote his memoirs, published posthumously by his friend Mark Twain. Twain gave up most of the profits to support Grant’s wife Julia for the rest of her days.

When initially offered burial space by the mayor of New York City, Julia Dent Grant held out for something a little more centrally located, preferably in Central Park. After it became clear that the mausoleum would cost the family nothing — and she could be buried alongside her husband — she accepted the site just west of Harlem.

Grant’s funeral occasioned a huge international outpouring of grief. Sixty thousand people marched in the seven-mile-long funeral parade, including President Grover Cleveland and former Presidents Chester Arthur and Rutherford Hayes. Over a million people lined the parade route. Officers of both the Grand Army of the Republic and the Army of Northern Virginia carried the coffin into a temporary tomb made of brick. For the first six months, Grant’s body had a 24-hour military guard, which was replaced — as time dragged on and the mausoleum languished unfinished — by New York City policemen.

Shortly after Grant’s death, a Grant Monument Association had been established to collect money for the tomb. Richard Greener, the first African American graduate of Harvard University, served as secretary and personally secured many of the subscriptions. When the tomb was finally completed in 1897, 90,000 people had donated $600,000.

The architect’s original plan called for sculptures on the balcony and a grand staircase down to the Hudson River. Six hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough money for that. The staircase idea was scrapped and decorations on the tomb’s pediment scaled back to reliefs of Federal eagles at each corner. Two muscular young ladies, representing Victory and Peace, sat with their backs to a plaque that read “Let Us Have Peace.” Those words closed Grant’s memoirs.

President Grant’s mausoleum is an enormous edifice composed of 8,000 tons of white granite. It looms 150 feet high, a square box of a building, crowned with a cupola ringed with Doric columns. John Hemenway Duncan, the architect, meant for it to echo the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome, known more familiarly now as Castle Sant’Angelo. By referencing the splendors of the past, Duncan unleashed a new wave in Federal architecture. Before the completion of Grant’s tomb, national memorials tended toward obelisks: think of the Washington Monument in D.C. Grant’s Tomb laid the foundation for the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to being a true tomb — because Grant’s body lies within — the General Grant National Memorial is the largest mausoleum in North America.

Inside, the dome soars overhead, airy and ornate, hinting at how busy the strong, simple façade might have been if Duncan had gotten his way. Four sculptural pendentives contain allegorical figures representing stages in Grant’s life, including “Civil Life” and “Military Life.” Coffered archways hold up a balcony ringed by columns. Above them, eagles spread their wings. It is Victorian and overblown in a way the outside is not.

In the center of the floor, an opening looks down on the sarcophagi that are the grand final resting places of Ulysses and Julia Dent Grant. Made of red Wisconsin granite in imitation of Napoleon’s sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris, the two stone boxes weighed eight and a half tons each.

Until the 1930s, half a million people paid their respects each year. After that, visitors tapered off. Fewer people survived who had participated in — or even remembered — the Civil War. The wars of the twentieth century made war itself seem less grand and glamorous. The Park Service assumed the monument’s care in 1959. Now the site averages one hundred thousand visitors a year.  It’s a shame this marvel is not visited more often.

Useful Links:

The National Park Site

Events at Grant’s Tomb.  This weekend (April 17, 2011) they are celebrating Grant’s birthday.

Historic images of Grant’s Tomb

A close-up of the tomb’s facade

An old-time postcard of Grant’s Tomb

GPS information on Grant’s Tomb

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Grant’s Tomb:

Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?

Permanent New Yorkers

The Bear Went Over the Mountain

Famous and Curious Cemeteries