The thing that drew me first to cemeteries was the artwork. From the six-foot-tall limestone tree trunk in the graveyard near my parents’ house to the angels in Highgate Cemetery, I loved to see the sculpture best of all. It draws me out in all weather from drizzling rain to humid summer sun, in the icy January breezes and in the high desert glare. I’m well-known in my household for begging to see “just one more” sculpture.
I’ve seen some amazing things in my travels:
The original Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story (in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery) is small, compared to the copy at Stanford University, but it may be even more lovely for being human-sized. The “Angel of Grief Weeping over the Altar of Life,” Story’s last work, was made to mark the grave of his wife Emelyn in 1895. Before Story’s sculpture, angels were always joyful emissaries, secure in the knowledge of Heaven to come for their charges. A grieving angel, overcome by loss, struck a chord that echoes in cemeteries across the world.
Detail of Crack the Whip
Then again, Italian cemeteries are full of one-of-a-kind artwork. It’s rarer to see in Midwestern cemeteries, but one of the most striking sculptures I’ve ever seen is in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Flint, Michigan. “Crack the Whip” is a collection of eight interconnected children running in a semi-circle. Sculpted by J. Seward Johnson, “Crack the Whip” is comprised of an Asian girl, two African American kids, a Native American, and four white kids, each distinct and individual. They are dressed in cleats and baseball shorts, a headband and a basketball jersey, a pinafore. The Asian girl has lost her Birkenstock sandal, which lies in the grass nearby.
The piece that blows everything else away for me is Forest Hills Cemetery‘s “Death and the Sculptor” by Daniel Chester French, the image that opened this post. Death is a stern-faced matron dressed in Grecian robes and a large-cowled cloak. She has wings, but doesn’t carry a scythe or hourglass. She merely reaches her shapely arm out to touch the sculptor’s chisel.
More than any other artwork I’ve seen, this one speaks directly to me. I’ve always had a personal sense of how limited my time here is, how much work I have to do before I die. Even though I am surrounded by a friendly community of other writers, I know I am the only person who can tell the stories I’ve felt called to tell. I dread to be stopped in the middle of my masterpiece, as French’s sculptor was.
Father Time at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma
The clock is ticking, as Father Time reminds us. Time flies and no one knows the day or the hour.
Sunset Hills Cemetery
G-4413 Flushing Road
Flint, Michigan 48504
Telephone: (810) 732-0260 Founded: 1926 Number of interments: Findagrave lists more than 4500. Open: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. in summer, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. in winter
Sunset Hills Cemetery lies across from the Flint River between the former automotive capital of Flint and the former farming village of Flushing, Michigan. Sunset Hills is a lovely combination of lawn cemetery (with bronze monuments lying flush with the sod) and garden cemetery, full of gorgeous old trees, winding roadways, and peaceful views. In the spring, it comes alive with birdsong. In summer, you’d be amazed at all the shades of green. When autumn comes, the trees seem to catch fire with leaves of gold and orange. It holds a new kind of silence when the snow is on the ground.
Sunset Hills doesn’t have famous people buried in it. The best Findagrave can offer is Arthur Ellsworth Summerfield, who served as Postmaster General from 1953-1961, and Booker Moore, who played fullback for the Buffalo Bills. The Political Graveyard adds only Herbert E. Crouter, who ran as a prohibition candidate for the House of Representatives, the Lieutenant Governorship of Michigan, and the University of Michigan board of regents. It’s unclear to me if he ever succeeded in getting himself elected.
Sunset Hills is worth visiting because it’s home to some of the best sculpture I’ve seen in a graveyard anywhere.
The first sculpture to greet the visitor stands just inside the gate. “The Provider” was sculpted by Derek Wernher in the likeness of Albert Koegel. (Koegel was the patriarch of the Koegel’s hotdog empire. Michiganders are fanatic about their hotdogs and Koegels are considered the best.) Koegel’s interest in the cemetery, dating back to its founding in the 1920s, “provided the beautiful backdrop of large trees we enjoy today,” according to Sunset Hills’ website.
“The Provider” is an older gentleman, raising a tin can up to fill a bird feeder. He wears striped rubber boots, slacks with a belt, and a button-down shirt: generic clothing for a very specific figure. The rough surface of his clothing was patterned in the casting process.
Wernher says, “My representational work does not dictate a story but, rather, captures a moment… All these works focus on the portrayal of the ‘self’ of the individual. We are all solitary, yet we are part of the universe.”
Farther into the cemetery, you come upon a group of statues called “The Generation Bridge” by J. Seward Johnson. A grandfather in a tweed suit offers a broken Hersey bar to a little girl in a quilted pale blue outfit. He looks at her, but she gazes at the blanket in her hands. Beside him on the wooden bench sits her dolly. The sculpture is tucked back under the trees in such a way that it looks very realistic.
“My art is an imitation of life. [The sculptures] invite people to come into that space, so that they don’t feel quite alone.” – J. Seward Johnson
Detail of Crack the Whip
The centerpiece of the Sunset Hills sculpture collection is “Crack the Whip,” a collection of eight children running in a semi-circle to play the game. “Crack the Whip” was the first of Sunset Hills’ sculptures, dedicated in 1983. The sculpture, which cost $85,000 at the time, was donated by an anonymous Flint-area resident who had family buried in the cemetery.
The Smithsonian’s Save Our Sculpture survey, compiled in 1993, says that the original leader of the game had gone missing. He appears in my photos taken in 1998 and 2008, so he must have been replaced. My photos from 1998 are here on yesterday’s post.
The sculpture is comprised of an Asian girl, two African American kids, a Native American, and four white kids, each distinct and individual. They are dressed in cleats and baseball shorts, a headband and a basketball jersey, a pinafore. The Asian girl has lost her Birkenstock sandal, which lies in the grass nearby.
Multiple copies of the sculpture are scattered throughout the Midwest. According to his website, Johnson makes up to seven duplicates of each sculpture. One belongs to Radisson Hotel Engineering Department in Indianapolis, who purchased it in 1986. Another copy stands at the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company in Fort Wayne Indiana. They dedicated theirs in 1987.
J. Seward Johnson’s final sculpture in the cemetery is called “The Gardener.” The man wears blue denim overalls with a handkerchief dangling from his back pocket. His turquoise plaid flannel shirt has its sleeves rolled back. In one hand, he holds a spade. The other holds a small flowerpot, which is sometimes filled with real flowers. On the ground beside him sits a tray containing more flowerpots. Except for the gloss on his skin – which could be sunscreen – he appears real enough that I expect people sometimes ask him directions.
Candice and the Flower Girls
“Candice and the Flower Girls,” by Gary Price, is a multi-figure piece that includes a pair of little girls and an older girl with a watering can, which trickles out a stream of water. Candice wears a sailor dress and dice-shaped ponytail holders. She holds a straw hat in one hand and her watering can in the other, her expression intent. She doesn’t have any paint, so she looks less realistic than the other sculptures in the cemetery.
The flower girls are roughly sculpted, with big grooves that show the pressure of the sculptor’s thumb. Their faces have less personality and are less established in their ethnicity than the others. Price says his goal is lifting the human spirit through sculpture. He often depicts children in natural settings, gardening and exploring nature.
The Flag Raiser
The final sculpture in Sunset Hills is called “The Flag Raiser,” again by Derek Wernher. The cemetery’s grounds crew calls him Charlie. He’s modeled on Charles Smith, grounds supervisor for over 39 years. He wears a large ring of keys clipped at his hip, a big chunky watch, loafers, and eyeglasses with no glass in them, as he reaches up as if raising the American flag.
Sunset Hills is a lovely place to spend a summer’s day, if you find yourself in mid-Michigan. Stop into the cemetery office, opposite the cemetery gates, and they will give you a map of all the sculptures.
To me, summertime means time to explore cemeteries. One of the first graveyards I fell in love with was Sunset Hills in Flint, Michigan. It’s a lovely combination of lawn cemetery (with monuments lying flush with the sod) and garden cemetery, full of lush old trees. The element that first set Sunset Hills apart for me was the Crack the Whip sculpture by J. Seward Johnson.
Here’s a view of the sculpture set in its landscape. It was kind of shocking the first time I came upon it. From a distance, it looks for all the world like a gang of kids playing in the graveyard.
We used to play Crack the Whip all the time when I was a kid (although never in the graveyard). Everyone joins hands and the largest kid runs, dragging the line behind her. The goal is to twist and turn and tangle the line up, snapping the little kids on the end so fast that they lose their feet or their grip and go tumbling away from the rest of the line. It can be dangerous. Parents probably don’t encourage their kids to play it these days, even though it was immensely satisfying to hang on, no matter what.
Johnson’s sculpture has such wonderful detail that there’s even a bronze sandal lying in the grass where it’s fallen from one girl’s foot. The children strain with the effort of keeping together. They sway and bend, balancing against each other, almost but not quite toppling over. It’s a masterwork, an amazing, complicated piece. Sunset Hills’ website says the eight children are celebrating life.
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