An old piece of stone often holds more meaning than one might suspect, particularly in a city like Richmond. Although stone carved into monuments or statues may generate friction, a great deal more of it can remind us to ruminate on not only our history, but ourselves.
On a recent afternoon, a tour guide from The Valentine took RVA Mag on a little stroll to discover some history behind one of Richmond’s most cherished and popular landmarks, Hollywood Cemetery.
John Notman designed Hollywood Cemetery in 1847 and named it for its immense number of holly-wood trees. At the time, Richmond was experiencing the effects of the industrial revolution and much of the city was falling victim to industrialization–the pollution, smog, overpopulation and factory life was the reality for Richmonders.
The existing burial grounds were overcrowded and unhealthy. Cemetery parks or garden cemeteries known as Rural Cemeteries such as Hollywood, provided safe, sanitary burial and the pleasures and restorative benefits of the natural environment. Rural cemeteries were the forerunner of the public parks in America.
Notman wanted to create a space that could allow people to escape from the harsh city environment–a place they could picnic, meditate, stroll through the pathways overlooking the James River, and spend time with their passed loved ones on a stunning, sloping lawn.
Notman added cypress, cedars, maples, magnolias, azaleas, and crepe myrtles making and laid interior walkways for further exploration of the grounds and monuments.
He designed curvilinear carriage paths to overlook the valleys of the cemetery. These paths doubled as walking paths and people could stroll through the cemetery and meditate on the graves as if it were simply a quiet park. At the time, it was the only place people had a place to picnic for free.
Hollywood Cemetery, located at 412 S. Cherry St., is the resting place for over 18,000 Confederate soldiers and many Confederate officers, and the large pyramid, made of James River granite, was erected in 1869 as a memorial to all the young men who lost their lives.
The pyramid was not a random choice nor an homage to the Egyptians, but an ancient symbol for the end of life. It is thought that the idea for a pyramid was inspired by the Zodiacal Light, or a dim, elongated cone of light that extends sometimes from the horizon in the night sky.
It is actually a reflection of sunlight from dust particles outside of earth’s atmosphere. It is best seen at twilight, just as the sun is setting over the Earth. In a similar way, our physical version of a pyramid is meant to symbolize the setting sun of death, as if their lives have reached their own Zodiacal Light and may now have an eternal night. Similarly for the Egyptians, the pyramid was a symbol of the setting sun and death.
Another widely known piece in Hollywood Cemetery is the cast-iron Newfoundland retriever, which was placed there to save it from being confiscated by the government during the Civil War.
During the war, much of the ironwork in the city was melted down to use as artillery. Belonging to Charles R. Rees, the dog was place by a cradlestone, a symbol of one who lost their life as a child. Cradlestones were also used for adults and were a metaphor for sleep. The grave belongs to Rees’ daughter, who rests under a marker constructed to look like a cradle.
The duo have attracted much local attention and people like to leave trinkets behind for the child, who died all too young.
As per the Jewish tradition, leaving stones is an homage to the ancient burial method of placing large stones over shallow graves in order to keep the body safe from harm. Leaving stones is still an acceptable token of remembrance.
Scallop shells are the second appropriate token, as they are a symbol of baptism and pilgrimage. According to Christianity, a scallop shell was used to baptize Jesus by his cousin John.
Lastly, visiting patrons to the cemetery may leave coins, a reminiscent symbol within Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks believed that to reach the Underworld, one had to cross the River Styx, which acted as the gateway between Earth and Hades’ domain. According to the legend, the dead needed to pay the boatsman with coins to cross the river.
Hollywood was built in a time when churches turned to narratives of resurrection and deliverance. With this change, grave markers took on a more hopeful, pleasant and comforting appearance.
Treestones, a grave marker carved as a tree stump and product of the Victorian Rusticity movement of the late 19th century.
These tree stumps are meant to look chopped and dead, yet life still emerges from the tree’s decay. Mushrooms, a symbol of fertility, are carved into the base of the tree stump and ivy vines appear to grow around the trunk. Ivy is a symbol of immortality, and conveys that although the tree has died, it may now support new life–a cycle of rebirth that is continued by the death of the individual buried beneath this symbolic marker.
Ivy is a common theme throughout Hollywood, as many graves are covered by a bed of ivy–one of which happens to be Jefferson Davis’ grave. The plant is also a sign of fidelity, eternity, and perennial life. Similarly, the laurel plant, which often appears on the cast iron gates of Hollywood, symbolizes honor, distinction and achievement.
Some grave stones appear to have a curtain draped over its head. A sign of sorrow and mourning, the drapes often have a tassel, as if the curtain has been pulled over the person’s life, signaling the end of a play.
As one strolls through the flowering trees and paved carriage paths of Hollywood Cemetery, one can get a glimpse into an individual’s lie simply by what design embellishes it.
One such example are the emblems of fraternal organizations that existed before those that litter universities today. During the 19th and 20th centuries, these organizations were not only social groups, but offered connections, benefits and pensions for yourself and loved ones once you were gone.
Each of these fraternal organizations have symbols that would often adorn the grave of passed members, such as the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, Woodmen of the World, or the Sons of Temperance.
Throughout Hollywood, you will see Obelisks adorn many of the graves, which can indicate their deceased were Protestants. They neither wanted to be associated with the Great Awakening nor Catholicism, who used crosses for their grave markers, and used the Obelisk instead.
A pillar structure that was inspired from yet another solar system phenomenon, an Obelisk also denotes a productive life.
However, sometimes families mark graves with more specific designations for what the deceased accomplished in their life. One of these individuals was Captain Richard Wamack, who died in 1870. He was the captain of three Vanderbilt steam ships–the Daniel Webster, Prometheus and North Star–and spent his life traveling the oceans delivering goods to be traded between New York, Panama, Europe and South America.
A friend from Spain once wrote to Captain Wamack, “If you left off going to sea, you never would live happy.” He wrote back complaining of ill-health while on his last voyage to Europe, and he died three years later in Richmond.
His family buried him in Hollywood, and erected an obelisk covered with a stone drape as his grave marker. On the right side of the marker, a panel was carved out of the stone to depict a ship at sea, forever sailing the waves.
Other graves are less adorned with carvings and intricate shapes, but their tenants are no less interesting.
Ellen Glasgow was a sickly child. Her health kept her from going to school like other children, so she instead stayed home and poured over books about philosophy, social and political theory, and literature. Her brother-in-law schooled her in the philosophers when she was an adult and later, Glasgow attended private school.
Born after the Civil War had ended, Glasgow was a member of the suffragette movement and would go on to write 21 books, even winning a Pulitzer Prize. Her writings were highly critical of Southerners, whom she believed were stuck in the past and needed to accept the new, developing technology some Southerners seemed to reject.
Her books were well reviewed, however, in the North and in England, and Glasgow grew to be a prominent figure. She was an early supporter of the Richmond SPCA, later becoming president of the organization and remained so until her death in 1945.
Glasgow is buried next to her parents and sister and her stone has no special carvings or adornments, but simply reads, “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” It is the last line from John Milton’s poem, “Lycidas.”
Lewis Ginter is one of the more famous residents of Hollywood Cemetery, as he was not only a prominent businessman and one of the largest investors of the tobacco industry, but he was a passionate philanthropist. His work contributed greatly to Richmond’s economy and he was adamant that Richmond have its own luxury hotel, and thus The Jefferson was born.
However, lying in the cemetery next to Ginter’s large, ornate mausoleum is Grace Arents, whose grave marker is a small, simple sun dial, bordered by boxwoods. Grace was the daughter of Ginter’s sister and he cared for her until his death. However, she continued her uncle’s legacy until her own death in 1926.
Although her grave is small, her contributions were anything but, as she gave Richmond many playgrounds, three churches, subsidized housing and a tuition-free school. However, her largest project was the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Although she led a private life and remained virtually unknown, it is because of her continued generosity that the people of Richmond were the true heirs to the Ginter fortune.
These brief stories and few historically rich symbols and monuments only scratch the surface of the beautiful grounds of Hollywood Cemetery. Eager to see for yourself? Check out one of several tours Hollywood Cemetery offers.
*Photos by Madelyne Ashworth