Thomas Friese, an old friend of this blog who has often made us sit up and think hard about memorialisation (commemoration if your prefer the perfectly good old school word) breezed into my inbox yesterday and again today with some characteristically thought provoking ideas.
His ideas derived from a tomb in Mount Olivet, Nashville and an accompanying post from a member of the Facebook Taphophiles group. Taphophiles are people who love burial grounds; you could describe them as niche social historians. You have to apply to join the Facebook group but the bar’s not high; they let me in.
The tomb in question is that of railroad baron Vernon King Stevenson, and you can judge the size of Mr Stevenson’s self-importance when you discover that his tomb is a replica of Napoleon’s. Stevenson did well materially, but he did not do good. In the Civil War, charged with evacuating Confederate supplies from Fort Donelson, he deserted his post and fled, leaving the spoils to the advancing Federal army. Years later he was involved in some dodgy share dealing. The upshot is that, while Confederate graves at Mount Olivet are tended to this day and decorated with Confederate flags, Stevenson’s conspicuously isn’t. So you could describe his tomb as ignominy on a grand scale, a huge monument to a less than little man.
Thomas makes the point that ‘this image and related story are a good example, albeit on a bit of a pompous scale, of why lasting tombstones are reference points, indeed building stones, of history and culture.’ He goes on to say, ‘While this aesthetic may no longer appeal to us, in its time it probably had more meaning and certainly more art in it than most of the pap offered today. Life moves on and new forms have to be discovered. But let’s stay objective and only approve of things when they have reached a level worthy of approval!’
According to Thomas’s analysis we are in a state of transition, fumbling our way towards ways of commemorating our dead which are meaningful to us now and which, we hope, will be meaningful to people in the future. Where we are now isn’t it. Certainly the aesthetic of any contemporary local authority cemetery will be unlikely, come tumbledown, to excite the efforts of conservers.
I think he’s got a point. Not, though, that we’re likely to arrive at a single convention. There’s plenty of debate about how to mark a life (and what to do with the ashes) in a society which cremates 75 per cent of its dead and I guess it is going to lead to all kinds of diversity, much of which will not endure. I’m beginning to think that online memorial sites are now beginning to look like a fad, just as Facebook is weathering sudden, unexpected indifference from its once feverish users. I’ve collected at least 25 virtual memorial sites; I wonder how they’re doing. The stampede there has certainly abated.
Yes, I wonder where we’re going… You probably know.