Who wants to be history?

Charles 9 Comments

Napoleon’s tomb

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.


  1. Charles

    How interesting Charles… and thank you Thomas. I love a good tomb – give me Highgate over the council-run rows of black granite dominoes any day. As for the on-line memorials, I think that’s another example where a leap from traditional to modern has been made without really understanding what purpose it serves. It’s a case of “look what we can do!” instead of “look what people want!”.
    And may I share a tomb fact with you? Lord Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral was actually made for Cardinal Wolsey in around 1524. But then he fell foul of Henry VIII’s mood swings and the site of Wolsey’s last resting place, in the grounds of Leicester Abbey, isn’t even known. Shame…

  2. Charles

    Oh, re Highgate, I confess that I revel only in lurching, buckled, toppled vainglory. That’s what I think. I don’t think I’m right. When very drunk I can declaim Ozymandias from memory.

  3. Charles

    That’s spooky… Before this week I hadn’t heard of Ozymandias (I’m ashamed to say). But yours has been the third reference to him in as many days! Once on TV (Case Histories), once in the book I’m reading (Staring At The Sun) and now on your blog. Bizarre!

  4. Charles

    Enough already with the vitals-stapping Charles – the scholarly and informative CB it was who enlightened us about Wolsey, not me. (I thought a Wolsey was a small British motor car from the 1950s.)But I’m pleased to hear that you too can dredge up bits of peotry (sic – N Molesworth)when the vine prompts….
    But all fascinating stuff, thanks.

  5. Charles

    Thanks, Charles! (BTW, my name link disappears into nothingness… which I’m not taking as meaningful!)

    I could counter my own point and say that at times “this aesthetic probably had LITTLE more meaning and certainly LITTLE more art in it than most of the pap offered today”. That is certainly true of Mr. Stevenson’s example. But his is already from the declining phase of the old tradition, which at that point had gradually lost contact with its original meaning. Indeed, this tomb makes a good argument for a re-conception and rebirth of our death traditions.

    (Of course, the ridiculous and even the ignominious will always be part of history – death transcends morality.)

    In general, I feel that enduring memorials and cemeteries are the bedrock on which culture and history are built, the heavy keel and the trailing rudder that make our ship steerable. Without their “grave-ity”, it becomes directionless, indeed impossible to give direction at all and culture simply goes the way the wind blows. This takes literal expression in ash-scattering, which IMHO is a classic symptom of modern nihilism, the ultimate meaningless of it all.)

    Is this not where we are at now? And are we not still worsening the situation with the trend to non- or barely-existent memorials and with a general disrespect for the past? (Even the green burial movement should be questioning its own role furthering this process.)

    Unfortunately the answer to this question, which may be clear to some individuals, will probably come to society as a whole too late, as has the answer to the question of how to treat the material environment.

    (The possibility that cemeteries can create a spiritual environment that testifies to hopes of continued existence is another one altogether, though perhaps even more important to a sane existence in this world. In the rush forward to new and “better” things, which seems to be for many rather a running away from “worse” past things, we often forget these aspects.

    Certainly, change is unavoidable, it belongs to our Zeitgeist – but it could be done a little more consciously and with more respect for the wisdom of the past, which was at least not less than in our own times.

  6. Charles

    Thomas, thank you for this. Apologies for the link, which I have now mended. Your image of the heavy keel and trailing rudder are compelling. And yes, the past is important; we can only know where we’re going if we know where we come from. I am going to pop over to Gloria Mundi’s blog and find out what he/she is thinking about this.

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