I had lunch with the angels in Richmond, left an offering for the prostitutes in Lynchburg, spent an afternoon with the saints in Petersburg. For two days, I embarked on a leisurely sojourn among the funerary art and fading roses of three historic Virginia cemeteries: Hollywood, Old City and Blandford.
Each step through these outdoor museums was a lesson in history, art and botany and, more poignantly, a story of tragedy, honor and love. The large iron dog steadfastly guarding the small grave of a young girl appeared to need a pat on the head, and I obliged. The mottled tombstone of a teenager killed during a "false alarm" at a church wedding more than a century ago gave me pause -- how quickly merriment and gaiety turned to chaos and death for the 17-year-old and seven of her girlfriends. The plastic daisies at the foot of J.E.B. Stuart's monument bore a bouquet from "Jeb's Girls With Love."
An angel keeps vigil at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
(Jay Paul for The Washington Post)
"They arrived on his birthday and we think they were sent by the United Daughters of the Confederacy," confided the guide who was conducting a tour of Hollywood Cemetery. "The cemetery has a policy prohibiting artificial flowers. I guess there are exceptions."
Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery is itself an exception: With its graceful design and natural beauty, it appears more like a park than a burial ground. Its winding paths traverse hills and ravines in loop-the-loop fashion, skirting around and passing under more than 2,000 trees that shade the living and cast intriguing patterns of light and dark across the dead. The southern side of the 135-acre cemetery borders the James River.
It was designed in 1847 during the rural cemetery movement, which held that cemeteries should be a destination for leisure pursuits as well as a final resting place. Hollywood was laid out a mile west of town by noted garden designer John Notman, who named the cemetery after the numerous large hollies found on the property. Today, the city extends miles around the final resting place of some 80,000. Among them: 25 generals, six governors, two presidents -- James Monroe and John Tyler -- novelist Ellen Glasgow, biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, sculptor Edward Valentine, 4-year-old Joe Davis (son of Jefferson; he fatally fell from the Confederate White House balcony), Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, assorted family pets and 22,000 Confederate soldiers.
A 90-foot pyramid of dry stacked James River granite commands the Confederate section. The rusticated memorial whispers of antiquity like the Egyptian pyramids themselves. Inside, it holds mementos of war: bullets, buttons, worthless money and a piece cut from the coat Stonewall Jackson wore the day he was mortally wounded. The successful placement of the capstone -- a dangerous task that involved climbing to the top of the rock pile -- earned a daring prison inmate his freedom.
Around the corner and over the hill, I sat under an aging white oak (many trees predate the cemetery's founding) and lunched with statuary angels and their sisters of sorrow. Soggy tuna-on-rye wasn't exactly heavenly fare, but the company was. Some held wreaths, one a fistful of poppies for peaceful sleep; another wept in despair.
The cast-iron dog at the grave of Florence Rees is a favorite with visitors, who leave tokens -- a dandelion, a few coins, a ball, a ribbon fashioned into a collar. The story goes that the dog once stood outside an area business and caught the eye of Florence's brother. Their father bought the dog and later moved it to the cemetery when the war broke out to save it from being melted down and made into bullets.
Down the road, in Lynchburg's Old City Cemetery, I left an offering for Agnes Langley, adding pocket change to a scattering of coins at her grave. Agnes died in 1874. She and her daughter Lizzie ran a popular "sport house" that employed and serviced both races equally, according to a plaque at their impressive plot.
Old City Cemetery was established in 1806 on an acre of land near downtown Lynchburg. It expanded through the years to 26 acres but fell on hard times when wealthier citizens opted for plots in private graveyards. Interment records were sketchy, kudzu obscured graves, tombstones deteriorated. Most of the 20,000 graves cannot be located today, but there is much to enjoy in this culturally rich public burial ground.