Holly-Wood, a different kind of Immortality
By John McAuliff
At first glance, the city of Richmond appears to me as I described it to Dr. Ayers and Prof. Nesbit after the trip: blurry. My understanding of Richmond after not one but two different tours of the city as well as a police ride-along is that the lines of its neighborhoods are, with exception, blurred into a pixilated conglomeration of architecture, culture, color, and socio-economic standing. In reading T. Tyler Potterfield’s book Nonesuch Place it is easy to see why. From what I can tell, Richmond was an afterthought forced on William Byrd by government restrictions. Even when it was finally constructed, it was designed sloppily and without regard for the landscape. The subsequent history of Richmond was spotty, occasionally blessed with brilliant and devoted architects of social space like Mr. Cutshaw, but cursed with burning, incompetence and sloth, if not greed, the rest of the time. The city is a perfect example of human dominance of land in search of immortality, and in no place is this better represented than Holly-wood cemetery.
A phase I went through when I was younger took me to Holly-wood while tracing the President’s lives. I dragged my family to their homes, offices, and burial plots. I have a photo of myself as a kid at the tomb of James Monroe, the black crown of Holly-Wood cemetery. It stands out against a backdrop of white marble towers and tombstones which mark the spots of burial for centuries of Virginians intent on immortality. Why is a jet black Gothic style tomb better suited for burying batman than housing a United States President sitting atop a hill in fields of pure white stone? The answer to that question is central to Richmond’s history, and can be found by taking a closer look at the cemetery in which it resides.
At Holly-wood, the innately human quest for immortality and remembrance of Richmond takes physical manifestation in the form of marble and granite. The question of immortality is very much a question of land. All people desire to be remembered after they pass. The only thing that outlasts people is land, and thus the way to be remembered is to imprint oneself onto the land. This connection between the human quest for immortality and the land is best illustrated in cities, where almost all the names of places (streets, parks, etc…) we can think of are names of men and women. A good example of this from Potterfield’s book is Cutshaw Place, which the Mayor named after the planning expert. In Virginia, whose soil fed four of the first five presidents, and whose trees were cut by the first American settlers, the connection between American people and land is strengthened. In Richmond, it is unmistakably apparent. The entirety of Richmond’s history is representative of the human attempt to imprint the land, and in Holly-wood, it is most obvious.
Holly-wood’s pyramid and the obelisks, both Freemason symbols of man’s never-ending attempt to reach the level of god, taken from ancient Egypt, stand out in the cemetery. These symbols imply the quest for human ascendance to that of a god, or at least a demigod. What quality that all gods in history share is more enviable than immortality? Even the Obelisk built to George Washington in our capital is a testament to the worship of elites as demigods which pervades our national consciousness. The tomb of James Monroe represents this concept as well. By setting the black tomb against a backdrop of white, it is yet another example of creating a lasting impression, which it clearly did in my mind at a young age, and surely did for others as well.
Other symbols in the graveyard suggest different, but similar concepts. The velvet pillows with tassels atop several small towers suggest that the strong tradition of Virginia freemasonry underlies Richmond’s history, but thousands of other symbols commemorate events, people, and ideas I have no knowledge of. Cemeteries are like college level philosophy reading in that every line—or in this case grave—was put there for a reason, and nothing is accidental. The mausoleums, the velvet pillows, and the countless other symbols of which I am too ignorant to decipher each represent one man or families attempt to make permanent their existence.
The marble and granite itself which makes up the material of the cemetery was mined in Richmond, and is literally moved earth. By moving the earth, these men imprinted it in a third way, the first two being cities/streets, and symbolic gravestones. By flattening hills and covering creeks, humankind twists the land for its own purpose, using it to reach the eventual goal of immortality by building companies, streets, and cities where once only forests stood in silence. And so, the entirety of Richmond leads back to Holly-wood cemetery. The men who built and developed it, now rest as a continuous testament to humankind’s dominance of the earth, and a sad reminder of our fragility in comparison. Even the location of the cemetery, atop the hill looking out at the river, represents human dominance of nature. In the final analysis, Holly-wood may as well be called Hollywood, its corrupted form, after all, because the Walk of Fame in Los Angeles is no different from the winding roads which lay out the history of Virginia in the forms of marble and granite. In fact, the catchphrase for the Walk of Fame reads “Seeing Stars: Where the Stars are Immortalized.”
Photo By Remember (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons