Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Harleigh Cemetery
Author:
Sill, Geoffrey M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman was buried on 30 March 1892, four days after his death. His funeral began with a viewing in the parlor of his home at 328 Mickle Street in Camden, followed by a procession of about a mile to the tomb that awaited him at Harleigh Cemetery, built for him by Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia to his own specifications at a cost of about four thousand dollars. Whitman paid fifteen hundred dollars of that sum with money raised by friends to buy him a house in the country; the balance was paid by his literary executor, Thomas Harned.

The tomb occupies a twenty-by-thirty-foot plot set into a wooded hillside. Designed by Whitman to resemble the etching of "Death's Door" by William Blake, the tomb was constructed of massive blocks of unpolished Quincy granite. Three eighteen-inch-thick slabs form the sides and top, each weighing up to ten tons; a six-ton triangular capstone forms the pediment and anchors the six-inch-thick granite door that stands permanently ajar—perhaps because Whitman wanted his soul to remain free, but also because the door was too heavy to swing on its hinges. An iron gate protects the privacy of the tomb's seven inmates: Whitman, his mother Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, father Walter Whitman, brothers George W. and Edward Whitman, sister Hannah Whitman Heyde, and George's wife, Louisa Orr Whitman. An eighth vault remains empty.

Expensive though the tomb was, the plot at least was free. Whitman was offered his choice of plots in the new cemetery shortly after it was laid out in 1885. Like other "park lawn" cemeteries created after the Civil War, Harleigh was designed with curving drives, broad expanses of lawn, and artificial lakes. Such rural cemeteries were intended to supplant the crowded churchyard burial grounds that were considered both aesthetically displeasing and a source of urban pestilence. It was named "Harleigh" after the country place of Isaac Cooper, which was sold in 1838 to provide the grounds for Philadelphia's Laurel Hill cemetery, on which Harleigh was modeled. The architecture of its gatehouse resembles that of a country estate, and its selected varieties of trees and shrubs provide a sanctuary for scores of nesting birds. Whitman's tomb was therefore a key element in winning acceptance for a new concept for cemeteries, in which the dead become part of nature, rather than huddling behind city walls. He was eventually joined in Harleigh by some thirty-six thousand other souls, including his adherents Horace Traubel and Ella Reeve Omholt, better known as "Mother Bloor."

Bibliography

Greenberg, Gail. A History of Harleigh Cemetery. Camden County Historical Society Bulletin 36 (Fall/Winter 1983–84).

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.


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