Tuesday, November 29, 2011


On my second visit to Woodlawn Cemetery I was in search of Herman, no not the Republican hopeful but the author of Moby Dick. Finding Mr. Melville was as difficult as finding that leviathan that haunted Captain Ahab. I was expecting a burial site that was befitting Melville's stature as an author. Along the way I met a family from England and I asked had they seen Mr. Melville, they told me that they too were looking for him. Finally the daughter of the couple from England shouted, "here he is." Though his grave was difficult to find, the many pebbles and small stones atop his headstone was an indication that many had passed this way. Small stones, instead of flowers, are often left on headstones to indicate that the deceased is still remembered. 

While searching for Mr. Melville I saw a large memorial in the distance that drew my attention. This type of memorial is known as an exedra, a monument carved in the shape of a rectangular or circular bench. The two photos below are of the memorial of newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer whose name was given to that much coveted prize for journalism. A majestic tribute: a solitary figure sits in quiet contemplation.

I was eager to read a history of Woodlawn Cemetery but found there's little that's available in print. I contacted a publishing company that specializes in books on local history and I've pitched the idea of writing a book about Woodlawn Cemetery. I'll start writing over the course of winter and will wait until spring to do more extensive photography. 

I was also delighted that there are numerous organizations for people who share an interest in this unique aspect of art, history and architecture. I also went to the theatre to see a new documentary entitled: In Heaven Underground: The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee which is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Germany, a fascinating film.

Clifford Jacobs
Have Pen, Will Write

Scribo Ergo Sum

Monday, November 21, 2011


Funerary design is often overlooked as a form of architecture just as obituaries are an overlooked form of literary writing (See my blog entitled Memento Mori.) Rarely does the design of a mausoleum draw our attention unless it was designed by a famous artist like Michelangelo who designed the tombs of Giuliano de Medici and Pope Julius II (with its magnificent central figure of Moses.)

 Tomb of Pope Julius II

Tomb of Giuliano De Medici

 Today I visited Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx primarily because I wanted to see where Miles Davis was buried and pay my respects to my favorite musician. My visit far exceeded my expectations.

Woodlawn Cemetery is 148 years old and has been declared a National Treasure largely due to the number of historic and notable figures who are buried there. (more on that later).
Woodlawn is considered a garden or rural type of cemetery that came into existence during the early 19th Century.

The mausoleum of Victor Herbert was of particular interest to me. As a young man I remember someone in my family having first edition envelopes issued by the U.S. Postal service commemorating Victor Herbert. My mother's maiden name is Herbert, and I used to wonder if there was a family connection. Probably not but he remains, in the back of my mind, as a constant thought.

Walking along the avenues of the cemetery is peaceful, it's like walking through a city in miniature filled with wonderful architecture. The mausoleums are what attracts one's attention initially. Most of the mausoleums appear to be Romanesque; there's nothing here that would appear to be Gothic in form. Probably because Gothic architecture is difficult to execute in miniature; it demands the majesty and grandeur of a large scale execution.

The word mausoleum comes to us from King Mausolus of Halicarnassus whose burial chamber was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. There is much here that would catch the eye of a Freemason: twin pillars,broken columns, sphinxes and weeping virgins abound. There are also cenotaphs, monuments to the dead who have been interred elsewhere.

I traveled to Woodlawn to pay homage to my favorite musician: Miles Davis, but I was surprised at how many more musicians were buried here: Celia Cruz, Max Roach, Jackie McLean  and Lionel Hampton.
I didn't get to see the tombs of Herman Melville, Ralph Bunche or Felix Pappalardi of the rock band Mountain, so I'll have to plan a return visit.

When I was a student at Brown I use to ride my bike through one of the cemeteries located in Providence. I would pull over sit on the grass and read for an hour or two. The cemetery dated back to colonial times and often I would see Anthropology students doing rubbings of the head stones. For some reason I have found myself in cemeteries in most of the cities that I have visited: New Orleans, Rome, Paris and London to name but a few. Cemeteries are the only place that I know of where time truly stands still.

Suddenly I am reminded of the first sentence to Dan Brown's novel, The Lost Symbol which begins: "The secret is how to die." How can you truly live if you have not conquered the fear of death.
 So Mote it Be!

Clifford Jacobs
Have Pen, Will Write