Immortal Beauty

October 16, 1999
Rock Creek Cemetery,br>1:45 p.m.

Ninety-three years ago, maverick author and Washington social observer Henry Adams sat in his apartment at the corner of 16th and H streets, sighed and took up his pen. To a friend whose wife had recently died, he composed the following lines:

“Twenty years ago when I went though the same suffering, I found relief only in the sudden revelation that I was not alone; that others were nursing the same acute memory of intolerable loss, like a secret society that silently opened its arms to let me in.”

Adams’ grief was transformed years earlier into an eerily stunning sculpture of the human form that is the highlight of the Rock Creek Cemetery in Northwest D.C. The University Honors Program offered students and parents a tour of several of the powerful works of art in the historic, 100-acre cemetery Saturday.

Though it might have seemed like a weird place to take weekend guests, the 20 or so people who showed up for the tour (plus this D.C. Diary author, her visiting friend and one artistic photographer) were unfazed. The sun was glowing, the leaves were changing and the acorns crunched beneath our feet as we tramped through the 280-year-old resting place.

We learned from our enthusiastic tour guide Liz Herter, a cemetery art aficionado and Gelman librarian, that as the curtain fell on the 19th century, wealthy Americans were making big plans – plans for their demise.

Apparently, it was chic to be prepared. Trendy socialites contracted the finest American and European sculptors and shipped in bronze and Italian marble for their creations. Some of these, like many of the quaint, cottage-esque mausoleums, cost as much as a respectable home did at the time.

The cemetery itself was a popular weekend destination, Herter said. With its rolling green hills and adjacent Rock Creek Episcopal Church, families often enjoyed a picnic lunch alongside deceased loved ones.

“These people knew they weren’t going to live forever,” said UHP Director David Alan Grier. “But they hoped their good taste would be immortal.”

It’s hard to wander through Rock Creek Cemetery bereft of awe. If the beauty of the art doesn’t make your heart heavy, the quiet presence of death certainly will. Life ended for most people in the late 19th century around age 30 or 40. Many women died in childbirth, and, though it was an age of increasing medical understanding, infant mortality remained high.

Many marble angels watch over the graves of Rock Creek, but the most memorable pieces are images of stark humanity. A stone man and woman marching boldly into the next world, hands clasped and heads held high. A chiseled woman frozen in eternal contemplation. Or Adams’ own memorial, a shrouded figure brooding in silence. Adams once called the bronze being “The Peace of God,” but another name stuck: grief.

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