Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 24, 2000. All rights reserved.
The Quietest Sculpture Garden: Princeton Cemetery
Is the "final reward" so often mentioned
in allusions to death a reference to spending eternity in an arboretum,
surrounded by silent stones, watched over by cherubs, and having to
put up with only occasional visitors? If so, consider the Princeton
Cemetery. Offering all these amenities, it is also inhabited by a
multitude of interesting people and within convenient walking distance
of beautiful downtown Princeton.
Philip A. Shaver describes it as "the park in the middle of town
that happens to have some tombstones in it." Shaver, an attorney
based a block or so away from the cemetery in the heart of Princeton
Borough, is also a member of the cemetery committee and a cemetery
tour guide. With Memorial Day approaching, he anticipates two tours,
open to the public, on two succeeding Sundays, May 28 and June 4.
One goal, he says, is "to get people used to spending some time
in 08540. Sooner or later, we all end up in the same place."
At Wiggins and Witherspoon, the 19-acre cemetery offers an appealing
Princetonian address. Its entrance and office are at the end of Greenview,
it reaches to the hospital complex on Witherspoon, and it backs into
Witherspoon Lane. Within those confines there’s much to see, think
about, enjoy. That’s right, enjoy.
Owned by the Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton Cemetery may be
the "understated, historical, good gray Presbyterian" burial
ground it’s seen as by George H. Brown Jr., an engineer who is also
a committee member and tour guide. But in the eyes of visiting beholders,
it is also quite a lovely, if not art-full, place. After all, as one
cemetery source puts it, "Grave markers, monuments, and other
funerary art are the earliest dated American sculpture."
Depending on the day and the mood, the cemetery’s beauty might consist
of encountering one imposing tree after another. At this time of year,
multicolored flowering trees and bushes accent more monochromatic
specimens like a majestic elm estimated to be 300 years old; shaggy,
reddish-trunked cypresses; a hugely mournful weeping English beech;
and an offspring of the famous, lately-departed and much-mourned Mercer
For that last tree, located near the university’s "Presidents
Plot," Shaver salutes his colleague, Brown, for both his foresight
and horticultural acumen. In the mid-1980s, when the Princeton Historical
Society sold acorns from the famous Mercer Oak at Princeton Battlefield
Park as part of a fundraiser, Brown bought and nurtured some, of which
this is the only survivor. Now, says Brown, the 25-foot-tall white
oak is thriving in an ideal spot: "sun all day long." Although
this is just one of a number of trees Brown has donated and cared
for, it flourishes at an ideal time to assuage some residents’ grief
at the loss of its parent over the past winter.
Cemetery beauty can be found in the coincidental arrangement of tombstone
hues, chalky marble whites through occasional brownstones to granite
grays; or a pitted marble angel back-lit by sunlight through a flowering
white dogwood tree nearby; or two vivid oranges among the flowers
at the base of a tombstone inscribed mostly in calligraphy. Merely
the tombstone shapes, ranging from hard-edged rectangular through
occasional soft-sided ovals, and sprinkled with the old-fashioned
headboard style — now often softly crumbled around the edges —
can appeal. One stone features large overlapping hearts on its polished
And its diversity of monument styles reflects the cosmopolitan nature
of the cemetery, which is not restricted to Presbyterians, university
presidents, or the historical figures already there. All ethnic groups
and occupations seem to be represented — or as Shaver puts it,
"we have a pretty good inventory — we’ve been at it since
the 18th century."
One poignant, yet comforting sight: under the huge elm at the juncture
of Wiggins and Witherspoon Streets, a few little, white, headboard-style
markers are nearly engulfed by tree roots. Although they can’t be
read, they can’t be disturbed either.
On the free map available from the mailbox near the
entrance, Princeton Cemetery is called "the Westminster Abbey
of the United States." Those in the cemetery include one former
American president, Grover Cleveland, and a former vice president
and duelist, Aaron Burr Jr., as well as Burr’s father, a past president
of Princeton University. Burr’s grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, the
fire-and-brimstone Puritan minister and philosopher, also served as
university president for a few months in 1758. He rests, we hope,
with any number of later Princeton University luminaries. The grave
of Margaret Leonard (1736?-1760) is one of the oldest, and showing
a winged death’s head, her stone serves as an example of a typical
New England style.
The cemetery includes a monument to Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), who
founded the Paris bookshop "Shakespeare & Company" and published
James Joyce’s "Ulysses" there when it was initially deemed
obscene. Her father was pastor of the First (now Nassau) Presbyterian
Church. Rex Gorleigh (1902-1986), an esteemed African-American artist
and teacher, is interred there, and Guy Chew (1804?-1826) is the first
Native American known to have been buried there. George H. Gallup
(1901-1984), John von Neumann (1903-1957), and a range of businesspeople,
clerics, patriots, politicians, scientists, and artists inhabit the
place. The litany of Bayard, Hodge, Palmer, Stockton, and Tulane makes
it a veritable area who’s who.
Surprises abound in Princeton Cemetery. Among an unexpected number
of memorial benches, some rectangular and others gracefully curved,
one is engraved with the Irish toast: "May the road rise up to
meet you," and so on. While most benches bear only names and dates,
one has an image carved on the top that must also memorialize a favorite
vacation place: palm trees, a beach, and gently lapping waves.
By the way, it’s permissible, even expected, for visitors to sit on
these benches, Shaver says. And speaking of protocol, he agrees with
Doug Sutphen, cemetery superintendent, that neither headstones nor
footstones necessarily mark with accuracy those parts of a grave,
so visitors who think they must walk at right angles are over-scrupulous
— "You’re always trespassing on someone’s plot, so tread with
Cemetery fashions change with the times. Influenced by ethnic and
religious considerations, as well as what might be shown in a catalog
of grave markers, people make style statements with their choices.
At different periods, skulls and bones, then winged death’s-heads,
were "in." Carved weeping willows reflected a tradition of
open grieving. Obelisks and urns, and either of those with a (sculpted)
cloth, or pall, draped over it, hark back to antiquity, while a broken
column denotes life cut off abruptly. A newer trend is Celtic crosses,
a couple intricately engraved on every surface, that mark a number
of graves. And, of course, flowers are most neutral — probably
the basic black of tombstone design. Au courant to a frightening degree,
the figure of a woman atop a pillar seems musingly intent on —
could it be? — a cell phone in her left hand.
Upright tomb stones and the occasional box or table marker — these
traditional styles are not the only sorts on view at Princeton Cemetery.
There are also strange and wonderful, and no doubt exorbitant monuments,
but, to each his or her own — if not now, never.
One craggy gray mass of granite is topped with claw-like prongs, on
which rests a mammoth, polished-stone "gazing ball," for an
inverted "claw and ball au cemetery." On another marker base
sits a temple-like edifice in stone, with door-slits on each of its
four smooth sides. Raphael’s two angels are reproduced on one stone,
and a portrait photograph of the deceased is embedded in another.
A man is memorialized on a giant table with engraved swags and massive
rounded legs; a diminutive stone nearby identifies the "wife of"
this titan. In a family corner, a matriarch is remembered with a kneeling
figure with flowers, a standing angel, an urn, a flat stone with a
long message, a bench, a square stone, a pillar.
More than an attractive type face, beautifully executed, or calligraphy
suggesting ancient stelae, can be the words themselves. A poem, a
statement, an epitaph, a joke — they’re all there in Princeton
Cemetery. On the tombstone for John O’Hara, a prolific writer who
craved more literary recognition than he received, appear these words,
adapted from his own writing: "Better than anyone else, he told
the truth about his time. He was a professional; he wrote honestly
and well." Describing her as "wife and architect," a woman’s
stone also says, "More than dreams of houses and beauty, she cherished
a dream of home." A man’s stone is carved with a musical excerpt
and the words, "He left music more beautiful." In the spirit
of the New Yorker’s recent cartoon showing a tombstone engraved with
the plaint, "Why me?," is the cemetery’s stone that reads,
"I told you I was sick." (Yes, guilt trips everywhere.)
For those who avert their minds from thoughts of cemeteries and avert
their gazes from the actual things — and even more for those who
always meant to tour the Princeton Cemetery, but didn’t do it yet
— now is the time. Join the group for strength in numbers, or
stop for a free map and ramble around by yourself. It’s a nice place
to visit — you don’t have to live there.
entrance, 609-924-1369. Free guided tour of the historic cemetery
by veteran tour guide and lawyer Phil Shaver. No reservations needed.
Sunday, May 28, and Sunday, June 4, 11:30 a.m.
Tours last about an hour. Meet at the entrance to the cemetery, at
the end of Greenview Street. Free; no reservations. The cemetery is
open daily during daylight hours.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.