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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.

Guided Tours, Princeton Cemetery, Greenview Avenue

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.

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