ROCK CREEK CEMETERY
Rock Creek Church Rd. & Webster St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20011
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
First established as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church burying ground in 1719, the church made the decision to designate the land as a public cemetery in the 1830s and, in 1840, an Act of Congress established it as such. Since that time, Rock Creek has expanded to encompass 86 pristine acres in the Petworth neighbourhood of Washington, D.C..
Unfortunately, the day of our visit dawned bright…hardly the overcast and gloomy ideal for taphophilic explorers such as we. Aside from the fact that sunglare and cameras make uneasy bedfellows, nothing quite so thoroughly strips the quiet magic from a cemetery as does bright sunlight. That being said, knowing the beauty that lay within, our spirits were only slightly dampened as we drove beneath the black-arched gate. In the distance, we saw the red brick structure of St. Paul’s Church. Sadly, its modern style bespoke the fact it would be of little interest, but the grounds offered much else to hold our attention and captivate our imaginations.
Almost immediately, we parked the car and set out to explore the first monument to catch our attention. This is the Colbert family memorial. Standing at the center of a sweep of rose-coloured granite, the image of an unclothed woman emerges from a block of rough-hewn bronze. Her closed eyes and gently parted lips hint at a state of subdued ecstasy. The Biblical annotation inscribed at her feet (I Corinthians 15: 51-52) references the Christian sentiment that, at the end of days, the dead shall be raised incorruptible and, along with those still living, be changed into some form suitable to their new, existences as immortals.
Awaiting this final transformation are the interred remains of former IBM senior systems analyst Susan Cerveny Colbert “Mother, Wife, Artist, and Scientist,” and one William George Colbert Senior. A blank area on the stone presumably awaits the inscription for Mrs. Colbert’s husband, Edward, a Washington D.C. attorney.
Very near the Cobert memorial is the Boehler monument featuring a small bronze image of a woman resting her head on her arms. Also nearby is the unique memorial to Damu Smith whose headstone proclaims him an, “activist for social, political, racial and environmental justice.” At the end of his life, Smith, who died of colon cancer he could have survived had he not ignored warning signs and testing, also became a champion of screening for the disease. His mortal remains now rest beneath a shining silver metal ankh affixed with the visage of a man (presumably Damu himself) at the centre. The back of the stone bears these words from Mr. Smith:
Finally, let us say to our sisters and our children and
our elders, that we love them and that we are
determined to be positive role models with them
for spiritual upliftment, personal and family
development and social transformation.
When we do these things, we will lay the foundation
for building a new world in which all of our
people can live together in harmony, peace
and freedom and in oneness with God.
As we travelled further into the cemetery, we came upon the awe-inspiring Heurich family mausoleum. The structure is supported at each corner by massive bronze caryatids, the work of sculptor Louis Amateis. Each is unique in design but identical in stance: eyes closed, hands clasped, heads erect as if supporting the stone roof above. Inside, a Tiffany glass window depicts an angel bearing a scroll with the word “Peace.” The marble beneath is inscribed as follows:
After consulting several German language professors, their unanimous consensus on translation was: “In deep pain, no world wisdom for the heart.” Interestingly, all commented they were unfamiliar with the word “weltweishein” and so interpreted it to be “weisheit,” meaning "wisdom. This leads us to believe the inscription may represent a dialect. At any rate, despite difficulties with translation, the sentiment is clear: the great sorrow felt following the death of a loved one cannot be assuaged by any earthly knowledge or wisdom.
Christian Heurich, whose name the mausoleum bears, died at the age of 102. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1866 with only $200 to his name. He went on to make his fortune as the founder of the Christain Heurich Brewery. He and his family lived for many years in Heurich Mansion, affectionately known as Brewmaster’s Castle. The gorgeous edifice, located in Washington’s Dupont Circle, is now known as Heurich House Museum and is open to the public for tours and private events.
The most tantalizing tidbit in regard to the Heurich mausoleum, however, is the fact that Rock Creek was not its first home. Indeed, the structure originally stood at the family’s Maryland dairy farm. It was moved to Rock Creek in 1951 upon the sale of the farm.
Continuing our explorations, we came upon a small loose-stone stairway leading up to a grove of evergreen shrubbery. We were astonished to find that, hidden within that grove was none other than Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famed sculpture, The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.
The sculpture was commissioned by Henry Adams to honour the memory of his late wife, Marian “Clover” Adams. Mrs. Adams was an accomplished portrait photographer who, following the death of her father, began to suffer bouts of deep depression. At the age of 42, she took her life by drinking potassium cyanide, a chemical she used for retouching photographs.
Following her death, Henry refused to discuss her suicide or to speak her name in public and is said to have destroyed all the letters she had ever written him. Notwithstanding his refusal to speak of her, Adams’ connection to her remained strong. He commissioned Saint-Gaudens to memorialize her with a figure based on the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, Quan Yin, whose image Adams become enamoured of during a trip to Japan during which he sought inspiration for the monument.
The massive, androgynous, robed figure Saint-Gaudens sculpted has become one of his most famous pieces. Popularly known as Grief (an appellation Adams disliked intensely) the piece, though remarkably hidden on the cemetery grounds, is visited enough that the left knee has been polished to brightness by the reverent touches of those who discover its hiding place.
An interesting side note: Saint-Gaudens’ figure was blatantly copied by Edward L.A. Pausch and used as a memorial at the gravesite of General Felix Agnus in Maryland’s Druid Ridge Cemetery. Known as Black Aggie, the figure became the subject of numerous dark tales and urban legends. Eventually, the family became so disturbed by the statue’s unsavoury reputation that they donated it to the Smithsonian. Poor Aggie languished in storage there for many years until, at last, she found a new home in a courtyard behind Washington’s Dolley Madison House where she remains to this day. Her original pedestal, now sans sculpture, is all that remains to mark the Agnus grave at Druid Ridge, which, to our way of thinking, sounds much more like a basis for dark tales than poor Aggie should ever have engendered.
Although Saint-Gaudens’ figure inadvertently went on to inspire the legend of Black Aggie, there is a sculpture at Rock Creek we found much more unsettling. Indeed, the thought of coming upon her in the dark of night is enough to cause shivers of macabre delight. “She” is artist Gutzon Borglum’s (yes…the man who sculpted Mount Rushmore!) Mary Magdalene as depicted in this unsettling piece known as “Rabboni.” Marking the grave of Washington banker Charles Matthews Ffoulke, the sculptor depicts Mary Magdalene emerging from Christ’s tomb which she has just found to be empty. According to the story, she turned from the sepulcher to find her Lord standing in the garden, at which point she exalted him.
The back of the stone structure bears a bronze plaque bearing the names of members of the Ffoulke family along with the inscription:
The end of birth is death
The end of death is life and
Wherefore mournest thou
Erected at ground level, one can easily stand face to face with the Magdalene, though to do so is, shall we say, somewhat disturbing. The image has weathered to the point where the face has become, dare we say, ghoulish? Streams of black “tears” fall from the figure’s eyes and the parted lips seem more cadaverous than life-like. Indeed, she seems more the stuff of Halloween haunts than Easter mornings, but that is precisely what makes her so captivating as she emerges from her stone alcove amidst the shade of some of Rock Creek’s older trees. It must be her hidden location that has left her virtually unnoted in the extant information on the cemetery, but, now that you know she is there, fellow taphophile, please seek her out. She is most assuredly worth the search.
Other notable Rock Creek memorials include artist William Ordway Partridge’s Kauffmann family memorial (Samuel H. Kauffman was the owner of the Washington Evening Star) depicting Memory (portrayed as a beautiful woman) seated before a wall illustrating bronze panels of Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.” Nearby stands the ornate bronze sarcophagus commemorating the life of psychiatrist Loren Bascom Taber Johnson and his family. Just beyond the Johnson sarcophagus is the Thomas Gaff memorial. This haunting figure of a robed man leaning on his right arm, his left hand raised to the sky is one of our favourites at Rock Creek. Set above a massive bronze ledger bearing the inscription: Excepit illum magna et aeterna pax, this stunning male figure guards the entrance to the subterranean crypt of the Gaff family (Gaff made his fortune in the manufacture of machinery as well as from the ownership of distilleries).
There are many other monuments not-to-be missed at Rock Creek, but we will leave those for you to discover; however, we would be remiss if we did not suggest you seek out the family mausoleum of one Charles Corby, creator of Wonder Bread. The mausoleum features the beautiful bronze caskets of Mr. Coby and family members…all wonderfully on view behind panes of clear glass inside the building. It is not to be missed.
Having had Rock Creek on our “Must See” list for years, anticipation ran high the day of our visit. The grounds did not disappoint. Rock Creek is a taphophile’s dream cemetery. It is well worth the trip, wherever you may travel from to reach it.