Sometimes it is a grave matter when you reach out. I had journeyed across Ohio to visit President Garfield’s home and invited my friend Cindy, who lives nearby, to join. She agreed and suggested we also visit the Garfield Memorial at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. Despite being completely unaware of this site, a mere twenty miles away, impromptu travels had led to unexpected splendour too often to decline.
After we had enjoyed Garfield’s estate of Lawnfield and caught up over lunch, it was off to the graveyard, an easy half-hour drive, and I was about to be blown away in so many ways. Lake View is enormous, with over 110,000 souls at rest among its three hundred acres. Beyond the litany of famous individuals interred here, this is a remarkable refuge from the big city. After winding through town awhile, bricks and concrete are traded for a blanket of comforting greenery past the entrance gate. Traffic noises evaporate quickly, replaced by chirping birds.
The magnificence of this destination created a dilemma. Given the presidential focus of my trip, this piece began with the strict intent of revelling about the splendour of the Garfield Memorial located here. But Lake View possesses so many other treats that I ultimately opted to share more of the bounty. Travel is all about expanding horizons, after all.
Since this is no longer a sole venture, let us begin with a soul venture. The cemetery was begun in 1869 and it is a delight to aimlessly wander, absorbing the beauty of tombstones and monuments. So many angels and lovely sculptures that I felt I was strolling an art museum. I do not frequent burial grounds and was intrigued when we encountered a HUGE boulder simply adorned with an engraved name and date. At first, this struck me as innovative and artistic, but we eventually passed so many that I eventually had to acknowledge tombstone naiveté.
A stretch of Lake View is known as ‘Millionaires Row’ and as you might expect, there is a wealth of impressive monuments here. Here we came upon the resting place of John D. Rockefeller and wondered if the name came up short – this was the man who founded Standard Oil and became America’s first billionaire. More discoveries followed. Elliot Ness, the lawman who brought down Al Capone during Prohibition is buried here, as is Harvey Pekar. I doubt many are acquainted with this latter character, an innovator of underground comic books, best known for his autobiographical ‘American Splendor’ series and appearances on the David Letterman show. Pekar’s grave is austere, but I was drawn to it by the multitude of ballpoint pens plunged into the plot by his fans!
Surprises continued as we came upon a headstone carved as a jukebox. Intrigued, we approached and were delighted to read this was the final resting spot of Alan Freed, the disc jockey credited with coining the term ‘rock and roll’. There were so many delights from our random meander that it made me wonder else would have been revealed with more time to dig deeper (and this was certainly a spot to dig deeper).
There is a remarkable chapel on the grounds to accommodate burial services. Wade Memorial Chapel is astonishing and venturing to Lake View only to enjoy this sanctuary would justify the trip. The chapel was built to honour Jeptha Wade, who started the Western Union Telegraph Company, by his son in 1901 (Jeptha was the original president of Lake View Cemetery). The reason why the interior is so indescribable is that its design was commissioned to Louis Tiffany: this is one of a select few interiors in the world totally created by the famed master of stained glass.
The theme of the interior is “The Voyage of Life” and you start your journey by proceeding past a pair of four-ton brass doors. Topping the list of jaw-dropping artwork is Tiffany’s stained glass masterpiece at the back, “The Flight of Souls.” Prior to its installation here, the window had taken gold medal honours at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Cindy has been here many times and remarked how dramatically the colour of the window transformed with the angle of sunlight – and an extremely helpful attendant overheard and elaborated. I learned Tiffany had patented the ‘favrile’ technique, which relies upon impurities to tease colour from the glass (rather than coating) and extends kaleidoscopic optics. Then the attendant scanned her small spotlight across the colourful pane to punctuate the stunning transitions. Wow!
Of course, Tiffany was also renowned for his mosaics, and Wade Chapel possesses a brilliant pair. Furiously rowing oarsmen populate either side of the interior, one collage portraying the “River of Life” with the “River of Death” opposite. These extend beyond magnificent because are both embedded with a myriad of subtle biblical references. The attendant began describing several and just kept going until I was completely overwhelmed, wishing I had taped her talk to capture details.
There is plenty more eye candy beyond mosaics and stained glass, including impressive chandeliers and alabaster candlesticks. I even found the utilitarian architecture fascinating. The chapel is plugged into the side of a hill which affords a large subterranean chamber. Belying its age, this underground space was designed to accommodate up to fifty caskets, affording ample storage in the event grave diggers had to wait for a spring thaw!
So many jewels here, but the Garfield Memorial was the sparkle in our eye. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this is the only presidential casket you will ever see (something of a technicality as there are others above ground on public display, just those have casket enclosures). This is also a very pleasing building, both for the architecture and incorporated artwork. Finally, there is an outdoor porch on the third floor of the building which offers premier views of downtown Cleveland.
Built from sandstone, the single turret was completed in 1890, nine years after Garfield’s assassination. The president’s remains are accompanied by those of his wife, Lucretia, and both caskets are on display below ground. You will need to descend a couple flights of stairs after entering – Garfield’s casket is the one draped with a US flag. You will notice a pair of urns in front of the caskets, which hold the ashes of their daughter Molly and her husband.
When entering the Memorial at ground level you are greeted by a larger than life statue of Garfield surrounded by red granite columns supporting the structure. The interior is a beautiful space, subtly lit by sunlight passing through stained glass windows and ascending to a golden mosaic dome. It is only 64 steps to the top with two levels where you may look up to the lovely dome or down upon the Garfield statue. A balcony is at the top and on a clear day, you are able to see forty miles away, able to glimpse Lake Erie and excellent views of the Cleveland skyline. Out on the balcony it is also recommended to look back over your shoulder because now you are close up to the protruding gargoyles and able to appreciate the detail. Here you should also ponder the five terra cotta panels adorning the turret’s exterior, depicting scenes throughout Garfield’s life.
The Garfield Memorial is magnificence nestled within a magnificent destination. And if I had I not struck out in search of other delights I would remain utterly unaware of both. The moral of our story is to get out there and explore. Our world is so full of marvels that while you enjoy the treat you were pursuing, you may well find a secret surprise lurking nearby. Seek and ye shall find.