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THE GRAVES OF BLANDFORD
Excerpt from Home to the Cockade City
By H. Clifford Harrison

 

IF we Petersburgers are entertaining out-of-town guests and can't think of any other way to amuse them, we take them to Blandford Cemetery. We are proud of our cemetery. Not only is it exceedingly populous, but it is also popular. All true Petersburgers want to lie there some day. Back in the bashful era, it was even a good place for a young man to propose. He could take his girl for a stroll in Blandford, casually amble by his family plot, and ask her incidentally, "How would you like to be buried here?"

Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, is likely to lay a pretty proud claim to sepulchral superiority in our land, with its three presidents, its several generals, its couple of poets, and its holly trees. But Hollywood is too prim, precise, and proud; too stiff, staid, and starchy, like an aristocratic dowager whose chin and nose tilt skyward above whalebone struts. Also I have the foolish feeling that the silent dwellers there must be tired from everlastingly propping themselves against slipping down the slants and slopes of the terrain. I prefer Blandford.

We don't have any presidents in Blandford, unless you count railroad and bank presidents. But we have generals Phillips, Battle, and Mahone. We have a really fine poet William Gordon McCabe. We have yew trees that even the National Cathedral tried to get. And we have a miser and a dog. The latter's name, carved on his tombstone, was Zip.

There's a refreshing lack of conformity at Blandford. If you want to keep the old-fashioned iron fence around your granddad's square, you can do so. If you want a granite curb, you are welcome to it. If you prefer concrete, your taste isn't good, but nobody interferes with your notion. Or even if you put no border at all between your section and the walk in front of it, you can just suit yourself about the matter.  Likewise the tombstones. They follow no prescribed pattern. Tall stones, stunted stones, fat stones, lean stones, white stones, brown stones, gray stones, or no stones at all they're there. Some of the graves are mounds; some are level; some are sunk. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief...  Blandford is an easy-going, restful place. We like it.

Before automobiles paralyzed human legs, the cemetery furnished a good place for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. The exercise gave a person a good appetite when he got home in time for supper. The novelist, John Esten Cooke, tells in Mohun about a young Confederate soldier and his girl who sat pleasantly on the grass in Blandford while hostile shells hurtled over their heads. A few tall tombstones, like the Pollard one near the cemetery office, had their tops knocked off by such shells.

Now specifically there are some interesting spots in our graveyard.

A few paces from the southwest corner of Blandford Church is the table like tomb of Bennitt Aldridge. Back in 1858 Mr. Aldridge had the reputation of being one of the most wicked men in Petersburg. Flaunting religion and propriety, he made a request that, instead of a clergyman, another citizen of recognized wickedness should preach his funeral. Old man Aldridge gave orders for the digging of his own grave. It was dug, there in the churchyard. One Sunday afternoon he went to inspect it. Looking down into the hole, he saw a frog sitting there. He cursed the frog for getting into his grave. The next Sunday he himself was occupying it.

Near the southeast corner of the church is the tomb of Samuel Gordon, who died April 14, 1771. A legend long persisted that he died from eating an inordinate quantity of hogs' heads, and that the cause of his death was symbolized by hogs' heads carved on the stone above his grave. It may be that the objects were boars' heads. If so, they were figures in the Scotsman's coat-of-arms. Rains and winds and cedar rust have dealt unkindly with Samuel Gordon's "boast of heraldry." The figures on his family crest, rampant or couchant, arc now merely bumps on the stone.

A hundred yards or so to the south is a square surrounded by an iron fence. Within that now neglected patch is a grave enclosed by a marble curb and covered with a thick marble slab. It is the burial place of Major Jarvis. When he died, his widow resorted to a novel expedient. She did not wish to cover her consort with clod or sod. She left the grave unfilled. Whenever she was lonely, she could go to the cemetery and gaze down at her husband's face reposing under the glass of his coffin.

But many a time when the light of a woman's life goes out, she strikes another match. Mrs. Jaris married again. No longer did she need to look at the Major down there in his funeral trappings. So she had a thick, heavy slab cut to correct dimensions and care-fully placed above the open tomb. But, strange to say, the slab would not stay in place. At sunset, when the cemetery gates were closed it would be in its proper position. The next morning the slab would be lying obliquely across a partially open grave. When work-men with crowbars would restore it to its right position and all would seem well, the ponderous slab would persist in slanting again during the ensuing night. Finally, however, it decided to rest. Years have passed since it last made its silent protest. Once, when walking with a friend in Blandford Cemetery, I mentioned the legend of the hollow tomb. We walked to the Jarvis square and paused outside their fence. As we loitered there, we suddenly heard a metallic "Clink!" down in the grave. We looked at each other with queer expressions on our faces. We felt that the story of the hollow grave was confirmed, even if suspicions of an errant spirit were not. Not very far from the Jarvis plot is a tombstone bearing as an epitaph Alexander Pope's line: "An honest man's the noblest work of God." I heartily agree with the poet's assertion, but I always feel cynical when I read the words on that particular tombstone. The eulogized one lying under that text owed my grandfather a debt which neither he nor his heirs ever paid. I am certain that they never made the effort.

About a hundred yards east of Blandford Church is an imposing granite cross which marks the resting place of the Reverend Mr. Platt. The minister is said to have been a particularly good, pious, conscientious man. A sad story is told about him. One night he awoke in his home to hear the sound of a burglar breaking in. He lay quietly in the darkness until he was certain as to the cause of the noise. Then, drawing a revolver, the minister fired into the blackness of the room, with the single intention of scaring the burglar away. Instead, the bullet sped true to its unseen, unintended mark and killed a negro who was trying to rob the clergyman's home. While of course the reverend gentleman was exonerated by law, his own keen conscience would give him no peace.

"To think," he said, "that my mission in life has been to save souls, and I have sent into eternity a soul so utterly unprepared to face its Maker."

The good old man could find no respite from his morbid, brooding thoughts. He suffered from a restlessness beyond his power to control. No matter how much he was liked in a parish where he was serving, he would soon resign and move elsewhere. He was unable to remain in any place very long until at last he lay in his grave in Blandford.

Perhaps the costliest and most remarkable monument in Blandford is that in memory of Mrs. Kate Dunlop. Mr. David Dunlop was a millionaire maker of plug tobacco in Petersburg. When his wife died, he sent a picture of her to Italy accompanied by carefully calculated specifications. An Italian sculptor carved out of beautiful white marble a more-than-lifesize statue of Mrs. Dunlop, seated, and wearing a robe of classic design. When the statue reached Petersburg, it was hoisted on top of a large, brown-marble pedestal in the center of the spacious Dunlop cemetery plot. The angle had been so carefully figured that the eyes of the statue gaze contentedly downward upon its original's grave. I have been told by one who knew Mrs. Dunlop that her figure in marble is an excellent likeness of herself in life.

 
Source:  M. Clifford Harrison:  Home to the Cockade City; The House of Dietz, Richmond, Virginia 1942
1942 M. Clifford Harrison
 

Note:  This was such a fun description of Blandford Cemetery that we  wanted to share it.  We have tried to find who might actually hold the rights to Dr. Harrison's delicious little book but thus far our efforts have been in vain.  We even talked to the special collections office at Virginia Polytechnical Institute to see if they had anything in their own records.  We do know that the book is out of print and can only hope that the heirs and executors of Dr. Harrison's estate would be happy to share this under the fair use policy but will remove it immediately if we learn that they prefer it not be posted.

 

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