Garfield's Tomb

August 3, 2008 — I am the most not into politics. Normally, that just means I’m bored by the subject. In times like the current presidential election year, it means I’m annoyed by it. I do admit to voting in major elections, but that’s just so I can get out of work for a few hours. Bumper-stick that on your car for four years: I vote to get out of work. So if I was going out of my way to visit and write about the final resting place of a U.S. president, there had to be a better reason than just the fact that he was a U.S. president.

In fact, there are three reasons. When added together, they give the tomb of James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States of America, a radar signal big and glowing green enough to show up on my horribly mis-calibrated instrument. In no particular order they are: The silly length of his presidency, the un-called for design of his tomb, and the unique station of his remains.

Garfield’s tomb is located in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio, his home state. I don’t really have a take on Ohio, but my take on Cleveland is pretty much like everybody else’s. In my visits, it's always come off like one of those cities from any given Star Trek episode where the crew beams down to find the place ghost-town’d and then have to figure out what alien virus, creature, or internal shenanigans happened to it.

Lake View Cemetery, though, is another matter. In my experience, a cemetery can be beautiful in two distinct ways, in the gothic sense or in the park sense. Given my druthers, I’ll always take the former, but I will also always take the latter. Lake View Cemetery can be counted among the latter group.

It’s about 140 years old and has over 100,000 graves covering 285 acres of beautifully landscaped land. It has enough of interest in it to keep you wandering like a lost soul among its gravestones for a long time. Famed crime fighter Eliot Ness’s ashes were scattered over one of its ponds. John D. Rockefeller is interred there. His grave is marked by a surprisingly plain obelisk, albeit a 70-foot-tall one. The cemetery's Wade Chapel, a small vestry on the grounds of the cemetery that you’d think would be just a humble place to enter if you got caught in the rain, was actually designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and sports large, stained-glass wall murals inside and a giant, circular stained-glass window.

Back to Garfield, he was elected in 1881 and served the length of a single season of television before he was assassinated for a couple of boring reasons, but mostly because the series needed a cliffhanger. I reckon there could be some two-termers that accomplished less than President Garfield did in his six months, three of which he spent with doctors' hands inside of his abdomen, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove it. At least he wasn't William Henry Harrison, though. He served only a single month as president before being pneumonia...for standing in the cold and giving the longest inaugural address in the history of the presidency. Sometimes life seems like it was written by Douglas Adams.

However, the screw continues to screw, for despite being president for only two seconds, Garfield’s tomb is one of the most lavish, affairs I’ve ever seen for a president. I’ve paced trenches around D.C. and all of its monuments to the dead elected, and, while all grand, none of them approach Garfield’s tomb for sheer extravagance.

The exterior of the tomb is huge and exotic, and, although you can’t tell it from my picture, shaped rather like a giant throne, with a large cylindraical tower for the back, two smaller ones for the arms, and a square forefront protrusion for the ass. A series of bas-reliefs wraps around the forefront that details the stages of Garfield’s career in what I’m going to have to call comic strip panels. Right, I know, a Garfield comic strip.

All told, it doesn’t at all look like the final resting place of an American political figure. Maybe an ancient sultan or czar, but certainly not an Industrial Age politico, the epitome of whose career culminated in a bacteria-laden finger puncturing his liver. Oh, I forgot to explain that part. Garfield didn’t die right away when he was shot, but was treated for months afterward by doctors who weren’t exactly current on the principles of sterilization. As a result, many of them clumsily probed his bullet wound with their grubby fingers and instruments, eventually perforating his liver and doing what the benignly lodged bullet couldn’t: kill a president.

Inside, Garfield’s tomb is as sumptuous as the outside. We’re talking intricate mosaics, a life-sized marble statue, paintings, ancient symbols, pillars, stained-glass windows, a chandelier, and a gold-painted vaulted ceiling. I felt as if I should be worshipping while I was there, and that’s a feeling that doesn’t come often to me.

The tomb was designed by George W. Keller and has three basic levels. You enter the main, middle level where you come face-to-waist with a life-sized marble statue of Garfield set on a pedestal in the middle of the church-like interior. Once you’ve gotten your eye-full wandering around, you can go up a winding marble staircase to another level that encircles and overlooks the interior chamber. Better still, you can also exit out onto a terrace that commands a great view of Cleveland and Lake Erie. I could’ve hung out up on that terrace for hours, but I still had one place to check out. You see, you can also go downstairs to the crypt.

Which brings us to the third distinguishing aspect of Garfield’s tomb. Not only was he president for mere months, and not only is he honored with a tomb the likes of which would make popes commit the second deadly sin, but he’s also perpetually buried in repose. Or buried in perpetual repose. Or buried in repose perpetually. I’m not sure how the English goes. Basically, his flag-draped bronze coffin is always on display.

The crypt is a surprising change from the upstairs environs. It’s spartan and basement-like, the drabness of which is probably why I neglected to take a picture. Or I just forgot. It was kind of a long time ago. You follow a hallway around an interior room that you can’t enter but you can see into through regularly spaced doorways covered in iron bars. Besides his coffin, the room contains another bronze coffin for his wife and a pair of urns housing the remains of their daughter and son-in-law.

Now that I’ve had the entire length of an article to think about it, I’ve changed my mind. It does make sense for Garfield to have an opulent tomb. You see, technically, they call it the Garfield Memorial, meaning it’s there specifically to help us remember the existence of James A. Garfield. I mean, we don’t need a 500-foot pointy number one in the middle of the Nation’s Capital to remind us that George Washington was our first president, but we still have it. We actually do need something to remind us that for a brief time we had a president named James A. Garfield. Something slightly outrageous that gets our attention and says, “Remember me? My name’s Garfield. I was your president.”

Little did the creators of his tomb know, though, that we would always remember his name the moniker of a chubby, orange tabby with a penchant for lasagna and kicking dogs off tables.

Ha. Douglas Adams at his finest.


  1. "Uncalled for" tomb, huh? Um, what tomb would be "called for." You admit not being interested in politics, so I'd hope you wouldn't vote. Garfield was slain by an assassin. Usually when a president -- or someone close to you -- is murdered, you tend to get sentimental. Who asked you to go there? If you have no interest in the politics that affects your taxes and war and peace and prosperity and your ability to get a job and reach your dreams in TODAY'S politics, it's no shock you're totally oblivious about the politics of the Reconstruction Era.

  2. I can see why no one comes to write on this. A chance to add to history, those who cant go see the tomb but you a nobody trying to be someone.
    To state like you would : look at me I know how to make a web page, I dont even remember you name now and I dont think Ill scroll back up.
    You are a waste of air and are insignificant

  3. Hi Mr. OTIS. You seem pretty adept at seeking out cool places. Sorry to hear you were not very impressed with Cleveland. If Garfields tomb was the most interesting thing you could find here, it is my personal opinion that you have no future whatsoever in your selected specialty. You are however, very good at alienating the entire Cleveland area population with your condescending remarks about the area. Your statement that "pretty much like everybody else’s", clearly marks you as a loser and someone that cannot develop their own thoughts and relies on what 'everyone' else thinks to judge something. Carry on. Thanks for visiting... Drive around a little more and open your eyes next time.

    1. I do not know mr otis personally, but personal attacks on a person whom you do not know are uncalled for and lack class. Seems that people who resort to these type of attacks tend to like to prefer anonymous. If you're going to criticize someone keep it to the point and have the decency to identify yourself.

  4. I liked your article. BTW you're cute!

  5. I liked your article too. A lot. Your tongue-in-cheek disrespect is wonderfully refreshing. Although I am left wondering whether the author of the first three comments has died from a stroke, perhaps, or burst spleen. Air may or may not be wasted on you; punctuation and syntax are certainly wasted on him. Martin

  6. What you're missing here is a LOT of context. Garfield was a self-made man, rising from true poverty to the nations highest office. He was a brilliant man who was elected to Congress but left his seat vacant so he could serve the Union during the Civil War. He was an abolitionist who truly saw black men as his equals. He supported Women's Rights at a time few men did.

    Garfield never asked to be President - it was thrust upon him. He was a victim of the rampant political spoils system ... Murdered by an insane would-be office holder. He suffered for weeks while the entire world watched.

    This devoted husband and father of five gave his life for his country. What have you given?

  7. As President Garfield lay suffering after his injury, many Americans across the country donated money for his memorial. The newspapers of the time carried news of the assassination attempt and reported on his health to the public. This resulted in great public sympathy and an outpouring of donations to make the memorial the beautiful monument it is. Of the three presidential tombs I have seen, it is definitely the coolest, although Harding's tomb is also very nice.

    President Garfield served as leader of this country and his life was taken by a disgruntled lunatic while doing so. You, on the other hand, are a cad and a buffoon.

  8. I didn't like the tone of your article. Obviously you don't know much about Garfield, and why would we care what you snide thoughts anyway?

    Your shallowness and attempts at self-deprecating humor are really sophomoric. Stick to critiques of movies or some other superficial thing which doesn't require an IQ of over 90.

  9. Ha. This is awesome. I loved this article. (I guess I can say that because I'm not from Cleveland)

  10. I love your pithy writing for your observations about Cleveland, I tend to agree after living there for two cloudy and snowy years!