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. 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 worshiping 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. You follow a drab 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.

Douglas Adams at his finest.