Thursday, October 8, 2009

Death of Poe: The funeral

On Monday, October 8, 1849, Edgar Poe was laid to rest in his family's burial plot in Baltimore, Maryland after a short funeral. The funeral, held in a light rain beginning at 4:00 that afternoon, was attended by six people: Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass, cousin Neilson Poe, University of Virginia classmate Z. Collins Lee, cousin Elizabeth Herring and her husband, and former schoolmaster Joseph Clarke. The ceremony was officiated by the Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, cousin of Poe's wife Virginia. He had prepared a longer speech, but cut it short when he saw the small crowd. Instead, it lasted about three minutes.

The sexton at the Westminster Church and Burial Ground, George W. Spence oversaw the burial. He reported: "It was a dark and gloomy day, not raining but just kind of raw and threatening."

There's no doubt that the affair was rushed. Poe had died only the day before. Nevertheless, all of the logistics were taken care of. According to various reports, a shroud was made by the wife of Dr. John J. Moran (Poe's attending physician in his final days), Poe's cousin Neilson Poe provided a hearse, and Poe's uncle Henry Herring provided a mahogany coffin (claimed to have no nameplate, no handles, no cloth lining, and not even a cushion for the corpse's head). He was buried in a plot of the cemetery which was already owned by his family, next to his grandfather, "General" David Poe (his brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, was buried there as well).

Poe's grave was left unmarked. A white marble headstone was commissioned by cousin Neilson Poe (pictured at left; image from Matthew Pearl) with the inscription "Here, at last, he is happy." The completed stone never made it to the cemetery. A train derailed and crashed into the monument yard where it was housed, destroying the headstone. Instead, Poe was marked with a sandstone block marked "No. 80."

Poe would not rest forever in this spot.

Poe's importance was recognized posthumously; supporters included fellow bicentennial poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who referred to Poe's "long-neglected" burial spot and called him "the greatest American genius" (apparently echoing similar laudatory words from Fitz-Greene Halleck). Baltimore teacher Sara Sigourney Rice led a campaign to better memorialize Poe. But, more on that another time. In the meantime, Poe's supporters had something else to deal with in the days after Poe's death.

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