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Digging Up Bones

A monumental new book chronicles 160 years of the real Hollywood.

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I'd read just 22 pages of the newly published, 182-page history of Hollywood Cemetery by Richmond historian and photographer John O. Peters when it hit me that the title of this impressively researched and breezily written examination of a Richmond landmark was too straightforward.

Some years ago Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hit the mark in the book-naming department when he entitled a memoir of his career at that once-staid institution, “Making the Mummies Dance.” Although Peters' title, “Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery,” isn't titillating, make no mistake — while he doesn't quite make Richmond's ghosts dance, which is a good thing because Halloween is around the corner, he has surely and assuredly woven a lively and layered quilt that patches together some 160 years of intriguing corporate, political, military, architectural, social and funerary history.

Situated amid hills and dells above the rapids of the James River and immediately west of downtown, Hollywood is among our nation's most historic, beautiful and sacred spaces. It's the resting place of 80,000 people including U.S. presidents and Supreme Court justices and a host of former Virginia governors. It contains the remains of 18,000 Confederate soldiers and many of the generals they revered. A galaxy of Richmond's culturati and titans of business are buried there. It also contains saints, to whom Peters bows, but also sinners, whom he doesn't mind naming. Some lying here led long, fruitful lives while others met untimely deaths. There might even be a vampire. For a myriad of reasons, this place is a “don't miss” for any resident or visitor who's seriously interested in understanding Richmond.

But Peters relays masterfully how this cemetery, which holds an almost mystic grip on the Richmond psyche, was by no means a given in 1847 when a handful of local businessmen floated the idea of a creating a rural cemetery at a place then known as Harvie's Woods. The site had long been a pastoral destination for those seeking to escape an increasingly industrialized city (a young Edgar Allan Poe played here and swam in the river nearby). The developers' proposal was attacked on many fronts— it would endanger the public water supply, impede residential development and cause property values to plummet. Besides, it was considered untoward for a corporation to embrace a service that traditionally had been provided by religious groups or local government (Peters notes that the Hollywood Cemetery Co. has always been a not-for-profit operation).

The fledging scheme, however, received a needed boost when the remains of President James Monroe were reinterred here in 1858 with accompanying publicity and fanfare.

And then things, as they say, have a way of happening. In 1861, just 11 years after the first burial here (an infant, Frederick William Emrich) the Civil War broke out. By necessity the cemetery became a wartime burial ground. In 1877 one of the first Confederate monuments of many to be erected in the city was placed here when an impressive, granite pyramid and the cemetery became a destination for pilgrims of the Lost Cause. Hollywood's status as the pantheon if the Confederacy was sealed, however, when the remains of Confederate President Jefferson Davis were reinterred here in 1899.

Not only Confederates are in Hollywood. Peters tells with sensitive insight how a few blacks came to be buried here.

As Hollywood's fortunes shifted from an operation whose success was very much in question to the final — and highly desired — destination for many, real estate was at a premium. Peters writes that the ongoing challenge of operating Hollywood is whether there will be land available for expansion. It hasn't been the only entity with its eye on surrounding property. He relays how the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and its Downtown Expressway, Virginia Commonwealth University, the schools and public cemetery needs of the City of Richmond and the understandable concerns of the adjourning Oregon Hill neighborhood have, at various times, eyed the same parcels of dwindling acreage.

But against the backdrop of real estate negotiations, the city's growth patterns, changing burial practices and shifting tastes in funerary architecture and dAccor, Peters is clear that a cemetery is ultimately known for the company it keeps. He gives just enough biography to bring the prominent individuals who are buried here to life, giving his readers a sense of what that person meant to the city's bigger picture. If Richmond grew from a village at the falls to capital of one of our nation's most prosperous states, it was because of the efforts of many of the folks buried here.

His inclusion of a 1998 photograph of eight U.S. Supreme Court justices standing graveside at the burial of Associate Justice Lewis Powell Jr. is perhaps the most remarkable photographic image of assembled power in the city's history. The final sentence of his deft history concludes, “At Hollywood Cemetery, this city of the dead, Richmond's history springs to life.” But author and photographer Peters takes things further: He almost makes the mummies dance. S

“Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery,” $49.99, was published by the Valentine Richmond History Center. The author will deliver Banner lectures at the Virginia Historical Society on Dec. 9 at noon and 7 p.m. 358-4901.

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