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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

e) A Disneyland of death: history and spectacle at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale, California

1) Death in the Gothic Mode, from Père Lachaise to Forest Lawn

Alison Locke Perchuk

Texte intégral

1Philosopher Robert Pogue Harrison posits that our species’ particular consciousness of our dead is a primary generative force for the cultures of our living, proposing that “the living housed the dead before they housed themselves.” By the 1804 opening of Paris’s Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Harrison’s halcyon days of the dead were long past. Inhumed in churches and churchyards, they were often forgotten or, worse, exhumed to make way for their successors. The nineteenth-century cemetery reform movement sought to house the dead hygienically, respectfully, and for those who could afford it, permanently. It sought new homes for the dead, appropriate to a world that was revolutionary, rational, romantic; egalitarian in ideal and capitalist in practice.

2If our world is shaped by our relationship to our dead, we are ethically obligated to understand how, a problem of signification. Archaeologies of knowledge reveal that signification is not stable: even in their commonalities, houses of the dead are not fungible, their meanings no more incorruptible than the corpses immured within. My contribution examines the power of thinking with Harrison’s ideas and the slipperiness of signification in architectural style through the examples of three nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cemeteries—Père-Lachaise, Glasgow Necropolis, and Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in California—focusing on their use of Gothic style.

3The association of the term Gothic with the “dark” Middle Ages is rooted in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), whose subtitle, A Gothic Story, gave its name to the wildly popular new genre of Gothic fiction. Père-Lachaise harnessed this “dark” Gothic to resolve a crisis of social memory caused by the radical egalitarianism of Revolutionary France. By integrating Gothic monuments into an English Romantic garden, it fostered a broadly distributed moral reflection on the passage of time and the virtues of the dead, as in the Gothic Romantic tomb of Abélard and Héloïse. Père-Lachaise cemetery encapsulated a range of social values, including aesthetic surprise, republican (and capitalist) individual liberty, and nationalist veneration of French worthies, and communicated them out to Paris’s populace as it became a site for urban leisure.

4Père-Lachaise was the model for Glasgow Necropolis, opened in 1833 as Scotland’s first modern cemetery, offering hygienic burial and commemorating those who made Glasgow an industrial powerhouse. In the words of Glaswegian John Strang: “A garden cemetery and monumental decoration, are not only beneficial to public morals, to the improvement of manners, but are likewise calculated to extend virtuous and generous feelings. […] vice looks terrible, virtue lovely. Selfishness a sin, patriotism a duty.” The Necropolis also played to the anti-Catholicism of the Protestant north: “A garden cemetery is the sworn foe to preternatural fear and superstition […] chiefly engendered through the monkish artifice of associating man’s latter end with all that was disgusting and horrible.” Strang quotes Benjamin Disraeli: “The troubled imagination of Europe, ‘first beheld the grave yawn, and Death, in the Gothic form of a gaunt Anatomy, parading through the universe!’” This link of Gothic to fear and superstition may explain its paucity of Gothic monuments.

5Strang’s Protestant vision finds kinship in Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, California, near Los Angeles, founded on New Year’s Day 1917, when businessman Hubert Eaton “stood on a weed-covered hill overlooking the graveyard that had been placed in his charge” and “had a vision—a mental picture of what a cemetery could be.” At Forest Lawn Gothic takes center stage, but it is neither Walpole’s supernatural Gothic, the Romantic nationalist Gothic of Père-Lachaise, nor the Catholic Gothic that so concerned the Protestant Scots. Instead, the courtly ethos of Sir Walter Scott and Victorian Arthuriana prevails.

6The Gothic halls of Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum are “full of light and color,” illumined by one of the USA’s largest collections of medieval and modern stained-glass windows, presenting the “best histories and romances,” which interweave scenes from the Bible with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature and popular culture. Emblematic is a window derived from Tennyson’s Arthurian Idylls of the King, which introduces another aspect of Gothic at Forest Lawn: it is intentionally Anglo-Saxon. In replicating English and Scottish monuments (including the church where the author Rudyard Kipling once worshipped), its Gothic chapels and “Scottish wishing chair” embody an America that only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are morally equipped to govern. Forest Lawn was part of this early-twentieth-century racial manifest destiny: as a non-denominational Christian cemetery, it offered no consecrated ground to Catholics or Jews, thus excluding most southern Europeans and Latinos, and African Americans were simply not permitted burial—a practice that held into the middle of the century.

The Church of the Recessional, modeled on the medieval English church where the author Rudyard Kipling once worshipped. Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale, California (photo: the author)

The Church of the Recessional, modeled on the medieval English church where the author Rudyard Kipling once worshipped. Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale, California (photo: the author)


7Art Guide 1931
Harrison 2003
Strang 1831
Tennyson, Idylls
Walpole, The Castle

Table des illustrations

Titre The Church of the Recessional, modeled on the medieval English church where the author Rudyard Kipling once worshipped. Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale, California (photo: the author)
Fichier image/jpeg, 840k


California State University Channel Islands

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