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Monday, March 22, 2010

Princeton Cemetery

Yesterday I took advantage of the spectacularly nice weather to do something I'd been meaning to do for a while--take a stroll through Princeton Cemetery, which has an above-average number of notable permanent residents. I had been there before, when by friend Bob and I paid a quick visit to the most illustrious inhabitants (a president and vice-president), but hadn't been there in over ten years.

The cemetery, which is affiliated with Nassau Presbyterian Church, was established in 1757. The oldest grave belongs to Aaron Burr Senior, who was a president of Princeton University (at that time called the College of New Jersey). Several of Princeton's presidents can be found within a few feet of him, in what is called the "President's Plot," but perhaps the most famous interment is that of Burr's son, Aaron Junior, who was the third Vice-President of the United States (under Thomas Jefferson), and the winner of the deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton. When I visited I found a woman hanging around the grave, and she told me that Burr was the greatest patriot we've ever had. I didn't bring up his being tried for treason for trying to establish his own country out west. No doubt she would have had an answer ready for me.

Topping Burr in the political hierarchy of the buried is an actual President of the United States. Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th President, lived in retirement in Princeton, and was buried there upon his death. He is flanked by his wife and daughter (the latter is the possible inspiration for the name of the Baby Ruth bar--experts disagree). His grave is pictured here, with a fresh wreath of flowers placed there by a military honor guard on his birthday, March 18th. This is done at the graves of all presidents.

Other notables names buried there are Jonathan Edwards, who was briefly president of Princeton, but is better known for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God." There are also many names familiar to drivers of Princeton as they share street names--Wiggins, Witherspoon, Bayard, Stockton, etc.--they were the early settlers of the town. As one might imagine, there are many professors from the University, as well as prominent figures from the Princeton Theological Seminary and the Institute for Advanced Study. The latter institution employed cemetery residents and mathematicians Kurt Godel and John Von Neuman. However, the most illustrious Princeton resident, Albert Einstein, was cremated, and his ashes are not in the cemetery.

From the literary world the cemetery houses the novelist John O'Hara, who wrote Butterfield 8 among other books, and Sylvia Beach, the proprietress of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company and an early support of James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Also interred there is pollster George Gallup.

One of the most prominent memorials is for Paul Tulane, a philanthropist who was a big benefactor of Tulane University. His stone is topped by life-size statue, and legend has it that's it's facing away from Princeton University because they would not accept the terms of a donation--that is they would not rename the school for him, a condition the college in New Orleans was obviously willing to accept.

A few other interesting residents are Barbara Boggs Sigmund, a mayor of Princeton but perhaps better known as the sister of TV newswoman Cokie Roberts; the parents of Paul Robeson, the actor, singer, and activist who grew up in Princeton; and Jose and Kitty Menendez, who were murdered by their sons, Lyle and Eric. Their graves are understandably not on the handy map that the cemetery provides. It would take a few hours of diligent search to find their headstone.

Lastly a grave that is on the map belongs to William Hahn. He has an epitaph that includes, "I Told You I Was Sick." I've also seen this on a headstone in Key West, Florida. I don't know who had the idea first.

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