March 30, 2010

Whitman's funeral and burial

After the death of Walt Whitman, his friend Thomas Eakins and an assistant created his death mask as well as a plaster cast of the poet's hand. An autopsy was performed, despite objections from brother George Whitman, but following the request of the poet himself. The funeral for Walt Whitman was held March 30, 1892.

Whitman's polished-oak casket was displayed in the parlor of his Mickle Street home in Camden, NJ. The public viewing was from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and drew at least a thousand visitors, including neighborhood friends and curious laborers on their lunch break. A police officer was stationed at the door to direct traffic.

A carriage then took Whitman's body to his final resting-place at Harleigh Cemetery. Thousands upon thousands lined the streets to watch the procession. A ceremony featured speakers from Whitman's cadre of disciples (none particularly famous by today's standards). Readings came from Confucious, Buddha, Plato, the Koran, and the Bible. The only blood relative in attendance was George, whose injury during the Civil War inspired the poet's writing and his life. George did not speak and was likely confused by the ceremony and the extravagant praise bestowed on his dead brother. George, when he received his copy of Leaves of Grass, "didn't think it worth reading."

Whitman's $4,000 tomb was built to his specifications on a 20' x 30' plot of land gifted by the Harleigh Cemetery Association. Whitman ordered the construction of the "plain massive stone temple" with an iron gate and large bronze lock, inspired by an etching called "Death's Door" by William Blake. The roof was a foot and a half thick and some of the blocks weighed 8 to 10 tons. Whitman watched its construction, sent photos to friends, and proudly reported it as a celebration of his personality. Friends thought it a bit outrageous and accused the contractors, Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia, of swindling the elder poet. Whitman himself only paid $1,500 of the cost; a friend settled the rest of the bill. The result was, he wrote, "the rudest most undress'd structure... since Egypt, perhaps the cave dwellers." Later, Whitman's parents and other relatives were moved there as well. Even so, the only name on the tomb's exterior remains "Walt Whitman."

*Photo of the death mask is courtesy of Princeton Libraries.


  1. Hey Rob,
    Thanks for the entry on Whitman's funeral and burial, the latter at Camden's noble Harleigh Cemetery (one of the few noble things in Camden). "Undress'd structure" or not, you gotta love the Blakean "Death's Door" connection. Good for Walt!

  2. I often stop at Walt Whitmans tomb and think about the man and who he was. It's very calming to sit near the open door of the tomb and read his work. He was ahead of his time.

  3. Great blog, it's great to discover new things in Camden my adopted city.

  4. Here's a link to an essay on the ceremony at WWs grave on the 150th anniversary of his birth.!the-barefoot-poet-from-philadelphia/c19gy

  5. I went to the tomb today, and paid my respects to Walt. It is such a calm and natural setting. You almost forget the cemetery is squeezed between Lourdes hospital and route 130. I guess that part of Camden was woods back in 1890s. Whitman was a great writer. I hope young people are reading Whitman in school.


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