Deep inside Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, stands a granite tomb built for President Abraham Lincoln. Between 1868 and 1931 the insides and contents of the tomb had constantly changed, but since 1931, when Herbert Hoover rededicated the tomb to the State of Illinois as a historic landmark, the interior of the tomb has stayed the same. By 1966 Lincoln’s Tomb was placed on the historic register of the nation, but none of these prestigious titles is what brings people to the burial site of Abraham Lincoln. No, it’s the myth more than the man that calls people to visit the tomb of the “Great Emancipator.”
In the last couple years, Lincoln’s myth has gained, well, even more myth, with the help of movies like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer, and one can assure a resurgence in interest in the martyred President with the release of Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln, but Lincoln’s accurate biography and his myth both be damned. When you visit Lincoln’s Tomb, like all sites of reverence and/or history, there’s something in between the myth and the facts of a person that can be filled by each individual. For me, walking the hexagon shape of the halls within the tomb are a reminder that every museum, monument and town that bears the name of Lincoln, or celebrates the life of the slain President, elevates the actions of the man and obscures the fact that he was indeed a human being—a man with needs, wants.
The halls of the tomb contain bronze sculptures that celebrate various ages of the President. When you walk into the tomb, the first bronze that greets you is a replica of Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of the Lincoln who sits forlorn in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Of all the bronzes and images carved of Lincoln, this is, for me, the most definitive. French’s sculpture shows how the choices Lincoln made as a President, father, husband, citizen had worn him down, but is his look one of regret, loss, sadness or simple weariness? I can’t help but think this look reflects the cumulative affect of living. This is the look that every person must have as they reach the end of his/her life.
The bodies of Lincoln, his wife and three of his four sons are buried below and to the back of the tomb, so what is inside of the tomb is merely representational—a cenotaph with the President’s name and the years he lived carved in the red marble. His cenotaph is surrounded by flags from the states Lincoln’s family were from, as well as the flags of the United States and the flag of The President of The United States. Some of Lincoln’s most famous speeches are displayed in bronze tablets. Nothing in this tomb was actually Lincoln’s—not even his body. So why isn’t it called a memorial instead of a tomb?
Even this place obscures the man. Lincoln’s Tomb is not a very inspired place—it’s more like the temple or the church you go to every week. It’s a marbled hall of memory and remembrance, but I don’t leave here feeling I’ve learned any more about Lincoln than I did before I pulled into Oak Ridge. Unlike a temple or a church, I’m not left with much to think about, to dwell on. It’s a beautiful memorial, but it’s like all the other memorials built to the great men of history—a house of rock and metal that praises the objects of a man instead of his life.