The Future of a Historic Site: Lincoln’s Tomb

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When visiting Lincoln’s Tomb last September I didn’t know what to expect. I had a rental car and a few hours until I would be picking up a colleague at the Springfield Airport. I had a vague awareness that Lincoln was buried at a cemetery in Springfield. So I typed it into Google Maps and drove as Siri directed me to the cemetery and in the back way (of course I didn’t realize that at the time). I parked below a steep slope, climbed out, and looked around. There were only two other people in sight–a couple descending some stairs–and a thunder storm was brewing. There is a gate located at the back of that hill, a gate that is huge, dark and heavy with history. A pre-storm hush hung about the cemetery, all that one could hear was the humid breeze. I headed up the hill towards the couple. As I got out from beneath the trees and climbed up the hill, I was greeted by the immense structure of a monument: the towering memorial on top of the hill in which Lincoln was buried (originally accessed through a gate in the back).

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Downtown Springfield has a wonderful Lincoln statue across from the Lincoln Library.

I don’t know what I expected to find at Lincoln’s grave site but it may have involved something along the lines of paying my respects from a muggy cemetery lawn. But as I made my way around to the front of the tomb, I realized this was a far more important site than I could have imagined. I saw a door… and I followed as someone else went inside.

The interior of Lincoln’s Tomb consists of a circular marble hallway with minimal decoration. There is a series of small bronze statues, some quotes, and a few informational pieces. But mostly there is marble. A large block of stone surrounded by flags marks the place where Lincoln is buried. The names of his family members who also rest at the site are etched into the walls.

Inside and out, Lincoln’s Tomb is an incredibly moving site and, in my firm opinion, is lacking of nothing. I am a big believer in the importance of interpretation but there is a time and place for that; a tomb is a place of solitude and reflection. Somehow, you get a sense of who Lincoln was just through the gravity of being there; not only was Lincoln great but Lincoln, too, was a real person. They are not just stories. The most profound places can have so much meaning that they don’t need interpretation. They speak for themselves.

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Even the caretaker’s shed at the Lincoln Tomb is a wonderful piece of architecture.

Lincoln’s Tomb is an important site not just because it is noteworthy in the history books but because the site, itself, is incredibly moving. An NPR article recently announced that the Lincoln’s Tomb Site is, along with many historic sites, at risk of severe budget cuts. Of course, the internet is a flurry of responses, comments and tweets to blogs and articles. I just hope that the Lincoln’s Tomb Site can continue to offer the access I had to future visitors.

I strolled around the caretaker’s cottage (which resembles a small castle) and watched a large school group assemble along the path before I returned to my rental car. The billowing thunder clouds grew darker and thunder trembled in the distance. I drove out the main gates and through the historic main street that leads up to the cemetery. And the rain began to pour.

If you want to know more:

Lincoln’s Tomb has a lot of very long and interesting history, from the decision of where to bury Lincoln (and his funeral train that was greeted by thousands as his body traveled to Springfield) to the attempted grave robbery that has led to the security now seen at the location (including the caretaker’s cottage next to the tomb). There’s some fantastic history along with all of this and I suggest you start here, at the site itself. They even have a virtual tour if you can’t make it to southern Illinois.

Springfield just recognized the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s funeral with a re-enactment and various other events.

If you missed this movie about Lincoln, you really need to remedy that. They did a tremendous job. And they even used historic artifacts to create some of the sounds: the clicking of the watch? A recording of Lincoln’s actual watch!

And don’t forget to check out NPR’s article, “Lincoln’s Tomb Site At Risk With State Budget Cuts.”

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