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The Virginia Historical Society unearths the story behind Hollywood Cemetery. 

Buried History

A recent funeral service at a West End church had some decidedly contemporary touches. While delivering the eulogy at the lectern, the son of the deceased cleared his throat with a sip of water from a loudly patterned, colorful, oversized plastic drinking cup. And as the family recessed down the long, center aisle to waiting cars, a female family member clutched a smallish box containing the remains of the deceased.

But the simple and traditional Episcopalian service has changed little over the years. The congregation sang "A Mighty Fortress" and read aloud the 23rd Psalm. And just as importantly, when the procession (led by shiny black Mercedes sedans and SUVs) left the church, the destination was Hollywood Cemetery. Although funeral traditions may change, some things don't. For 150 years, the rolling graveyard on the north bank of the James near Oregon Hill has been a burial place of choice for Richmonders.

Even for those who will never end up there, few can resist the romanticism of a place that is more than a mortuary. It is an outdoor museum with monuments to five Virginia governors and two United States presidents. It is an inviting private park with winding lanes, cul-de-sacs and flowering trees. It is world-famous, Valhalla of the Confederacy, boasting the remains of Jeff Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and thousands of their troops.

But if one looks closely, even Hollywood changes (however subtly) with time. It is both the spirit of the place and its ever-slight evolution that is captured magnificently (but appropriately understatedly) in "Hollywood Cemetery, 1849-1999." Continuing until May at the Virginia Historical Society, the exhibition is a must-see, not only because it refreshes our understanding of a familiar place, but serves up aspects of a local attraction that perhaps we didn't know.

To tell these stories, the Society has mined its own considerable collections, plus borrowed objects and images from the Valentine Museum and the cemetery's archives.

The exhibit does a fine job of explaining Hollywood's physical history: It was the South's first natural cemetery, part of a broader movement to use the natural terrain as the major design factor. It was also more economical: Earlier cemeteries, such as Richmond's own Shockoe cemetery, had previously been organized on a grid pattern. While developing Hollywood (named for trees on the site), Richmond businessmen William Haxall and Joshua Fry visited Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., and soon thereafter engaged architect John Notman to plan the Richmond cemetery, which opened in 1849.

In its exploration of mid-19th- and early 20th-century environmental concerns the exhibit reads like today's headlines. Initially, there was concern as to how placing the cemetery above the city limits would affect the city's drinking water, and in the early 20th century, automotive traffic was a real concern. In fact, a group of dignitaries including President William Howard Taft, was temporarily denied access when their motorcade arrived at the Cherry Street entrance.

Through historical photographs, interwoven with a number of contemporary black-and-white photographs by Bryan Clark Green (who also organized the exhibition), changes in the cemetery landscape and that of the surrounding city are effectively and evocatively shown. In addition to a hauntingly dreary photographic image of newly dug Confederate graves, there is a color photo of a more recent internment. It shows all nine members of the Supreme Court standing graveside for the burial of retired Justice Lewis Powell. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wears a jaunty, tan golf hat — not so much a fashion faux pas as needed relief from a hot, semitropical Richmond day.

The exhibit's design is low-key. Despite a wealth of information, there isn't an overload. Like a sharply focused lecture, or a tightly written piece of research, historical museums do a tremendous service when they focus on a manageable topic and keep the presentation tight. Rather than being overwhelmed by bells and whistles, the visitor can more easily become a thoughtful participant. "Hollywood, 1849-1999" should leave those who visit it with a panoramic understanding and enhanced fascination for a place that defines much of the essence of Richmond, past and
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