Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Funeral Poe Never Had — Until Now

Baltimore celebrated its favorite son this year on his bicentennial year by not only celebrating his life, but also giving him the sendoff from this mortal coil he did not get 160 years ago.

Only one man could write the stuff that scares the stuffing out of even the most seasoned horror writer and still spurs men to wear bright purple. Credit for that alone goes to Edgar Allen Poe, with whom a single word — Nevermore! — can create images that capture the essence of Gothic fiction, as well as inspire the name of a profitable football franchise.

The funeral event began at 11:40 a.m. Sunday, October 11, with a processional from the Poe House to Westminster Hall. The Loch Raven Pipes and Drums led a horse-drawn hearse, the curtains on the glass sides pulled up so the casket was visible. The bagpipes were haunting.

The hearse was followed by dozens of mourners in period clothing, including the speakers slated for the funeral service. My embarrassingly limited Poe knowledge prevented me from recognizing some of the bearded faces, and I was glad to see a few women in the processional. A few people were easy to detect with my untrained eye: Walt Whitman in his full gray beard, beige hat and light suit; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his garb perfect for the wild moor; and Sir Alfred Hitchcock with an unmistakable profile and very English hat. Not all in the entourage were in 19th century garb, and I was intrigued. (The Poe bicentennial Web site had warned that the list of speakers might change due to their being dead themselves, so I wasn't sure how death had affected the program.)

As the processional came to a halt in front of Westminster Hall, the crowd pushed closer, cameras clicking. (My camera, regrettably, was in my car, forgotten in the haste to see the processional and remembered blocks from where David and I parked.) I am not sure if I would have been as forward as some of the photographers; to me, it was a funeral more than a performance, and there was something macabre and disrespectful about shoving a camera in Whitman's face.

A handful of the men stepped forward to serve as pallbearers, and the casket was slid from the hearse into their waiting hands. They solemnly walked along the front of the hall, cautiously maneuvering their way past the crowd lining in the street. (They did not walk up the steep stairs in front of which the hearse stopped.)

As the hour of the first service drew near, those attending the first service filed into the hall after them.

Many of my fellow spectators/mourners were in period mourning costume, or a close approximation of such. I am not an expert, and some costumes were elaborate and interesting, like the men in full black topcoats, top hats and capes, or the women in long black crepe dresses and hats with black lace covering their faces. Some people were dressed in contemporary clothing apropos to mourning and funerals. Other spectators used this as an opportunity to air out their Halloween costumes a couple of weeks early, and many had clothing with depictions of skulls, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Poe himself. There was a fair smattering of Raven purple. (I myself was in blue jeans and a black blouse, which served me well in the quarter-mile sprint from the car to the processional).

Before the second service, people milled around Poe's grave, placing pennies and flowers on his monument. A clutch of men in the Baltimore City Men's Chorus warmed up in the narrow walkway amidst the gravestones in the yard beyond the spectators. People took photos of the grave, others took photos of their friends and family at the grave. A tall Asian man performed mournful classical music as he stood next to the monument, and the crowd clapped with appreciation. The crowed ebbed and flowed, Goth teens and 19th century mourners mixing with surprised pedestrians passing through the crowd. A long black hearse with a silver skull as its hood ornament blasted what sounded like Vincent Price giving a dramatic reading (presumably of Poe's works), though the distortion prevented me from understanding a word from where I stood. I took photos of tombstones, some of which were under the hall, behind locked gates.

Inside the hall was a replica of Poe's original tombstone, which was destroyed in a freak train derailment accident before it was even placed on his grave. The stone was surrounded by beautiful flowers (presumably from the event's official florist, who accepted phone orders with free delivery for the service). At the front of the hall were the organ's tall pipes that reached to the arched ceiling. Hundreds of chairs filled slowly as the mourners took their seats.

The speakers were unknown to me by sight, for the most part. The Reverend Rufus Griswold was soundly hissed as he took the stage. Both Poe's former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman and his close friend George Lippard countered the reverend's previously published slights. Both were animated and engaging. In fact, Lippard was so overwrought he needed a glass of water to continue his eulogy — then, as he left the lectern, threw the rest in Griswold's face. Poe's nurse, editor, attending physician at his death all were present to pretty much set the record straight to the author's life and final days.

The second half of the service was more entertaining to the casual Poe aficionado. That was when those who were most influenced by him, authors and movie directors, illustrators and actors alike, took the stage. Whitman had little to say, but spoke with affection for the man who welcomed him to the office building in New York they both occupied. Charles Baudelaire was effusive and dignified. H.P. Lovecraft was brilliant with his nervous gestures and reading aloud what sounded like gibberish from a large book (I'm sure his fans will explain that to me). Hitchcock offered his profile and some of his familiar catchphrases.

When we came to the living, their tributes were touching and spoke deeply to my own sensibilities. Ellen Datlow, in her black dress and wild hair, was humble and appreciative. Gris Grimly was funny, self-deprecating and irreverent (and dressed in a t-shirt with a bare rib cage on the front and a dress jacket); only a geek can articulate what it's like to be a geek and have a roomful of fellow geeks get it. Mark Renfield brought Baltimore and D.C. of today into the mix with references to pop culture of the time and place. John Astin spoke briefly but with heartfelt appreciation, and Poe House curator Jeff Jerome's words spoke to this bureaucrat's heart.

In the end, the casket passed through the hall and we paid our final respects. More than 700 people attended the services, and many more stood in the cool autumn sunshine, blocking traffic and wandering about the cemetery. The event allowed all to celebrate the life and works of a man who might have been impoverished at his death but left a legacy beyond all measure. It was a great event, and I am glad David and I could be a part of it.

If a person's wealth can be measured by influence, Poe died a rich man who, I hope, will continue to be remembered and continue to influence generations of readers, writers and movie directors (and whatever media follows). May the events of 2009 in Baltimore encourage more people to read and learn more about him, his time, his work and his homes — including the Poe Museum in Richmond, another great Poe resource and enjoyable destination (and the town he felt was his true home).

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