A cathedral in Washington DC was once thought of as being the resting place for the country’s greatest luminaries.
On a cool sunny Saturday in March 1925 a small procession moved through the Washington DC streets toward the National Cathedral from across the Potomac. Once again, Admiral George Dewey was on the move. It had been eight years since huge crowds lined the streets to watch solemnly as his body carried from the Capitol building to Arlington National Cemetery. Now, his widow and son wanted his body relocated to the Cathedral, of which he had been an ardent backer in
his later years. Construction on the Cathedral had begun in 1907, 10 years before Dewey died. Now, as they stood in honor oftheir legendary fellow officer watching his coffin being carried into the imposing church, the honorary pallbearers were older, grayer, and more stooped than they were when Dewey was buried at Arlington.
President Wilson had been laid to rest here a year earlier and the Admiral’s widow thought it would be fitting and proper for the country’s most famous sailor to lie here as well. Those who came to pay their respects to Wilson could also see the tomb of the Hero of Manila Bay and, when she died, his wife.
Since then, many more people have been buried at the cathedral including American diplomats, politicians, and figures from the church. Architecturally and artistically, the building is beautiful. There are over 200 stained glass windows in it, the most unique of which commemorates the 1969 moon landing.
In 1925, the National Cathedral was one of the grand new buildings in Washington and many hoped it would become for the United States something like Westminster Abbey was for Great Britain—a resting place for the country’s most significant figures from all walks of life.
A couple of weeks ago we talked about the Panthéon in Paris honoring Josephine Baker, and Westminster Abbey fills a similar role for Great Britain. Buried there are many kings, queens, prime ministers, and soldiers. T. E. Lawrence is there. But then it gets interesting. There are poets like William Blake, John Keats, Lord Byron, John Milton, and Geoffrey Chaucer; novelists like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling. There are the British composers Henry Purcell and George Frederick Handel. Scientists like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking. The actor Laurence Olivier is buried there.
I wish we in this country honored our artists like that. Washington’s National Cathedral has not turned out to be the American version of the Panthéon or Westminster Abbey.
I can think of another way we could honor them, but that will have to wait until next week.