BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

A Tomb of One's Own

Edgar Allan Poe, the disappearance of the 'Poe Toaster' and the best way to find a grave

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BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 APR 10

Roses left at the monument to Edgar Allan Poe, Baltimore, on the anniversary of his birth, 19 January 2008. Courtesy: Associated Press/ Rob Carr.

For the past 60 years, a black-clad figure carrying a silver-tipped cane has left three red roses and half a bottle of cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on 19 January, the anniversary of Poe’s birthday. Known as the ‘Poe Toaster’, he has come regardless of the weather and despite the numerous attempts to find out his true identity, he has remained anonymous. This year, for the first time in living memory, he did not appear.

That Poe should inspire such a ritual is unsurprising given the author’s attraction to funerary matters and, in particular, the subject of being buried alive: ‘The rigid embrace of the narrow house – the blackness of the absolute Night – the silence like a sea that overwhelms – the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm.’ Although it is unknown whether Poe himself suffered from taphophobia, his stories seem, in some manner, premonitory. For if Poe’s own burial was not premature, it was, at the very least, half-cocked.

On 3 October 1849, Poe was found ‘delirious in a state of great distress’ on a street in Baltimore wearing clothes that were not his own. He died four days later from what was reported as ‘congestion of the brain’ and was buried in an unmarked grave. Ten people attended the ceremony. No sermon was read. Eleven years later Poe’s cousin ordered a headstone of white marble to be made for the grave carrying the epitaph, Hic Tandem Felicis Conduntur Reliquae (Here, at last, he is happy). The headstone was destroyed by a runaway train before it could be erected. By 1875, the parlous state of Poe’s grave saw a public subscription launched for the creation of a marble monument which Poe was reburied beneath. But only after the grave diggers had exhumed the wrong body, and not before it was noticed that the dates carved into the monument were wrong.

Until his disappearance, the Poe Toaster appeared as a remnant of a particularly Victorian aesthetic. Not just in the obscurity of his gifts and the grim formalism of his actions, which seemed sympathetic to Poe’s stories, but also in the regularity of his visits, which was in keeping with Victorian attitudes to the dead – when cemeteries were used as public parks – but at odds with our relationship to mourning today.

It has become commonplace to say that western society is ‘death-denying’. But this has perhaps never been more blatantly exposed than in the recent practice of ‘graving’. Gravers visit graveyards for fun. Their hobby relies on the acquisitive and collating impulses that inform stamp collecting and train spotting, but they choose instead to collect and register the facts found on gravestones. This past-time is nurtured, in particular, by the website www.findagrave.com.

Originally a directory of celebrity graves, Find A Grave is now a database that contains some 36 million burial records with 35,000 new records being added every day. There for all to see is the deceased’s name, their burial location and often a photograph of the gravestone. Yet what is interesting about the contributors is that they seem to share none of the aesthetics that, in the death-denying past century, we have come to associate with those who hang around graveyards. Gravers are not melancholics or black-clad Goths; and while some are interested in history and genealogy, many are not. The graver is first and foremost a hobbyist who likes being outside and enjoys the process of notation. For gravers, the graveyard is not a macabre plot of bones, nor a gateway to the past, nor a religious site of salvation. Rather, it is a field of raw data.

Find A Grave lists its primary purpose as being ‘a graves registration website’, and in this it differs slightly from the typical impulse to remember that we attach to memorials for the dead. Find A Grave divorces memory from thought; it is memory for memory’s sake – not so much RIP as RAM. This is, in itself, a little spooky. Enchained to the Internet for as long as data lasts, the dead listed on Find A Grave seem a bit like the prematurely buried of Poe’s stories – forced to live on in a hideous half-life when they should have been allowed to dissipate into the local geology, their names being slowly eroded from their gravestones. Unable to dissolve and be forgotten, Find A Grave’s dead are condemned to an eternity of hollow remembrance.

In October of 2009, 160 years after Poe’s death and 200 years after his birth, a mock funeral was held for him in Baltimore complete with casket and horse-drawn cart. It was, in some ways, an attempt to make up for Poe’s previous botched funerals. Hundreds of mourners lined the streets. Could this valediction be the reason why the Poe Toaster did not make his annual visit this year? Finally, Poe had been given a fitting Victorian burial. And, if each age needs its own way of mourning, perhaps the appearance of gravers is our era’s way of toasting the dead. They do it elusively, unconscious of it being an act of mourning. Nevertheless they have been drawn to the graveyard by a faint compulsion that cannot be completely denied, that forces them – albeit in the unflinching manner of a computer programmer – to confront the end.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA. 

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