The Tomb of Walt Whitman

The Tomb of Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman’s final resting place is located in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.  The cemetery opened in 1885, only seven years before Whitman’s death, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in New Jersey.  The cemetery covers over 130 acres of land, full of trees, sloping hills and gardens (Wikipedia).

In 1890, Whitman began making preparations for the spot of his burial, signing a contract for $4000 for the construction of a “burial house” in the cemetery, sturdy and geometric, carved roughly of granite with his name emblazoned on the front stone face.  But what moved Whitman, usually the model of frugality, to decide on such an expensive burial structure?

Although Whitman grew up in poverty, by the last fifteen years of his life in Camden his salary averaged $1200 a year, a third more than the standard salary of an American worker (Reynolds, p. 32).  By that standard, the cost of the tomb was over three times his annual salary.  But Whitman cleverly relied on his good connections to pull him through the transaction–after paying the first $1500, he refused to pay for the last installment, relying on a rich friend to pick up the rest of the tab.  Yet Whitman was quite liberal with the rest of his estate and possessions, giving liberally to his family members, five of which occupy the tomb along with him.

Young Harleigh Cemetery

One question that arises regards Whitman’s choice of such a young graveyard in which to build his tomb.  Practical concerns such as space for the large stone structure were certainly concerns, and Whitman undeniably had the choicest pickings of the site for his location.  But there seems to be evidence that Whitman may have been given a good deal by Harleigh Cemetery.  According to one source, the cemetery convinced Whitman to pick a plot in order to increase business.  By burying Whitman, a famous poet as well as a Camden local, Harleigh Cemetery rose in value and in business dramatically (Tomb of Walt Whitman Camden NJ).


Blake’s “Death’s Door”

The model for Whitman’s tomb is based on William Blake’s engraving, “Death’s Door” which Whitman discovered in 1881 (Ferguson-Wagstaffe).  Whitman submitted a sketch to his literary executor, with the comment, “Walt Whitman’s Burial Vault–on a sloping wooded hill–grey granite–unornamental–surrounding trees, turf, sky, a hill everything crude and natural.”  Whitman’s concept of a tomb was one carved out of nature, part of the earth yet separate from it.  It is clear that Whitman intended to make a statement, but he disliked the grand, European style of mausoleums.  The result is of Whitman’s desires was a tomb built to be earthen and sturdy, rather than polished and refined.

Burial Rituals

ccnews43_03_bigRituals regarding burial began to change in the nineteenth century, leading to new practices and a new design of graveyard.  The Civil War was one of the catalysts, quickly robbing many households of fathers and sons–totaling up to approximately 600,000 casualties (Historic Camden County).  Isolated burial grounds soon gave way to cemeteries that took the form of pubic parks.  Victorian garden landscapes became the standard, where relatives would come to pray for, and picnic with, the deceased.  Harleigh Cemetery represents one of these, founded after the civil war.  Whitman’s request for a tomb was not unusual during this period of public graveyard revival.

Today Whitman’s tomb remains a site for the public, both of his literary fans and of roaming tourists.  The tomb remains unchanged on a grassy hillside in Harleigh cemetery, open to visitors.

In Autumn Rivulets, Whitman’s Outlines for a Tomb ends with a passage of the narrator transcending the borders of America and beyond.

O thou within this tomb,

From thee such scenes, thou stintless, lavish giver,

Tallying the gifts of earth, large as the earth,

Thy name an earth, with mountains, fields and tides.

Nor by your streams alone, you rivers,

By you, your banks Connecticut,

By you and all your teeming life, old Thames,

By you Potomac laving the ground Washington trod, by you Patapsco,

You Hudson, you endless Mississippi–nor you alone,

But to the high seas launch, my thought, his memory.”

Instead of being weighed down by death, the narrator transcends borders with his thoughts.  In this way, Whitman transcends his own death, not only through the erection of his tomb, but through the survival of his poetry and prose and those who study and learn by his works.

Works Cited

Fergusun-Wagstaffe, Sarah.  ”‘Points of Contact’: Blake and Whitman–Sullen Fires Across the Atlantic: Essays in Transatlantic Romanticism.” Harvard University. Romantic Circles.  University of Maryland.

“Harleigh Cemetery, Camden.” <,_Camden> Wikipedia.

Levins, Hoag. “Civil War-Era Death and Mourning Customs and Rituals” October 28th, 2002. <>

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman: Benjamin Franklin’s Representative Man. Modern Language Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), p. 29-39.

“Tomb of Walt Whitman, Camden NJ, American Guide Series on“ <>

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