The Du Pont Family Cemetery

Ta-da! After five years of sporadic effort, I found the du Pont family cemetery, thanks to a little help from a friend. Being a volunteer at Longwood Gardens, often talking non-stop about its founder, Pierre S. du Pont, I naturally wanted to see his grave. I had read he was buried in the family cemetery beside his wife, Alice, who died ten years before him, but no mention of where that cemetery was. Google searches turned up several references to the cemetery that coyly avoided any mention of its location.

The cemetery’s location is not a deep, dark secret, just not publicized.  It is a private cemetery on private grounds, and I was technically trespassing (but a good trespasser, a responsible person anyone would want on their property).

I support the secrecy. After giving so much to the public, the du Pont family deserves to keep at least their cemetery private.  They do not want it to become a tourist attraction (like Benjamin Franklin’s grave in Philadelphia) or a focal point for political demonstrations, but any respectful visitor seems to be welcome.  There are no “Private Property” or “No Trespassing” signs, no locked gates to squeeze around, no guard houses checking incoming tour buses. It is just a charming, serene, unpretentious country cemetery tucked away in the woods.  I will certainly revisit this peaceful site, and I, too, want it to remain as it is: accessible, but not generally known.

IMG_20150709_1350511I easily found the graves of Pierre and Alice as shown in the photo. Their graves are not as isolated as they look. They are in a line of similar graves that I cropped out, and I backed up hard against another row to get the photo. They are unpretentious for a man of his wealth, but that fits with both his and Alice’s personality. Unpretentious good taste is the hallmark of their home preserved in Longwood Gardens.  (I give Alice much of the credit because even in those days a wife had considerable influence on the family’s expenditures.  A lesser woman would have demanded more opulence.)

Their graves and the older ones surrounding them are not burials, but above-ground vaults, like the ones in swampy New Orleans. I wonder now if this was a French custom rather than a practical need, or perhaps it was just the custom of the time for those who could afford it.  I have seen similar graves of distinguished, non-French Delawareans of that time in other cemeteries.   I assume a regular wooden coffin is inside.  There is still more to learn.

I noticed from the photo the vaults are sitting directly on the uneven ground without a footing, a base, or even a gravel pad.  It looks like they are occasionally moved with a forklift.  If so, Pierre and Alice are still traveling together, just not very far.

The cemetery also has the grave of Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont, the eponym of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C..  His appears to be a conventional burial with a prominent memorial.

IMG_20150709_130134-1A recent feature of the cemetery is an  open-air chapel where the bereaved can gather for the interment. It, too, is done in excellent, subdued taste. The side chambers and roof details suggest a French Gothic cathedral.  At the conclusion of the ceremony, the coffin can be carried through a wide back door facing the nearby cemetery.  A single steeple bell is rung by a hanging rope as in a small, rural church.  A date stone says “2005.”

The chapel reminded me of the popular folk song of the 1950s, “The Three Bells,” (“Little Jimmy Brown”) which, fittingly, was a loose translation of an old French version.

Walking through the cemetery, reading the inscriptions, at every grave I was acutely aware of Roger Angell’s comment:

“What I noticed most—the same idea came over me every time—was that time had utterly taken away the histories and attachments and emotions that had once closely wrapped around these dead, leaving nothing but their families and names and dates.  It was almost as if they were waiting to be born.” (“Over the Wall,” posting of 11/15/2012)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in du Pont History, Longwood Gardens and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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