Sunday, February 19, 2023

"Lincoln in the Bardo" - Oak Hill Cemetery

As I sit here in my living room typing this passage, my thirteen-year-old daughter is practicing Bach’s Prelude in C minor on our piano. I can’t help but think it would be the perfect soundtrack to George Saunders’ recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.  The music is somber, as is the book. 

You may be wondering what a “bardo” is. I didn’t know before I read the book. I actually didn’t know until AFTER I read the book and started writing this essay. Saunders does not actually mention the word, or define it, in his book. According to Wikipedia:

'' ...bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena."

The bardo, then. And you might also assume “Lincoln” refers to Abraham. But it does not, It refers to his son Willie, who died at age twelve.

Oak Hill Cemetery gatehouse, Georgetown

The image you see at the beginning of this article is my photograph of the sculpture from the entrance to a mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. It is near the Carroll mausoleum, where Lincoln’s son was temporarily laid to rest when he died in 1862. As the story goes, Lincoln visited the mausoleum in the days following his son’s death, opening the casket and holding him in his arms.

I’ll let you digest that for a few moments. Maybe a few more moments if you are a parent.

Library of Congress

I made the "There Shall Be No Night There" photograph as well as many other images when I explored Oak Hill Cemetery back around 2005. I was unaware of the Willie Lincoln story at the time. In the fall of 2022, I learned of it through George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). A librarian friend of mine told me about the book when I gave a lecture on abandoned cemeteries at her library. Sounded intriguing, so I bought and read the novel.

Densely wooded Oak Hill Cemetery

The book brought back vivid memories of how eerie Oak Hill was. I was there after a spring rain, and everything was slick and dripping. The caretaker warned me to stay on the sidewalks so I didn’t slip or fall into a sunken grave. He could easily have been Jack Manders, Oak Hill’s night watchman at the time of Lincoln’s visits. Manders, lantern in hand, would guide the President from the entry gate (see photo below) where he tied his horse, to the Carroll mausoleum in the dark. Manders would unlock the mausoleum door, and leave the father alone with his grief. This is all documented in Manders’ actual logbook from 1862.

Entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery

I never saw the Carroll mausoleum – didn’t go looking for it when I was at Oak Hill. Didn’t know anything about Willie Lincoln at the time. So why was Willie “temporarily” laid to rest there? Well, the Lincolns expected to move the family back to Illinois after the President’s term had ended. They planned to take Willie back with them for a proper burial. A clerk of the Supreme Court, William Carroll, let the Lincolns use his family mausoleum as a temporary resting place until they returned to Illinois. Abe never made it back to Illinois alive.

Willie Lincoln’s death: A private agony for a president facing a nation of pain - The Washington Post

“The remains of Willie Lincoln lay in the marble vault, locked behind an iron gate, for more than three years. On numerous occasions, author James L. Swanson wrote, “his ever-mourning father returned to visit him, to remember, and to weep,” even as he tried to hold the country together.

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Willie’s casket was exhumed and placed aboard the presidential funeral train for the journey back to Illinois. Father and son headed home together.”

Again, I’ll pause and let you think about that for a bit.

The majority of Saunders’ book is about the experience of Willie’s “ghost,” after his body was delivered to the mausoleum in a funeral procession. Willie’s experience involves many other people – or, ghosts” - with which he interacts while in Oak Hill Cemetery. It is a rather riveting story, one that you want to end well. But the way it ends is quite unsettling. 

The chapel on the cemetery grounds where Willie’s funeral service was held is shown in the above photo - Saunders refers to it in his story. I remember getting a creepy feeling walking past it those many years ago. The entire cemetery was gloomy, dark from its tall trees. I had a distinct sense of being alone.

Were I to return, I would probably not be able to think of anything but the characters and scenes from Lincoln in the Bardo, and the “matterlightblooming” phenomenon where the ghosts, or souls, disappear in a snap from the bardo and head to some other, undefined, state of existence. They avoid all talk (yes, they can talk to each other) of death, how they got to the bardo, or life itself – referring to our mortal world as the place they were before. They cannot admit to themselves that they are dead. Hence, the deep denial evinced by the sculpted phrase, "There Shall Be No Night There." Were I to return to Oak Hill Cemetery at this point, I think I would feel anything but alone. 

Further Reading: 

A review of Lincoln in the Bardo


  1. Great article! Great story that I never knew. Thanks for letting me know about the book. Now I'm going to read it.

  2. Nice post thank you Tracey