Roughly Speaking podcast: Halloween special: Best of horror movie music (episode 168)

A proper reburial

Baltimore Sun reporter

Edgar A. Poe, local author and poet of much renown, was laid to rest at Westminster Hall yesterday inside a simple redwood coffin, after a grand theatrical and oratorical send-off to usher him, as he once wrote, "into the region of shadows."

Of course the true Poe remained buried beneath the monument on the northwest corner of the church grounds in Southwest Baltimore, near where his body was placed hastily in a family plot soon after his death on Oct. 7, 1849.

But yesterday the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe's death was revived, so that the great poet could receive the eulogy that eluded him in the days following his demise.

Hundreds ogled along a closed block of Fayette Street as a horse-drawn undertaker's carriage delivered Poe's casket to the creaking doors of Westminster Hall. Some wore top hats and tails; others their "Evermore!" T-shirts.

As bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," pallbearers in black armbands wheeled Poe's body - a rendition of it, in truth - into the former church's interior, where a succession of actors and speakers, some posing as Poe's contemporaries, began a celebration of the life of a man whose life was so often a celebration of death.

"Welcome to this sad occasion," began Poe House curator Jeff Jerome.

Billed as a proper reburial of Poe, the funeral was part of a series of events commemorating the bicentennial of Poe's birth, in 1809. With the sale of 700 tickets to two funeral performances yesterday, the celebrations have attracted several thousand people, Jerome said.

People milling about the Westminster yard, some in widow's veils or other funereal garb, said they had come because they are fans of Poe's famously macabre body of work, and of the genre he pioneered.

"He was a brave trailblazer," said writer and actor Michael N. Langford, who arrived from his home in Atlanta in top hat and cravat. "He wrote the first science fiction stories, the first real American horror stories, he created the detective genre - he was like a fountainhead of American literature."

Poe's colleagues and acquaintances, as portrayed by actors inside, sounded similar praise, as when fellow author George Lippard declared Poe "a man of genius, character, and a true friend."

Even the unrepentant critic Rev. Rufus Griswold took the lectern, although to a chorus of hisses.

He defined Poe "more remarkable as a dissector of sentences than as a commenter on ideas," and was quickly invited to be finished by actor John Astin, who presided over the event.

Though already a distinguished writer at the time of his death, Poe died unexpectedly and largely destitute, and his original funeral is said to have been attended by only a handful. His death was announced on page 2 of The Sun on Oct. 8, 1849, meriting just one paragraph.

"This announcement, coming so sudden and unexpected, will cause poignant regret among all who admire genius, and have sympathy for the frailties too often attending it," The Sun wrote.

Poe's stature had improved by the centennial of his birth, when the newspaper hailed him as "the greatest writer who ever called Baltimore his home, and probably the greatest writer America has yet produced."

Yesterday, again, he seemed to get his due.

"I think Edgar Allan Poe would have been bemused by it, shocked by it," Langford said. "But I think it was what he deserved."

Poe, of course, was unavailable for comment - though he once warned in his writings that he was prone to catalepsy, and thus to the possibility of a tragic burial preceding his death.

Thankfully, if such a fate did transpire, we have Poe himself to describe the state:

"The unendurable oppression of the lungs, the stifling fumes from the damp earth, the clinging of the death garments, 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. …

"These things, I say, carry into the heart … a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil."

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