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Sometimes cemeteries present interesting stories simply by the accidental placement of the deceased.
One of the best is this one in Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek Michigan. The mausoleum obviously dominates the space, but there’s that little white obelisk to the right and behind. Here lies C.W. Post and there lies Sojourner Truth.
The contrast is exquisite and almost explodes with potential for pious, virtuous applications. A dramatic picture of a greedy capitalist versus freed-slave abolitionist? The mausoleum taking center stage while the obelisk is pushed into shadow, almost hidden between two bushes? It seems such low hanging fruit for a nice little RJ blog. Well. . .maybe.
Some background is in order. Charles William Post, or CW, first came to Battle Creek as a patient in the world famous sanitarium. Later he competed with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in the booming cereal business. The cereal competition was difficult, but CW persevered until his sharp business acumen brought great success for Post Cereals.
Most people are unaware that Post Toasties were originally called Elijah’s Manna. Religious leaders protested so Manna became Toasties now carrying CW’s name written large. The brand continues to this day and on occasion makes news. Sir Edmund Hillary packed Grape Nuts along when he climbed Mount Everest in 1953. Postum is still caffeine free and a favorite for Mormons and Adventists.
CW ended up here in Oak Hill Cemetery under nine feet of concrete, far below the imported marble mausoleum. The marble alone cost $100,000 which was real money back in the day. CW was not particularly religious which has led some to speculate that the nine feet of concrete was to prevent any possible resurrection. Being sacrilegious seems consistent with Elijah’s Manna, to say the least.
On the other hand, Sojourner Truth was emancipated from slavery, contemporary and colleague of Frederick Douglas, a vibrant nationally effective abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. She lived to be 105 years old and spoke with a Dutch brogue. She was born to Dutch slave owners (but I don’t know if they were Reformed or not). We do know that she moved to Battle Creek at about the same time as Ellen and James White. The Whites had founded the Seventh Day Adventists in Battle Creek a few years after the Christian Reformed Church separated from the Reformed Church of America. Sojourner was affiliated with Seventh Day Adventism for the remainder of her life. Incidentally, the Whites and the Kellogg brothers are also buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. Makes for an all around interesting neighborhood.
While CW’s mausoleum is a blunt bellow of power and wealth, Sojourner’s tombstone brings the opposite. The last line, “IS GOD DEAD,” refers to an exchange with Frederick Douglas likely occurring at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Perhaps the original was “IS GOD GONE” depending on your source. Antebellum history can be notoriously tricky on such details.
We do know that Douglas was becoming somewhat dispirited at the slow progress of the abolitionist movement and was starting to promote violence as a legitimate tactic for abolitionists to follow. In those three words, Sojourner brought a deep and intense debate home to Frederick Douglas. A timeless debate. Can the virtuous purity of God’s Kingdom be brought forward by means contrary to that very same Kingdom? Has God died and left us to our own devices? Her sojourner life taught her that the truth of unwavering faith is what will prevail. There she stands.
That’s a grand virtuous contrast, worthy of a tombstone story. Turns out however that CW didn’t really compete with John Harvey. They both made a ton of money but actually collaborated for the greater good of better health for the entire nation. CW was also very concerned about the well being of his workers, providing good wages and homes to live in.
This concern for the well being of others was based in his own suffering with mental illness. That was the reason for his hospitalization in the sanitarium in the first place. He died by suicide after life long bouts of anxiety and depression. Following his death his wife donated the money for building Leila Hospital, giving it to the Sisters of Mercy to manage. That nine feet of concrete was more likely protecting valuables buried with him or a defense against grave robbers. Paranoia makes more sense than the resurrection legend.
On the other hand, notice Sojourner’s obelisk. She likely lived for 86 years, not 105. The idea of being the most elderly active speaker in the country seemed to help land new venues for her message. Even Sojourner’s brand needed some attention in order to thrive and prosper. Frederick Douglas remembers IS GOD DEAD as happening in Ohio, not Boston. He recalls it as a rude interruption from the back of the room rather than a dramatic exchange. It’s possible that Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame promoted every possible variation of that story to advance her own agenda. Sojourner was immersed in her mission but was deeply immersed in politics too.
And that’s how my preconceived greedy capitalist versus freed-slave abolitionist fluff piece morphed into something else. Now I believe that if CW and Sojourner ran into each other, they would smile in recognition of fellow travelers. Radically different yet radically the same. They shared brokenness and shame, powerlessness and deep wounds while determined to use all of their creativity to heal those lesions in others.
I think CW Post and Sojourner Truth would have recognized the wounds of today as variations of the same dynamics they faced. Except now we understand that health concerns include the entire planet. We can see that fear perpetuates brokenness and separation, We know that entrenched theology can preserve deep wounds and shame.
It’s never really ever been all about mausoleum versus obelisk, or capitalist versus abolitionist, or politics versus healing. It’s not about evangelical nationalism versus love of Jesus either, or even confessional versus heretical. It’s not about inflexible carvings in stone but rather that we all are wounded sojourners. We too are radically different and radically the same, working creatively out of our own unique realities for every neighbor we encounter.