Enlightenment in the Cemetery: The Adams Memorial and Buddhism in 19th Century America

The Adams Memorial statue as it appears today in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC.

Even in a city with as many monuments as  Washington, D.C., the Adams Memorial is exceptional. Commissioned on the death of his wife by Henry Adams, it is one of the most widely celebrated pieces of American funerary art.

Adams’ wife Clover committed suicide in December 1885. The loss so shook Adams that she is entirely absent from his 1907 autobiographical work, The Education of Henry Adams.  In fact, he excises the entire period of their marriage, from 1872 until her death. In spite of this, Adams does reference the memorial that he preferred to call The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding for which he enlisted the famed duo of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White.

Presentation drawing of stonework designed by Stanford White for the Adams Memorial. PR 42, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Records Collection

Tucked away from the mall in Washington’s mildly bucolic Rock Creek Cemetery, it was completed in 1891. A palisade of hedges conceals an impressive, but remarkably simple memorial. Within those hedges is a placid, cloaked figure of ambiguous sex seated across from an exedra, or bench. Often overlooked is the hexagonal footprint of the memorial, employing a shape that in early Christian symbolism represented death, and offering a subtle reminder of the memorial’s function. The layout makes one thing very clear — its focus is inward, literally and figuratively — standing in direct contrast to both the opulent age in which it was constructed, and the aggrandizement commonly found in funerary architecture. The result is an incredible sense of balance between the acute pain of grief and the serenity of contemplation.

Drawing showing the hexagonal base of the memorial. PR 42, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Records Collection

It all seems fitting given that the memorial’s  principal inspiration is Buddhist, though this is all but impossible to discern from the memorial. In spite of his family’s close relationship with Unitarianism, Adams was hardly enthusiastic towards Western religion but, like many of his age, developed an interest  in Buddhism. Consequently, he directed Saint-Gaudens to consider this in his design. And so the memorial’s central figure is the Kannon, a buddhist deity and “the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy,” apparently chosen with the encouragement of John La Farge (with whom Adams had traveled to Japan).

Artistic qualities aside, the Adams Memorial’s symbolism is a reflection of America’s burgeoning relationship with Buddhism in the late nineteenth century. It was hardly the country’s first introduction either; it received superficial treatment in earlier literature, such as the 1784 work of Hannah Adams, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World From the Beginning of the Christian aera to Present Day, and slightly more substantive interest by Transcendentalists. Still, while Chinese laborers in California established a Buddhist foothold from the late 1840s onwards, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the first sustained interest arose among Americans of European descent.

Titlepage of Hannah Adams’ An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects… 1784.

One of those often credited as a catalyst is the British writer, Edwin Arnold, whose poetic work, The Light of Asia (1879), stirred a wave of interest from Americans. One of his detractors, William Cleaver Wilkinson, a preacher and poetry professor, expressed the impact of Arnold’s work very nicely:

The publication of Mr. Arnold’s work happened to coincide in time with a singular development, both in American and in Europe, of popular curiosity concerning Buddhism. The “Light of Asia” was well adapted to this transient whim of Occidental taste. So I account, in part, for the instantaneous American popularity of the poem. At any rate, Mr. Arnold has, no doubt, whether by merit or by fortune, been, beyond any other writer, the means of widening the American audience prepared to entertain with favor the pretensions of Buddha and his teachings.

Interestingly, while the memorial he commissioned is such an outstanding symbol of the emerging popularity of Buddhism in this period, Adams never “took refuge” or formally converted in contrast to many well-known contemporaries such as William Sturgis Bigelow, Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky.





  1. says

    This is very curious. What evidence suggests the figure is based on Kannon? Appearance alone is not suggestive of anything remotely Kannon-esque.

    • Edward O'Reilly says

      True. Saint-Gaudens had multiple influences so it’s definitely a Western interpretation and hardly noticeable as a Kannon, but there is documentary evidence showing that the Kannon was an inspiration for the figure. Among other places, it’s referenced in Joyce Schiller’s dissertation Artistic collaboration of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White which has a pretty extensive discussion of the memorial.


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