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John Carlyle: Still Dead

Old Town house museum tackles the macabre with its annual exhibit of funerary.

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This plate from the 1820s shows mourners gathered in a graveyard.

Very few records exist to document the 1780 death of John Carlyle, a prominent member of Alexandria’s founding generation and the owner of a house that’s now a popular museum on North Fairfax Street. There is his will, of course, outlining his desire to be buried next to his first wife in the Old Presbyterian Meeting House cemetery. And then there’s the probate inventory of his estate.

Beyond that, it’s just a guess.

But curator Jim Bartlinski has some pretty educated guesses, which he has assembled for the annual macabre celebration of mortality known as "Death at the Carlyle House." For example, the inventory lists medical lancets. So it’s a pretty good idea that Carlyle’s final hours included bleeding — the 18th century cure-all for just about any ailment. Other than that, Bartlinski has to rely on typical practices of the era — like the diamond-shaped hatchment over the front door that includes family crests and the black draping over the mirrors.

"People at this time thought of mirrors as a portal to another world, and they wanted to make sure that the soul was protected when it was considered to be at its most vulnerable state," said Bartlinski, who created "Death at the Carlyle House" three years ago. "So we put black drapes over all the mirrors in the house, and white draping over the mirror in the bedroom."

<b>IN APRIL</b> of 1780, Carlyle wrote out his last will and testament. At the age of 60, he had recently resigned his position from the Alexandria Board of Trustees, and it’s likely that he had become very ill by this point. His will provided handsomely for his son George William, his daughter Sally, his grandchildren, his cousin Charles Little and for the Presbyterian poor. He died that September, and was buried as he requested "under the Tombstone in the enclosed Ground in the Presbyterian Yard near where my first wife and Children are intered."

Visitors to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House can visit John Carlyle’s grave in the cemetery behind the house, where he was buried next to Sarah Fairfax. She was his first wife scion to the leading family of Fairfax County. Carlyle’s second wife, Sybil West Carlyle, is not buried at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, and her final resting place is somewhat of a mystery. A 2003 report conducted by the Hoffman Company concluded it was likely that she was buried in the West family tomb that was uncovered to build the AMC movie theater.

"I think there’s a good chance that she was buried there, given the date range from the skeletons," said City Archeologist Pam Cressey. "When people remarry, they are often buried with their first spouse — even today."

<b>CHANGING IDEAS</b> of death are a central feature of "Death at the Carlyle House," and the upstairs passage features several artifacts that tell an evolving story of bereavement. One of the most unusual items on display is an 1820s plate that features a scene at which mourners have gathered in a cemetery. Bartlinski said the broken dish was found behind a bank building at the corner of Fairfax and Cameron streets, which would be adjacent to the Carlyle House. He said he sent an image of the 19th-century plate to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London several years ago, and they had never seen anything like it.

"This plate is quite unusual because usually plates like this feature romantic scenes or natural landscapes or architectural designs," said Bartlinski. "It’s probably something that was used to serve food on during a funeral gathering."

The exhibit will also feature Victorian era jewelry crafted from the hair of a deceased loved one. Earrings, bracelets and pendants became ways to keep their departed close even when they weren’t around anymore. Family members would shave eyebrows and send clippings to a craftsman, who would incorporate the remains into a piece of artwork — using them as leaves on a tree, for example.

"The Enlightenment was a time when people’s view of death was changing," said Bartlinski. "But people were still holding on to the old superstitions, which is why we cover the mirrors."