Buried in Semantics


Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? You might presume to know the answer to this very old and apparently very obvious question. However, you’re likely to be wrong. The question was popularized by the immortal Groucho Marx on his hit quiz show “You Bet Your Life” back in the 50s. He’d asked that of contestants, who were doing poorly, so as to enable them to easily win some money; a consolation prize question, if you will. Of course, the reasonable answer would invariably be “President Grant” (or “Grant”) is buried in Grant’s Tomb; after all, the place has his name on the door. Nevertheless, that’s an incorrect answer…technically, at least.

After his turbulent Presidency, besieged by scandal and corruption (for which, most historians believe, Grant was entirely innocent of), the aged and cancer-stricken former General-in-Chief of the Union Army, moved to New York City with his wife Julia. Touched by the outpouring of support he received from New Yorkers, his last wish was to be buried here.

Designed by the architect John Duncan, the granite and marble tomb stands in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. But like many landmarks that opened with promising fanfare and beauty, Grant’s Tomb gradually became rundown due to neglect. In fact, from the middle to the late 20th century, 9 out of 10 New Yorkers (including myself) didn’t even know where exactly this famous tomb could be found. This may have furthered the prevalence of the “Who’s buried in….?” teaser. However, in 1989, a renewed interest in the American Civil War was helped along by Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary; it also inspired a restoration of Grant’s Tomb.

Now, for all of those who care to know (and especially for those who don’t) just who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, the fact is that no one is buried (below ground) there. Ulysses Grant and his wife are entombed (above ground) in Grant’s Tomb. But the arguable semantics concerning “buried”/”entombed” may keep this question going for yet another 50 years and beyond.