Years ago, when I took the exam to become licensed in Washington, DC as a tour guide, I was struck by one of the questions (actually, by many of the questions, but that’s a topic for another time). This particular section was photo identification, where you saw a picture of a landmark and answered a series of questions about it. Peering into the thrice photocopied test, I made out what was a blurred but yet still recognizable Lincoln Memorial. Among the other questions I had to answer: “Who is buried here?”
Now, that has puzzled me to this day. Was it a trick question, designed to tease out guide’s credibility for urban legends? Or did, honest to God, a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs employee think that Lincoln was actually buried here?
If so, he or she must be in good company. I only get the question sporadically, but this must have been popular at some time, as it litters message boards throughout the Internet. Is Abraham Lincoln buried in the Lincoln Memorial? Or, more broadly, was the Memorial designed to someday be a tomb for Lincoln and foiled at the last minute?
The answer to the first in an unambiguous no, and to the second is almost certainly not. We’ll start off once again by looking at what the Park Service has to say about it in their call in guide and on their site:
Let us start with one of the more understandable myths about the memorial. Is Abraham Lincoln buried underneath, or entombed within, the stone structure? Given the purpose and design of the memorial, that is not an unreasonable assumption. However, after his death in 1865, Lincoln’s body was buried in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. His memorial construction was begun in 1914 with no plans to move his body.
For a change, I think the Park Service is being charitable. I don’t really understand this myth. This is a simple factual assertion. Lincoln is clearly not buried here, and unlike, say Lincoln’s hands or the four score and seven steps to the Memorial, there is no ambiguity here. Either he was buried here or not. There’s nothing to interpret.
In fact, I’d go so far to say this one barely even qualifies as an urban legend. I often get folks that ask me if the Capitol is the White House. That doesn’t make it an urban legend, that makes it a mistake, to be quietly corrected and moved past. Likewise, while it might not be surprising that folks might think Lincoln is buried here, it’s easy to verify that he is, in fact, buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.
It’s possible people got the idea of Lincoln being buried here because the area underneath was once possible to visit. Many visitors to Washington remember taking Park Service led tours of the underground area, replete with stories of stalactites and stalagmites and wooden bridges. However, this is simply the void area under the Memorial and was never intended to house the President’s remains. Interestingly enough, there was discussion of interring President Lincoln at the other end of the Mall, in the Crypt built into the Capitol for General Washington (although never used). This proposal came to naught, an Lincoln was taken back to Illinois at the family’s request (and the Illinois Congressional delegation’s insistence).
So is it possible that they planned to move him back when this shiny new Memorial was built? Doubtful (which is a polite way of saying no freaking way). Let’s for the moment disregard the complete lack of any documentary evidence of a proposed re-burial and instead focus on Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert who was still alive when the Memorial was dedicated. It would have been extremely unlikely that anyone would even propose moving his father to him. After all, he had ordered his father’s remains to be encased in a steel cage and buried under ten feet of concrete back in 1901. I just don’t see him getting a jackhammer out and digging up his dad.