On the northbound side of Route 1 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, just before the road crosses the Raritan River at the Morris Goodkind Bridge, there is a tiny plaza sporting a battered obelisk. To reach this plaza by foot, one must park in the parking lot of the nearby Red Carpet Inn and then walk along a narrow dirt path right at the edge of the highway, as cars whizz past along one of Central Jersey’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. The monument sits on a base of three wide granite steps, which rest atop a cracked and weedy pavement. Broken bottles and other detritus hint that the spot might be an occasional hangout for idlers, but for the most part, the site is completely cut off from all but the most determined foot traffic. If ever this monument was intended as a center for community gathering, the use of the land around it has cut it off from almost all human contact.
But whom was the monument meant to honor? The only inscription left upon the stone is the legend “THEIR BODIES REST,” carved into the granite slab at the base of the obelisk. But above this inscription, it is clear that a bronze plaque originally present on the obelisk has since been removed – a ghost of memory that is present on several of the monument’s faces. What happened to the plaques? Were they removed by authorities for safekeeping as the pace of Route 1 made the monument increasingly inaccessible? Or were they stolen, a casualty of the high prices that can be fetched from selling scrap metal? However they disappeared, the loss of the plaques has created a monument without the ability to remember, a ghost of an intention now out of reach. The obelisk still stands, and by its form it recalls millennia of memorial and civic sites in which this shape pierced the air for some clear purpose. But without words, the stone merely exhorts us to remember – what? THEIR BODIES REST. Whose bodies? The stone no longer can tell.
It gets weirder. Behind the monument, under the shade of trees, is a curved balustrade, and set into the balustrade are four exedrae. An exedra is a semicircular bench often seen as a feature of monuments, outdoor gardens, and other architectural settings. It is a very old form, dating as far back as ancient Greece, where it was considered a suitable site for philosophical conversations. But during the Roman Empire, the exedra became particularly associated with funerary monuments. Placed alongside major thoroughfares, funerary exedrae offered the weary traveler a chance to sit and to take a break from the dusty road. In return for this courtesy, the traveler might take a moment to read the name of the deceased aloud – because in ancient Rome, a part of a man’s spirit remained alive as long as there was someone to speak his name.
But this is an exedra that can no longer function. The weary travelers careen past at speeds too great to notice this site. And more importantly, there are no names to read, no inscriptions to ponder – except, once again, the haunting THEIR BODIES REST. Their bodies rest, but the monument erected to remember them has forgotten their names.
Route 1 is a major thoroughfare, and since moving back to New Jersey, I have passed this monument at high speeds many times, always intending to stop and look for clues to make sense of the site. Yesterday, I was on my way to see a movie at Loews (X-Men: Apocalypse – meh?), and I finally had time to make the trip. After the movie was over, I decided to take some more pictures of the site from the southbound side, and I made another discovery.
Clearly, this monument site spans both sides of the highway. The retaining wall on the southbound side seems to match the obelisk on the northbound side in age, style, and degree of disrepair. The flagpole at the center of the green space marked out by the retaining wall is on nearly the same axis at the monument, and it is clear that no flag has flown on it in many years. But at one time, probably well before Route 1 became the high-speed artery that it is today, this was a unified and carefully planned memory space. Today, however, the significance of the site is lost.
At the moment, I have many more questions than answers about this site. I’ve done some preliminary research online, and what I’ve found so far suggests that the obelisk was a war memorial, erected at about the same time as the Morris Goodkind Bridge (1929). I do not know this for sure, although my discoveries on the southbound side seem to support it. My interest is piqued, and I want to know more about what happened here, and when it happened. But in the meantime, on this Memorial Day weekend, the monument is an all-but-forgotten token of the moment when collective memory fails.