Farewell to Charles Cummings

by Douglas Eldridge
Part-time Executive Director
The Newark Preservation & Landmarks Committee


"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" -- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Charles F. Cummings was laid to rest yesterday in his favorite cemetery after a solemn funeral service that drew 450 mourners to Grace Episcopal Church on a dank day.

People who had worked with Charles at the Newark Public Library and in many historical and preservation groups -- or had just benefited from his vast knowledge of his beloved city -- nearly filled the brownstone Gothic church where he had worshipped for many years.

Traditional hymns and chants in English and Latin echoed through the lofty sanctuary during the formal Requiem Mass, which did not provide for an extended eulogy or individual tributes. His casket was then borne past a color guard at the church entrance, and taken in a long cortege through rain swept streets as the bells of other historic downtown churches tolled slowly.

At Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Charles had served on the board and led many tours, more prayers were offered under a tent, and his body was lowered into a fresh grave surrounded by many monuments from the past 150 years. The observance then concluded at a crowded reception in the Forest Hill home of Liz Del Tufo, one of his closest friends.

Charles died on December 21 after undergoing heart surgery at St. Michael's Hospital, one week after he had been stricken at his Central Ward townhome. He was 68.

After the funeral Dr. Clement A. Price, a fellow historian, commented that he had never seen "such an outpouring of civic affection" for any departed Newarker in all his years in the city.

The cold and heavy rain matched the mood of many of the bereaved. One of them said it seemed like "a perfect English day" -- a reference to Charles's unwavering devotion to Great Britain.

Some wondered if Charles might have been embarrassed by all the attention, but others felt he would have appreciated the sense of history and touches of pageantry marking the occasion.

On Wednesday evening many people, including some who couldn't attend the service, came from near and far to share reminiscences, and to walk quietly past the closed casket at the front of the church.

The service yesterday at Grace Church was led by the rector, Rev. J. Carr Holland, and accompanied by the church's choir of men and boys and its longtime organist, James McGregor. After opening prayers, the first hymn was "O God, Our Help in Ages Past."

During a homily, Father Holland spoke of Charles's many years of service to the public, and to his chosen parish. The priest mentioned Charles's particular appreciation of the hymn tune that had been composed there by an organist in the 1880s and later was adopted as the melody of "America the Beautiful."

In a lighter moment, the preacher said Charles had kept much of Newark's history "in his heart and mind -- and in his basement." Then, drawing on the teachings of Jesus, Father Holland offered reassurances to the congregation that Charles has gone to a better and everlasting life.

Those in the pews included Mayor Sharpe James and other public officials, past and present; the director and staff of the public library, and trustees of the Landmarks Committee -- which Charles helped found in 1973, and on whose board he served since 1979. Also present were some of his closest relatives, cousins who had come from several states. Charles had been born in Puerto Rico while his father was working for the federal government, and he grew up in several states.

En route to the cemetery, those in the procession heard the bells of Newark's two other downtown Episcopal churches, Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral and the House of Prayer. At Mount Pleasant, Father Holland offered concluding prayers as the crowd huddled under the tent. Then the simple wooden casket was lowered slowly into a fresh grave, which was to be covered with a large plate inscribed only with his name and the years of his birth and death.

Afterward, former Newark Councilwoman Marie Villani said she had read some of the names and dates on the monuments around the grave. "Even in death, Charles was trying to teach us something about Newark's history," she observed.

The Newark Public Library is to hold its own tribute to Charles -- who had been assistant director for a long time, and acting director for a period -- on Wednesday, January 18, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Before his final illness Charles had set up the Robert Treat Endowment Fund, to support projects and purchases for the local reference division. Donations in his memory can be sent to the Newark Public Library at 5 Washington St., Newark, NJ 07102 (or P.O. Box 630, Newark, NJ 07101-0630).

The Landmarks Committee and other groups will be discussing how best to keep alive and pay tribute to the memory of Charles Cummings. (Suggestions can be sent to me or our trustees at any time.)


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