Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lunar Stroll in a Cemetery


On a beautifully clear and mild night in mid-August, I volunteered to help lead a group of photographers through Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Several times each year, the cemetery organizes a “Lunar Stroll,” geared toward photographers who want to do night work by the light of the moon. So I joined three other guides and we split forty people between us for a few hours of night photography, conversation, and instruction.

Ambient light image (Canon Rebel XT)
First off, the moon doesn’t throw much light (as seen at left), so if you plan to use just ambient light, your exposures will be long (half a minute or more, depending on aperture size); tripods are therefore necessary. Also, as I pointed out to one person, contrary to expectations, you cannot actually get a bright moon in the same shot as dimly-lit foreground objects (e.g. headstones) and have everything properly exposed. This requires digital manipulation with a photo-editing program. The differences in brightness of these objects is too great. To expose for the headstones properly, the moon will just be a bright dot. To expose for the moon, your dark foreground objects will be too dark. HDR can provide you with usable results, but they tend to look too cartoony for my tastes. All that said, most people brought flashlights to “paint” the stone monuments with light during the exposure. Here is an example of one of my light painting experiments:

Crypt cover "painted" with light

Blurry Angel
More so than lighting your subject (though this has to do with lighting, indirectly) is the issue of focusing in the dark. Your camera's ability to autofocus depends on its ability to "see" the subject in question. As most digital cameras depend on a well-lit subject on which to focus, focusing in the dark can make night photography quite challenging. It seems that many digitals that people brought with them did not "throw" a quick burst flash out to aid their autofocus systems. Many cameras, like my Canon Rebel XT DSLR, will just "hunt" for a bright spot in the scene on which to lock focus. Mine seldom finds one, so I end up with images like the one at right. The key? Shine a flashlight on the subject and either manually focus or let the camera autofocus, then turn the autofocus off. With the focus locked, the camera will not try to refocus when you make the exposure!

Also, image quality varies with different digital cameras. My Rebel XT  takes very poor night images (even if I use a low ISO like 400). My Olympus Pen micro four-thirds camera, on the other hand, records much better images (an example of which you see below).

Statue "painted" with flashlight
People assume (as did one photographer this evening) that for night photography, you must use the highest ISO (light sensitivity) setting of which your camera is capable. Wrong! An ISO greater than 400 only guarantees that your image will be noisy. Here's another tip: One fellow told me that his photography instructor in school always told his students that you should only shoot in full manual mode so you understand what you're doing. I gently suggested that this is fine for making photographs outdoors on a clear sunny day, but not when you're just learning to shoot at night. Start in "auto" mode just to get an idea of how your camera responds to shooting in the dark.

"Silent Sentry" statue
Folks came from all over the geographic region to attend the Lunar Stroll, to my surprise. Many were from Philadelphia, but others drove from Baltimore, Jersey, and York, PA. Many had been to Laurel Hill before, so it helped that they knew their way around. Some were not even there to make photographs – two people were there ghost-hunting! While most of the crowd was made up of either beginner or experienced photographers, everyone was there to have fun. Plus there is that thrill of being in a graveyard at night – who HASN’T fantasized about this at one time or another? For fifteen dollars, you can do it at Laurel Hill cemetery in the relative safety of a crowd of people (zombies only prey on loners).

So let’s dwell on cemetery safety for a moment. During the pre-tour orientation, our host Emma Stern (Volunteer and Administrative Coordinator for the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery) asked everyone to be careful, stay with their group, and don’t wander off. There are sunken graves to fall into, there are unstable monuments to avoid. Though everyone signed a waiver against holding Laurel Hill responsible for any injury, I felt obligated to announce this to the crowd: “I’ve seen a thousand-pound grave stone fall on a woman. Believe me, you don’t want this to happen to you. Don’t lean on them, don’t climb on them.

Over the two hours we spent guiding people around the cemetery, I helped a few beginners get basic results with their gear (again, start in “auto” mode to see what your camera will produce, then go from there). As an aside, a woman emailed me prior to the Lunar Stroll evening to ask what ISO film she should bring. I said that unless you are an experienced night photographer, film would not be a good choice. With digital, you can immediately see your mistakes and correct for them. With film, not so much.

Self-portrait by author
I managed to make a few photographs myself between tutorials. The image you see above was lit with a standard flashlight during a sixty-second exposure (at f16). I released the shutter, walked in front of the camera, sat on the crypt cover and illuminated my face with the flashlight. I got up, walked behind the camera (which was on a tripod), and bathed the monuments in light, moving the flashlight  all over the objects during the long exposure. The light is relatively dim, so it does not illuminate the distant, dark background to any great extent.The sky looks orange due to ambient light from the city lights and the moon.

L.E.D. light panel (ref.)

I had actually purchased a 4x6 inch L.E.D. light panel for use in night photography (like the one you see at right), but I could not find it in my house when I needed it! My friend Veronika brought one, and I stumbled upon her setup in front of the mausoleum shown above. She had placed her L.E.D. light panel on a step, facing up toward the entrance. The effect was perfect, and I stopped to simply snap a picture! These L.E.D. light panels are great, by the way – relatively inexpensive, with bright, even lighting and incredibly low battery drain.

Image by Connie Snyder
One woman on the tour was looking for experience with night photography in preparation for a planned trip to Norway to photograph the Northern Lights! Having never actually witnessed them myself, I gave her as many pointers as I could. I also brought some props, an idea that I got from seeing people with these on a previous Lunar Stroll (Laurel Hill has been doing these officially since 2012): glow-in-the-dark pendants on a string. Folks were twirling these in a circular motion in front of their cameras during long exposures. However, the ones I purchased at the local Dollar Store all leaked their fluid out before I even opened the packages! I managed to get one necklace that stayed intact so I wore it around my neck so people could find me easily (you can see it around my neck in the photo above with me sitting on the crypt cover). One woman brought another type of prop, a three-foot long plastic skeleton! I like this “selfie” she did with the bony being!

All in all, it was a fun experience, and one that I would highly recommend for all the reasons I’ve pointed out. Check Laurel Hill cemetery's website for upcoming events and other workshops.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brooklyn and Queens Cemetery Tour

Sometime in 2013, I walked into a used book store near my home in Philadelphia. It was a small place, and I was too lazy to look around so I asked the owner if he had any books about cemeteries. His reply surprised me. He said, “Whenever I get a book about cemeteries, I put it in the front window, because I know it will be sold within a week. Books about cemeteries are very popular - for all the right and wrong reasons.

Well, a purchase I made recently was for the right reason – I didn’t have it! There’s a great, quirky used book store in Philly where I’ve found a number of death-related books – it is a music and book store at 2027 Sansom Street, called Long in the Tooth. (I’ve actually thanked the owners for putting all the death books in one place for me – I believe they were amused.) About six months ago, I purchased from them a copy of Silent Cities (by Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo Jose’ Vergara, 1989, Princeton Architectural Press), a wonderfully written and printed large-format color photographic cemetery book. Until I found it on their shelf, I never knew it existed.

Silent Cities (whose full name is Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery) now occupies a prominent spot among the many cemetery books on my own book shelf. One thing I hadn’t expected to find inside were color images of some very elusive monuments I had photographed a decade ago! It solved a puzzle for me that I’d been wrestling with for quite some time.

Image by Krista Baker, cemetery unknown

Back in 2003, my friend Krista Baker and I made a mad, one-day road trip through as many Brooklyn and Queens (New York) cemeteries as we could. We covered about twenty miles of territory from Flatbush to Flushing, basically following Route 278 (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) west. We didn’t spend much time on the highway, though, using paper road maps (remember them?) to navigate from one cemetery to the next through the densely populated commercial and residential neighborhoods. It was a whirlwind tour, and I was shooting film, basically looking for angel statues with which to create artistic, high-contrast black and white images. Luckily, Krista was shooting digital, and more competently documented our tour with her many wonderful color photographs (the photos in this article are hers, with exceptions noted).

Image by Krista Baker, cemetery unknown
I don’t remember much of the trip, and we did not actually write down the names of our stops. In retrospect, this was unfortunate because after I began posting cemetery images on Facebook, I had to ignore most of the images we made on that day as I had no locations with which to identify the statues and monuments! (This was before the advent of digital cameras that could GPS-tag your images!) At the time, I did not even own a digital camera; Krista’s various digitals were my initial foray into that world.

Image by Ed Snyder
After driving from Philadelphia to Staten Island, we began shooting in Brooklyn’s massive Green-Wood Cemetery (478 acres!) and ended at Flushing Cemetery, in Queens, hitting no less than twenty Victorian graveyards along the way. Now these were not small places – several were over a hundred acres! Needless to say, we did not spent much more than an hour at any one stop. The locations of some of the monuments and statues I photographed stuck in my mind, so I have remembered their cemeteries through the years. Most of the locations in which our hundreds of photographs were made, however, have faded from Krista’s and my own memory.

Green-Wood's Gothic Entrance Arch
For whatever reason, I recall the angel on the pedestal (above) being at the entrance to The Evergreens Cemetery, at the border between Brooklyn and Queens. The images of Green-Wood's Gothic arched entrance way were obvious, though our photos of the statuary inside the cemetery are not so easily identified (which is good, I suppose, since photography was not allowed inside in 2003!). I’ve been able to pin down a few more of the image locations such as this view of Manhattan (below) taken from Calvary Cemetery (Woodside section of Queens), the location used in the film, The Godfather, for the funeral of Don Corleone.

Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY (Manhattan skyline in background)

By Ed Snyder
I remember spending quite a bit of time photographing the statue of this crying woman, whose hands hold a bouquet of artificial flowers. I posted it once on Facebook and someone commented that its location is in St. John Cemetery (Middle Village, Queens), permanent home of more actual real mobsters than you can shake a blackjack at, e.g. Lucky Luciano and John Gotti (click link for full list of names).

When Krista and I visited all these places, we were mainly looking for interesting statues and architecture. I don’t think it occurred to either of us that there would be famous, or even infamous people buried in them. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to see Dizzy Gillespie’s grave in Flushing Cemetery or Charles Atlas’ grave at St. John in Queens. Even where the presence of notables was obvious, I don’t recall us being drawn to them. Brooklyn’s massive Green-Wood Cemetery, for instance, where framed photographs of all the famous interred hang on the wall of the office (including Leonard Bernstein and Basquiat, for instance), did not seem to rouse our interest much. We were just enthralled with the sculptures in these magnificent Victorian garden cemeteries.

Image by Krista Baker
Certain things stick out in my memory, like the mile-and-a-half stretch of cemetery clusters as you entered Queens near the Broadway transit junction on Fulton Street. We hit most of these hillside cemeteries, at one point watching a motorcycle funeral in Mt. Hope Cemetery while we were on the other side of the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Mount Lebanon Cemetery. We stopped for dinner in a Cuban sandwich shop somewhere in Glendale.

Image by Krista Baker
There were two monuments that Krista and I spent quite a bit of time photographing - apparently we both found them fascinating. One is this marble sculpture (above) with life-sized figures of Father Time and a female human mourner; the other was this granite monument (at right) to a person who seemed to be a hunter. Truly, two of the most unusual and intricate memorials I have ever seen. The first, heavily adorned with Victorian mourning symbolism, the latter, unusually personal and a tad bizarre. I wanted to know more about them, but the problem was, we had no idea where we had found them! Over the past few years, I posted photos of them on Facebook with requests for info about their cemetery homes, but no one ever responded.

Then, as luck would have it, in 2013 I found the book, Silent Cities. Many of the photographs in the book, oddly, were of the same monuments Krista and I photographed in the New York boroughs! Even more oddly, the two we found most fascinating were in there too! Turns out they are in the SAME cemetery, Lutheran Cemetery in Queens. Finally, I had locations and names of this and some of the other marvelous cemeteries we visited.

From the book, Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery

The authors of Silent Cities, Jackson and Vergara, tell us, “The overwhelming emphasis in American cemeteries is on hopeful images which exclude death and decay.” On page 84, in the chapter, “American Images of Death,” we find a photograph of the very same white marble monument with Father Time with which Krista and I were so enthralled. It incorporates pretty much every bit of mourning art symbolism of the Victorian era – Father Time (or is it the Grim Reaper?), a designated female mourner with palm frond, broken column, the funerary urn, the open book, and the “time flies” winged-hourglass! (Did I miss anything?!) The book tells us it rests on the grave of a Mason in the Lutheran Cemetery in Queens. I remember this place having lots of shade trees and being in a sort of small-town residential location. Perhaps the trees have provided some shelter from the acid rain - there appears to be very little weathering of the marble sculptures. The monument may have also avoided vandals because of its high pedestal.

From the book, Silent Cities
On page 52 of Silent Cities, in the chapter, “German Americans,” we find the image at left. It is easily one of the most remarkable cemetery memorials I’ve yet seen. David Koebler (1848 – 1898) was a hunter, I assume. The monument is large – a magnificently sculpted granite tree trunk with an anchor and lilies (typical Victorian death symbolism), yet highly personalized with the addition of the hunting symbolism. I’d love to know more about Koebler's story, the significance of the rabbit sitting on crossed shotguns, with marble hunting dogs above.  One may assume that Mr. Koebler has indeed gone on to that Happy Hunting Ground.

As I look through the Silent Cities book, I realize that I did not pay attention to most of the amazing non-angelic statues and architecture in these wonderful cemeteries. How did we miss them? As I said earlier, I was at the time shooting mainly angels, and unfortunately bypassed many of these other wonderful cemetery statues and monuments – a mistake I don’t plan to make again.

Please visit some of the cemeteries about which I’ve written. Here are their websites:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Vandals Strike in Wilmington Cemetery

Around mid-summer 2014, I was getting my car fixed at the Saab dealer in Wilmington, Delaware. After the sizable extraction of money from my wallet, I grabbed a burger and a Coke from a nearby fast food emporium. What better place to eat lunch than the nearby cemetery (its not just postal workers and cops who do this, you know). So I drove to Riverview Cemetery about half a mile down the road.

"Abiding faith and hope in a glorious reunion"
On entering the north side off Market Street (which is the newer half of the 1872 cemetery), I was a bit distracted by all the headstones that appeared to be knocked over, off their bases. I drove around to find some shade in which to park, and noted many more knocked-over headstones and small obelisks. Odd. I’d been in here many times before and would have definitely noticed this. Was it because the grass was cut so low that I’m seeing this? I’d been here before where the grass had grown kind of tall. Maybe I just never noticed them?

Doorless crypt
I stopped in the shade of some trees near a crypt which had its door removed; interesting stained glass window at the back. I ate my lunch and just got out of the car to photograph the stained glass when I realized a pickup truck was headed down the road toward me – I was blocking the road. There’s usually no activity at Riverview so it didn’t occur to me to pull off the road.

I moved my car to one side and then got out with my camera, to make it very obvious to the driver what I was doing there. Obviously the crypt had at one time lost its door to thieves so I didn't want anyone to think I was casing it out to steal the stained glass. Much thievery has occurred here over the years - you can tell by the blocked up doorways of the larger mausoleums. The truck stopped and the woman driving it looked at me and I said “Hi.” She asked if she could help me and I just told her I stopped to eat my lunch and take some pictures. I assumed she had some authority here so I wanted her to know that I was not up to no good. She probably assumed this, since I was driving a bright blue turbo Saab convertible – not the vehicle of choice for thieves and vandals.

Blocked up mausoleum
I mentioned to her that it appeared that many headstones had been knocked over. She told me this had only happened the previous week (July 15, 2014) – the work of vandals. Seventy monuments and other grave markers in all had been pushed off their bases. Given that horrible situation, I told her that it was great that she stopped me to see what I was up to. I introduced myself as a Board member of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. in Philadelphia, an organization of which she was well aware. She was the Secretary on the Board of the Friends of Riverview Cemetery.

Cylindrical grave markers displaced from their bases

Security is a major issue when you have limited funds to protect your space. Neither Riverview nor Mount Moriah have intact fencing, gates, or security patrols. Volunteers are left to patrol the grounds when they can. Local police sometimes cruise through, or park for a while. I myself have stopped people at Mount Moriah and asked if I could help them. Usually, they are there for a good reason, but sometimes not. You don’t want to lock the cemetery up and prevent visitors from accessing their loved ones’ graves while you’re keeping out vandals, scofflaws, and ne’er do wells. It is a challenge. After I posted the photograph below (with my blue car in it) on Facebook, someone made the comment, "One day the idiots responsible will go to visit their mother's grave and find it like this. Then they'll know the true cost of their criminality." Couldn't have said it better myself.

We struck up quite a conversation, the two of us there in Riverview, seeing many parallels between the cemeteries and our Friends groups. At some point the woman said, “What are the chances we would run into each other like this?” I replied, “Well, actually the chances are pretty good that two cemetery nerds would be in the same cemetery at the same time.” So I’ll make a few introductions and perhaps the two Friends groups can share some ideas to their mutual benefit. Like they say, everyone you meet knows something that you don’t!

Vandalized headstones at Riverview Cemetery
I had actually written about Riverview Cemetery back in 2012 (click here to read), when I noticed that the place seemed to be having a lot more attention paid to it than I was used to seeing. I’d been coming here since the early 2000s, when I first started having my previous Saabs repaired down the road at Sports Car Service. Weeds used to be waist high, but then new management took over in 2008 and things turned around. The Friends of Riverview Cemetery was actually granted legal ownership of the cemetery and through the hard work of these volunteers, Riverview Cemetery continues to be an active burial site. This is a goal for Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia/Yeadon – to once again have active burials once the ownership situation is resolved.

Riverview Cemetery chapel

It really is quite a nasty blow to Wilmington's Riverview Cemetery to have had all this damage done; the estimated repair cost is about $20,000, i.e., to reset all the stones and monuments. The owners, the Friends group, barely has enough money to cut the grass. I guess one of the useful things I did learn from this travesty is that so many grave markers, by design, merely sit on a stone base, without actually being attached to it. Perhaps modern headstone carvers should make headstones with steel dowels that fit into the base, to secure the stone. I have seen this with older marble headstones.

Anyone with information about the vandalism at Riverview Cemetery, please call the Wilmington police Confidential Tip Line at (302)576-3990.

References and Further Reading:
Riverview Cemetery website
Vandals damage 70 tombstones at cemetery
70 Headstones Toppled At Wilmington Cemetery

Monday, July 28, 2014

Actor’s Order of Friendship

I wasn’t planning to write a blog about this, but there are so many facets to this story, that I thought there might be a little something in it for everyone. A genealogist I know was looking for the familial graves of a nineteenth century theatrical performer, and drove all the way from Michigan to Philadelphia to do some research. She didn’t have much luck. After she returned home, she sent me a copy of a handwritten death certificate that seemed to indicate that a child of the family was buried in a Philadelphia cemetery with the initials “MW.” Since neither of us could think of a Philadelphia area cemetery with those initials, it occurred to us that the handwriting might actually indicate “MM,” or Mount Moriah Cemetery.

I asked our burial records researcher, Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI) secretary Sue Facciolli, if she would look him up. Sure enough, he was not only buried at Mount Moriah (died at age nine, June 28, 1873), but was buried in the “Actor’s Order of Friendship” plot. I offered to look for the grave marker.

Edwin Adams (1834 - 1877)
I had been down this road (figuratively) with Sue about six months before when I was searching for the Victorian actor Edwin Adams’ grave. Literally, her directions led me down an overgrown cemetery road right to Adams grave stone in Section 203. Unfortunately, the stone had fallen and was face down. I wanted to see the inscription which I had read about. The photo below shows the front entrance to the plot where Adams is buried, at the time I located it (2013).


“Actor’s Order of Friendship” plot, prior to clearing, January 2014
I have written previously about Edwin Adams on The Cemetery Traveler in relation to his friend, John McCullough (link at end), a more famous Shakespearean theatrical performer from the same era. McCullough is buried beneath a massive granite monument on the Yeadon (PA) side of Mount Moriah Cemetery while Adams is buried beneath a much mode modest monument on the Philadelphia side. Adams died first (1877) and McCullough was asked to provide an inscription for his good friend. McCullough selected this line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 5:

Edwin Adams' headstone, July 2014

His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.” 

John McCullough's monument
John McCullough's own memorial, incidentally, bears the same quotation (which appears in the photo above). My principal reason for trying to locate Adams’ memorial was to see this Shakespearean inscription reputed to be on his stone. Unfortunately and after much searching, I discovered that the small granite Adams monument had fallen, and was being eaten by the earth. Only about an inch of the stone’s back was visible, meaning that the inscription, if it was indeed there, lied buried face down. How long it had been buried is anyone's guess.

FOMMCI volunteers Bill McDowell and Donna Morelli beginning
excavation of Edwin Adams' headstone

That was in the late fall of 2013. After mentioning Adams’ grave to a few members of the FOMMCI and other volunteers, they took it upon themselves to dig out Edwin Adams’ grave marker and reset it! Mr. Adams was welcomed back to the world by Donna Morelli, Ken Smith, and Bill McDowell in the winter of 2014. They cut down the tree that was impinging on the plot entrance posts and cleared the entrance steps. I think we were all surprised to see this writing on the white marble step:

“Actor’s Order of Friendship”

A portion of the plot was cleared at the time Adams' headstone was unearthed and reset, bringing to light two more headstones in the plot, but the surrounding area was densely wooded and was left alone. Adams’ grave is another in a steadily progressing series of notables being brought to light in Mount Moriah, as Pennsylvania’s largest Victorian-era cemetery continues its renaissance under the direction of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. The Actors' plot, by the way, is in Section 203, which is an area above the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot (see map, bottom center). The FOMMCI have not had a chance to clear 203 yet. If you do visit, bear in mind that the area is quite overgrown. While searching the Actors' plot in July, 2014, I photographed my friend Bob (see photo below) in the general area.

Perhaps some Philadelphia-area thespian group would like to take this on as an historic project? The Actor’s Order of Friendship fraternal organization, after all, was the origin of the Actors' Fund of America, “the nationwide human services organization that helps all professionals in performing arts and entertainment.


"A fraternal order for performers chartered in Philadelphia in 1849, its first lodge was called the Shakespeare Lodge. In 1888 a New York City branch, the Edwin Forrest Lodge, was established by Louis Aldrich, John Drew, and Otis Skinner, among others. While the Philadelphia branch was active in providing comradeship and charity for nearly half a century, the order eventually gave way to the more efficient and richer Actors' Fund of America."

Plot entrance with Edwin Adams' stone in back
So in July, 2014, and I was searching for a grave in the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot for a woman from Michigan. I dragged my friend Bob Reinhardt out here to help me. Well, the search did not go as planned – the weeds were so high I could barely see the top of Adams' grave stone. We wondered where to go from here. Wait until fall and come back to search?  I grabbed a handful of luscious red raspberries that were growing in huge clusters on nearby wild bushes and downed them. Repeated this aberrant behavior a few times. They were much sweeter than your typical raspberry – perhaps they are flavored with traces of arsenic from old embalming chemicals.

I looked down and saw a clear glass goblet filled with (I assume) rain water. Weird. Perfectly clear. In the woods. That’s when a possible solution hit me. Bob and I stopped on the drive through Mount Moriah to chat with FOMMCI treasurer Ken Smith, who was busy weed-whacking and power-mowering through the weeds on the main road near the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot. Maybe at some point the Friends could organize a side trip to the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot on one of the clean-up days?

Mystery goblet
We drove back to where Ken was working and presented the idea. Ken volunteers most days at Mount Moriah cutting weeds and trees, resetting fallen headstones, and helping families find graves of their ancestors (Check the FOMMCI Facebook group page – Ken documents most of his work with photographs on the page). I was rather surprised when Ken responded, “Let’s go do it now!” He will do whatever it takes to help families locate graves.

FOMMCI treasurer Ken Smith, after having cleared Actors' plot (July 2014)

It’s great having such enthusiastic friends, especially when they own chain saws! Ken packed his gear into the back of his pickup truck and sped off up the hill, along the old roads overhung with trees and bushes, up to Section 203. I docked my own car about two sections away so the picker bushes wouldn’t scratch the paint. Bob and I walked toward the sound of Ken’s chain saw and weed whacker. (Click here for a video of Ken in action, as we approached the Actor's plot!)

Praying mantis
By the time we got to the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot, Ken had the entire thing cleared! A cloud of grass clippings and tree bark hung in the air. A lone praying mantis clung to one of the only two headstones (besides Edwin Adams’) in the plot, and neither was the one being sought by the genealogist from Michigan. We measured off the borders of the plot and Ken grabbed an iron prybar. He walked around jabbing it into the ground, in an attempt to locate a buried headstone (which happen a lot, oddly enough, in many old cemeteries). He found nothing.

I may return in the fall after all the foliage has died and look for the elusive grave outside the borders of the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot. Perhaps this nine-year-old boy who died by drowning in the Schuylkill River never had a grave marker, or perhaps someone stole it. Or he was moved. Perhaps his famous father wanted to keep it all private, to avoid publicity. The burial certificate does not even indicate the boy’s real surname, but his middle name! So the stone, if it’s there, may have the boy’s middle and last name reversed. To be continued, I hope, at some point in future ….!

Click to go to the Friends' website
Mount Moriah is one cemetery where, if you hear a chainsaw, you can be assured it is not being wielded by a psychopath. The cemetery is still very much overgrown and forested, so it may look abandoned. This is not the case. While it has no legal owner, the FOMMCI have assumed the responsibility to keep as much of the grass cut and the trash removed as possible. Still, only about 25% of the grounds’ reputed 300 acres can be handled with current resources. The plan is for that to expand.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Black Mariah

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that cemeteries are used to bury the dead. I get caught up in the beauty of the landscaping, the Victorian architecture and statuary, the finery of the flowers and trees, the animals, the serenity (not to mention the genealogy) – all those things the designers of nineteenth century garden cemeteries invented to distract us from the sorrow of death.

This past Saturday, I was on my way to meet some friends for some beers and BBQ. I passed West Laurel Hill Cemetery on Belmont Avenue near the Philadelphia Main Line. I had fifteen minutes to kill so I thought I’d drive around and maybe take some pictures. As I passed the funeral home/office building, I was a bit startled to see a pair of large white horses harnessed to the old funeral coach.


This is a nineteenth-century horse-drawn hearse in perfect condition, a glossy black mariah. The cemetery, or rather the cemetery owners, Bringhurst Funeral Home (owners of West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA), keep this lovely museum piece parked outside under a portico year-round. I’d heard that you can rent it for your funeral procession, but I never saw it in action. Back around 2005, the director of Philadelphia's historic Laurel Hill Cemetery (on Ridge Avenue) found this amazing piece of history at a buggy auction in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He bought it for just one thousand dollars!

Awaiting the funeral procession
The hearse is magnificent, with perfect wood and red velvet interior, bowed glass side windows, and bowed rear doors. The white horses hitched to it today wore white feathery plumes on their heads and black leather harnesses. There was a man in full livery preparing them for a funeral procession. I stopped my car, got out, and asked if I could take some pictures. He said sure. I was really taken by the grandeur of the equestrian trappings, and the light was falling on the carriage in a very flattering manner. I even shot some sepia-toned monochrome images for that antique look.

The horses were not spooked at all as I walked around them, getting a bit close to the action. The casket was not in the hearse. Though I knew that an actual funeral for a deceased person was about to occur, the scene had not yet taken on any seriously grave aspect for me. I asked the attendant a few questions while I took photos, like “How often does the cemetery do this?” He said about six times a year. Since there were a few cars pulling up, I asked when the funeral was to occur. At that point it was 1:15 p.m. He said, “The parents are due to arrive at 1:30.” Gulp.

“The parents?” My heart sank. Possibly this was a funeral for a small child. I did not want a grieving family to see me mooning over the horse-drawn funeral carriage in my shorts and t-shirt, so I didn’t bother getting a video. I thanked the man and went to my car. As I drove away I saw him don his black coat and top hat, then climb up onto the driver’s seat behind the horses. I tried not to think any more about this for the rest of the day.

Further information:
For a video of a British funeral coach in action, click here.