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.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cemetery Surprises in the Athenaeum

It’s a bit unusual for me to be surprised - I’m usually the surpriser. In my fifteen years of cemetery travel, I’ve seen a lot of death-related things, so I’m usually ready for the shocker when it is delivered. However, I was taken aback recently when a strange woman revealed something to me.

It was at an art opening reception at the Philadelphia Athenaeum (more on the Athenaeum later). I was holding my four-year-old daughter near the display case which houses Napoleon’s death mask (see photo above - his head was larger than I expected) when this woman next to us struck up a conversation. I was wearing my “artist” name tag so she asked which work on display was mine. When I told her there were two photographs, one made in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery and the other in Woodlands Cemetery, the floodgates just burst forth. She had many cemetery stories of her own, but strangely led off with this comment: “You know how when you stick your hand through the door grate of a mausoleum, it feels colder inside than out?

I don’t know that I would open a conversation with a complete stranger with a line like that, but I was amused. A few other unusual things happened in relation to that Athenaeum exhibit. Before I continue, I should explain what exactly is an “athenaeum.” It’s a library of sorts, a private repository for documentation and historical artifacts. Most major cities in the U.S. have them. The Philadelphia Athenaeum was one of the city’s early libraries (established 1814), predating the massive Philadelphia Free Library which was not established until 1894. Ben Franklin actually originated the idea of subscription libraries in 1731 when he formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. Wikipedia and the Philadelphia Athenaeum’s own website describe it as:

“a special collections library and museum founded in 1814 to collect materials "connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge" for public benefit. The Athenaeum's collections include architecture and interior design history, particularly for the period 1800 to 1945. The institution focuses on the history of American architecture and building technology, and houses architectural archives of 180,000 drawings, over 350,000 photographs, and manuscript holdings of about 1,000 American architects.”

Now, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that such a place houses cemetery-related relics, books, prints, etc. That was my first question to the extremely helpful Circulation Librarian during my first visit. Now, don’t get the mistaken impression that I knew exactly what I was looking for. After my two photographs were juried into the show, I simply stopped by to see the exhibit space at the Athenaeum before the exhibit opened. Honestly, I had no idea what an Athenaeum even was. This was weird because I have worked four blocks away from it for the past thirty years!

Page from the Monumental Bronze Company 1882 catalog of grave markers

Basically, the Philadelphia Athenaeum is one of the few remaining “pay” libraries in the United States. They have some basic fare, popular reading, and a most impressive Renaissance Revival reading room. However, they also have a massive collection of historic and architectural books, documents, portfolios, and trade journals the likes of which I never knew existed. I was actually able to page through an original copy of the (view the pages online here) 1882 catalog for the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut (one of two manufacturers of zinc, or “white bronze” grave markers)! In addition to the Monumental Bronze catalog, they have Sleeping Beauty.



Not the Disney Sleeping Beauty, but the book by Stanley Burns, MD. The first and only time I ever saw this book (and only but briefly thumbed through its deeply disturbing reproductions of nineteenth century postmortem photographs) was in Asbury Park, New Jersey’s Paranormal Books and Curiosities shop. This oversized, coffee table book was $300, new. A steal at the time, in 2007; now they're $300 used, and $700 for a collectible, i.e., an autographed copy, as shown above. Its a coffee table book in the sense that you would never leave it on your coffee table for anyone to see. I was even reluctant to return to the Athenaeum to browse through its pages; I almost felt like requesting a small dark private room in which to do so.

Paging through the book, "Sleeping Beauty"
Here’s a link to the book Sleeping Beauty on Amazon.com (you’ll notice there’s no “look inside!” link on the site, to view sample pages.)

It turns out that the Athenaeum has many, many cemetery-related books, or rather, “sepulchral” materials. “Sepulchral,” the librarian told me, is the official library designation search term for such things. And, it turns out, if you search the Internet with that word, you turn up different information than if you search on terms like, “cemetery,” “monuments,” “grave stones,” or “graveyards.” Very useful information for one such as myself.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, print by John Notman, 1847
As I mentioned earlier, The Philadelphia Athenaeum was established in 1814. So what, pray tell, has it been doing with itself for these past two hundred years? And why have so few people heard of it, so few enthralled by its hidden wonders? Turns out the organization was a rather closed society until 2007 when a new director took over. Since then, the Philadelphia Athenaeum has been much more open and welcoming to the public and is totally worth a visit. Where else will you find a vintage brass inkwell formed into the shape of Napoleon’s burial crypt?

Athenaeum exhibit image, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia by Ed Snyder

To celebrate its Two Hundredth Anniversary (in 2014), the Athenaeum decided to host an art exhibition, featuring renditions of historic buildings and sites around Philadelphia. I was fortunate to have two of my photographs juried into the show. One of them, incidentally, was an image I made in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery (which won third place in the exhibition, see above). Laurel Hill was designed in 1836 by the same man who designed the Athenaeum building in 1845 - Scottish architect John Notman (1810-1865). Laurel Hill was the nation’s second rural garden cemetery (Mount Auburn in Cambridge Massachusetts was the first).

"Woodlands," by Ed Snyder
Here is the second of my two photographs which were juried into the “PhiladelphiaAthenaeum: 200th Anniversary Art Exhibition." The exhibit features the work of local artists portraying Philadelphia’s rich collection of historical places. This image was made during a heavy snowfall at Philadelphia's Woodlands Cemetery. If you plan to visit the Athenaeum, the exhibit (which ends August 8, 2014) features about sixty truly delightful images in various media (the gallery is the first room on the right as you enter the building). Enjoy the Philadelphia Athenaeum's other offerings as well - it may hold as many surprises for you as it did for me.

For a good introduction of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, this article from Philly.com describes how old world, yet cutting-edge it is!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fourth of July at Christ Church Burial Ground

Benjamin Franklin's grave, Christ Church Burial Ground
For the Fourth of July, I thought it might be appropriate to “Welcome America” to Christ Church Burial Ground, in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. If you’re here to visit, you almost cannot help stumbling upon this old (and I mean OLD, established 1719), brick-walled cemetery across from the U.S. Mint (Fifth and Arch Streets). It’s but a stone’s throw from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Ironwork sign over main gate

It is one of the nation’s few surviving Colonial and Revolutionary War-era burial grounds, and right in the midst of the tourist district. While I’m sure this cemetery has many a first-class tale to tell, I’m approaching it from the tourist’s perspective. This is where Ben Franklin’s grave is, and on it visitors toss pennies (“A penny saved is a penny earned”). But there’s a lot more to Christ Church Burial Ground than that. For one thing, you have to pay to get in! Three dollars! If you arrive at the right times, however, you may hit one of the guided tours.

One of the odd and quirky things about Franklin’s grave is his self-penned epitaph, which is engraved on a bronze plaque near the grave (you can only see it from the inside of the cemetery):


“The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer;
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.”

While Christ Church Burial Ground is the only cemetery I know of that charges an admission fee, don’t hold it against the city (there are certainly worse things you can rant about, such as the Parking Authority). The City of Philadelphia does not own Christ Church Burial Ground – it is owned and operated by Christ Church, which is a few blocks away at Second and Market Streets. The money goes to the upkeep of BOTH cemeteries – the older one surrounding the church (which was established in 1695). The one near the mint was opened in 1719 as an expansion of the churchyard cemetery “on the outskirts of town.” Interesting to note that Philadelphia only stretched from the Delaware River to Sixth Street at that time!

Weathered marble headstones at Christ Church Burial Ground
Christ Church Burial Ground is small (only two acres), but is a charming cemetery. Its ground holds many statesmen and other luminaries such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and several signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is fascinating to watch people from the inside gather outside the fence to peer at Franklin’s grave. While the cemetery is surrounded by a high brick wall, Franklin’s grave can be seen for free (even when the cemetery is closed), thanks to his descendants. Back in 1858, they requested that part of the wall be removed so people could view the grave (this is on Arch Street, near the corner of Fifth).

Bronze plaques help identify badly worn stones

The cemetery is gated and locked outside visiting hours (11:30 am – 3:30 pm). During visiting hours, a stand is set up at the entrance with many books for sale, including a reprint of the book compiled in 1864 by the warden of Christ Church, Edward Lyon Clark, “of all the inscriptions that were still visible on the fading soft marble markers.”


If you’re in the historic area, the burial ground is a solid and tangible piece of our nation’s history, and should be visited. An historian friend of mine once said that if Philadelphia's historical attractions are not within six blocks of the Liberty Bell, tourists will not visit them. Therefore, no one visits Fort Mifflin (near the International Airport) or Betsy Ross' grave (Mount Moriah Cemetery). Christ Church Burial Ground, however, is not only convenient - its the real deal. It isn't fictional history like "Thomas Jefferson's house" or "Betsy Ross' house." The clip-clop of hooves from horse-drawn carriages moving along Fifth Street help to conjure a mental image of how this young nation may have seemed centuries ago. Just close your eyes, stand in the graveyard, and listen.

References and Further Reading:
Welcome America website
The Graves of Christ Church Burial Ground

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Summer Shore Cemeteries

Ah, the Jersey shore in summer! I had my family at Long Beach Island for five days in mid-June and the weather was glorious. Beach, sun, pool, everything was perfect (except for the ticket I got for not wearing my seat belt) – the only thing missing was a trip to a graveyard!

I’m sure I’m one of a select few people who think of such things while on vacation. To make it easier on my wife and four-year-old daughter, I usually head out early before they wake up. So I planned a sunrise trip up the island and over to the mainland to hit the Staffordville Cemetery near Tuckerton (across the bay from LBI).


I’ve photographed a few cemeteries in this area but had never been to Staffordville Cemetery. Other than its simple existence on a map, I could find nothing about it on the Internet. So I made the trip on a Monday morning, shortly after sunrise. Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean can be breathtaking, but of course, I missed it. Got to the beach at 6 a.m. and sunrise must have been 5:30. So I jumped into my wife’s Toyota RAV4 and headed north up the island. Cops all over the place here trying to nab speeders and folks not wearing seatbelts, so I really had to crawl the five miles or so to the causeway to Manahawkin.

Manahawkin, New Jersey coastline at dawn
The ride was peaceful, not many people about yet. After crossing onto the mainland, Manahawkin, New Jersey is the first major town you get to. If you head north or south on Route 9, there is a cemetery within a half mile either way of the intersection. I’ve been to both in the past, and they are worth the visit: Manahawkin Baptist Cemetery (north) and Greenwood Cemetery (south). Since I was driving past Greenwood, I figured I might stop there on the way back if I had time. Staffordville was about two miles south of here.

I was on the lookout for “Cemetery Road,” as the Staffordville Cemetery appeared (on the map) to be off Route 9 down this road a few blocks. Found the street sign with no problem, though it was almost hidden by all the other signs around it. I drove down the quiet road alongside a trailer park and saw the cemetery at the end. Very unassuming little place. As my grandmother might have said, “it was a small, sad little graveyard.”


This is the pine barrens, as they call it – pine trees and sand. A cemetery sign made out of timber, no gate or fence. One large marble monument to Rev. Samuel Parker’s wife, the rest regular smaller stones. A fenced-in family plot, veterans markers, flags, weather-worn lawn and garden statues, a penny on a headstone. Someone had placed a few stone fragments together in the sand to spell out the words “FATHER HE.”


The graveyard was only about 150 feet deep and 200 feet wide, clean, no trash, no graffiti. Some old Christmas decorations here and there. Old grave markers from the mid-1800s to a few newish ones, including a Vietnam Vet who died in 2006. Some old sea shells adorned a few of the graves. Weird, yellowish-green plant life covered most of the sand.

I began to wonder how many thousands of these small graveyards must exist, and how many thousands of people drive past them without a second thought. These graveyards house tiny memorials to hundreds of thousands of individual lives that have passed. The lives spent in Staffordville, perhaps, may have been spent fishing, farming, sailing – even being a reverend’s wife in the 1850’s. What must that have been like, I wonder, being a reverend’s wife back then?

On my way back to LBI, I did spend some time in Greenwood, a larger and fancier burial ground. The traffic picked up a bit of volume by then, mostly mainlanders going to work Monday morning in Manahawkin or to LBI to work the tourist trade. I would be following them soon, headed back to life after spending a bit of time here with death. These regular drivers probably all know where Greenwood is because of its large wrought iron sign. By the same token, most of them are probably unaware of the existence of the smaller, Staffordville Cemetery. Out of sight, out of mind. Which is why it seems so important to me to hunt down these small, hidden cemeteries. They exist, after all, to honor - and help us remember - the dead.

 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Postmortem Group Photo

Though I’ve seen such images as this over the years, the group postmortem photograph is rather unusual. More typically one sees a simple portrait of the deceased, or at most, the deceased surrounded by family members. Also, this particular image is special since I actually own it. Bought it, framed in a vintage gold-tone metal frame (see photo below), at the Punk Rock Flea Market in Philadelphia, June 7, 2014.

This is my first postmortem photograph. Maybe it’s the start of a new obsession, but I doubt it. The main problem with collecting such work is its relative scarcity, and therefore, it’s prohibitive price. The retail value of this mourning art collectible is probably $250. I paid $20. While I have friends who attend estate sales of funeral homes and have greater access to such ephemera, the occasional flea market find is about all I’m capable of.

I originally posted the images you see here on Facebook, proclaiming, with no great authority, that the photograph was from the late 1800s. I only said this because postmortem photography was wildly popular in the Victorian era (1837-1901), and all the people in the photo are dressed in old-style clothing. An astute reader quickly pointed out that the clothes put the image in the 1910s.

The other hint regarding its age that should have jumped out at me is that large, matted, paper photographs were not available until after 1900. Between 1840 and 1900, metal plate (Daguerrotype) and glass plate (ambrotype) images were for the most part the only type of photographic images created for the consumer (the average person did not own a camera). While paper prints were available after 1851, the “cabinet card” (4 x 5 inch photograph pasted on a slightly larger card) was the most popular photographic medium up to about 1900. The photograph I purchased measures 8x10 inches. Therefore, it must have been made after 1900.

By 1910, cameras were becoming quite common and consumers began taking their own photographs. The only way professional portrait photographers could remain in the postmortem business was to produce “large elaborately designed mats for memorial images to be framed and displayed”  (according to Stanley B. Burns, M.D., in his book, Sleeping Beauty III – Memorial Photography, The Children). So my image was probably made around this time. The photograph is mounted on an 11x14 inch mat on which is embossed “E. Stern, Northampton, PA,” presumably a photographic studio in Northampton, Pennsylvania (which is in southeast PA).


I’m curious as to whether the 13x17 inch metal frame dates back to the same era. I'm also curious as to where I might display this dark treasure. A friend of mine who I ran into at the Punk Rock Flea Market saw me on the street a few days later and asked if I had hung it in my house. I replied that the only place that my wife would probably allow it would be in the basement behind the water heater.  
 

Replica of mourning ribbon
So back to the vintage photograph at hand. We see the deceased in his coffin (nice touch having the coffin lid propped against the fence at right!), surrounded by family and an honor guard, of sorts. By the look of the crowd, and the building they’re posed before, it appears that the deceased was a member of some fraternal or veterans organization. All the men are wearing mourning ribbons on their lapels, similar to the reproduction of one such item I’ve shown here (the replica ribbon says: "Meade Post 1, GAR, Philadelphia." At top, it says "Honor the Noble Dead"). Possibly they were GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) members or Freemasons. The women and children at center are probably family members of the deceased. The deceased himself is holding an official-looking cap, so perhaps he was a leader of some sort in this organization, or maybe a military veteran.

This extraordinary scene is a rare example of group postmortem photography, a memorialization practice that began to die out (no pun intended) by 1940 in the United States (though it continued to be popular for several more decades in Europe). I am interested in knowing what the building is and what the possible fraternal organization was. So if any reader has some idea, please let me know! I assume that since the photographic studio was in Northampton, Pennsylvania  (in the Lehigh Valley, north of Philadelphia), then the building in the photo was in the same geographic area. The photographer "E. Stern," or his studio in its entirety, was involved in postmortem photography on a regular basis. A quick search on the Internet provides a few examples of postmortem photographs made by the "E. Stern Studio." (Click the links at the end of this blog to view them.)

New Orleans woman attends her funeral social! (ref.)

As an aside, it does seem that contemporary postmortem photography may actually be on the rise in the United States. On June 12, 2014, a woman in New Orleans (photo above) was propped up at a table as the guest of honor at her own going-away party (click link for story). Presumably, guests had their pictures taken with her. On January 31, 2014, a family had their dead boxer son propped up in a mock boxing ring (photo below) and posed with him for photographs (click link for story)


Puerto Rican family poses with dead boxer son (ref.)

Further Reading:
Postmortem photographs made by the "E. Stern studio:"