Friday, March 27, 2015

Park Day 2015 at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Park Day 2015
March 28, 2015 is America’s  national “Park Day,” sponsored by the Civil War Trust. For the fourth year in a row, the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. is celebrating with a special event at Mount Moriah Cemetery (half of which is in Philadelphia, half in Yeadon, PA.). Tours and cleanup activities are planned from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., but feel free to join the crowd and just walk around and explore the cemetery’s hundreds of acres of beauty.

About Park Day 
"Since 1996, the Civil War Trust has sponsored Park Day, an annual hands-on preservation event to help Civil War — and now Revolutionary War — battlefields and historic sites take on maintenance projects large and small. Activities are chosen by each participating site to meet their own particular needs and can range from raking leaves and hauling trash to painting signs and trail buildings." (ref.)
If you have never been to Mount Moriah, this is a great opportunity to see the site (and the sights) in this massive sacred place that figures so prominently in local and national history. Entry will be via the front gate at 6201 Kingsessing Avenue.  

The recently cleared Circle of Saint John, Mount Moriah Cemetery

Clearing area around Betsy Ross' grave
If it has been a year or more since your last visit to Mount Moriah, you will be amazed at the newly cleared areas (of weeds and other forestation). Literally thousands of volunteers have helped clear such sections as the (Masonic) Circle of Saint John, the area behind the 1855 brownstone gatehouse, and many large plots on the Yeadon side of the cemetery. One of our tours, scheduled for 1 p.m., “Circle of Saint John Forgotten Heroes,” will focus on this dramatic area of the cemetery and its occupants (the grave of Betsy Ross is near the circle – you can’t miss the flagpole!)

While Park Day is mainly about saving historic Civil War battlefields, it also encompasses related historic sites. The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. is honoring the hundreds of Civil War soldiers and sailors interred in its ground. One of our Park Day tours, in fact, will be “African American Sailors of the Civil War” which will be held in the Naval Asylum plot on the Yeadon side of the cemetery (1 p.m.).

Volunteers transcribing headstone information in the Naval Asylum plot

So what do I mean by “Naval Asylum?” From The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website:
"Philadelphia was an important hub for the transportation of supplies and troops from the East Coast to the front lines during the Civil War. In addition to arsenals, supply depots and navy yards, Philadelphia also had numerous military hospitals, as well as the U.S. Naval Home—a hospital and residential care facility for sick and disabled sailors.

During the war, the Federal Government acquired a 10 acre parcel of land on the Yeadon Borough side of the Mount Moriah Cemetery as a burial ground for navy and marine personnel. Originally known as the Naval Asylum, the burial plot was intended for soldiers who died in military hospitals or military rest homes. It also houses the remains of those veterans who were disinterred from the grounds of the U.S. Naval Home."

The 21 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients interred in the Naval Asylum, incidentally, may be the most in any cemetery in the country (excluding Arlington National Cemetery), according to one military expert (ref.). Even if you don’t attend the Naval Asylum tour, a peaceful, contemplative walk through this respectful area is quite sobering  – “In Memory of Our Dead Comrades” as the inscription states on one of Mount Moriah’s G.A.R. monuments.

Naval Asylum plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Yeadon, PA side

How to Pay Your Respects:
As stated in the 2015 Civil War Trust Park Day press release:
"You can give back to your country, get out of the house, and honor your heritage all at once by joining the Civil War Trust on Saturday, March 28, for Park Day 2015. Park Day is an annual hands-on preservation event to help maintain Civil War — and now Revolutionary War — battlefields and historic sites across the nation."

Our main work area on March 28 (rain date April 11), should you choose to help out with the cleanup, will be Section 27 on the Philadelphia side of Mount Moriah. Mary A. Brady, a celebrated volunteer Civil War nurse is interred here in her family plot.

Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC) determined Mount Moriah to be eligible for National Register

Join us for the Friends’ 4th annual Park Day event sponsored by the Civil War Trust and The History Channel. Bring your family and your favorite lawn tools with you to help preserve history.

Location: Philadelphia side

Weather: We’re expecting some cloudy, chilly spring weather; the ground is likely to be wet and marshy. Please wear rain boots or other waterproof boots!

Everyone is welcome to attend a restoration event and help us work to reclaim the cemetery one section at a time. No special skills are needed – just come prepared to work!

We generally have basic hand tools available, such as loppers and clippers, but you are welcome to bring your own tools. Gas powered weed whackers are always welcome, too.

We recommend long pants, sturdy shoes or boots, a hat for sunny days, sunscreen, and bug spray.

Volunteers during a Cleanup Day at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Mount Moriah Location: 6201 Kingsessing Avenue, Philadelphia, PA  19142
(Click here for map.)
Date: March 28, 2015
Rain Date: April 11, 2015
Watch the dramatic video, "Mount Moriah Documentary," by Jonathan Barmby and David Mielcarek of Elevate Cinema
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Feeling Mortal

The lyrics to Kris Kristofferson's song, Feeling Mortal
(from the KK Records 2013 album Feeling Mortal).
               
I thought of this song as I recently installed some temporary graffiti on a snow-covered grave marker. I was, in fact, "wide awake and feeling mortal."

"Wide awake and feeling mortal
At this moment in the dream
That old man there in the mirror
And my shaky self-esteem

Here today and gone tomorrow
That’s the way it’s got to be
With an empty blue horizon
For as far as I can see

God Almighty here I am
Am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
Like the sun into the sea
And I thank my lucky stars
From here to eternity
For the artist that you are
And the man you made of me

Pretty speeches still unspoken
Perfect circles in the sand
Rules and promises I’ve broken
That I still don’t understand

Soon or later I’ll be leaving
I’m a winner either way
For the laughter and the loving
That I’m living with today

God Almighty here I am
Am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
Like the sun into the sea
And I thank my lucky stars
From here to eternity
For the artist that you are
And the man you made of me

Wide awake and feeling mortal"

Read about the album on the Kris Kristofferson website.
YouTube link to a live performance of the song.
Click to buy the album from Amazon:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mount Moriah Cemetery - A Winter Wonderland

For most people, a walk through a winter wonderland would not involve an old graveyard. Luckily for you, I’m not most people. When it snowed ten inches in Philadelphia in early March, the first place I wanted to see under a blanket of snowy-white frosting was Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Straddling Philadelphia and Delaware counties in the cities of Yeadon and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mount Moriah is a previously neglected and abandoned, several-hundred acre Victorian-era cemetery. It has been recently adopted by the volunteer group Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. and is presently being maintained and restored through the herculean effort of thousands of volunteers. The legal entity Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation has even more recently (2014) been appointed the legal responsible party for business operations. (You can read more about this at the link at the end, but for now, back to the snow. 

Yeadon, PA side of Mount Moriah Cemetery
At ten inches deep, walking through the cemetery was not a walk in the park (although in Victorian times, cemeteries were the only parks available to the public!). This was going to be a challenge, as the roads are not plowed and walkways are not shoveled. (Although the property is now the legal responsibility of the court-appointed and newly-formed
Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation, funds have yet to be identified for ongoing routine maintenance, security, and regular staffing.) In order to not exhaust myself and my limited time, I had to decide what area of the cemetery would provide me with the most picturesque results with the least amount of hiking. I chose the Yeadon side, as it has a circle of grand old mausoleums up on a hill.  

Mausoleum rooftop beyond the snow

I trudged through the snow in the torrential sunshine (though it was only about twenty-three degrees), thinking how much the landscape reminded me of Aspen, Colorado in the winter. With light puffy snow on all the tree branches, it all looked bucolic indeed. My super literary abilities failed me and I was rendered speechless (but fear not – I have retained my acerbic wit and power to forget peoples’ names!). The beauty of this place created for me as spiritual an experience as may indeed be possible at this late date. 

The sky was blue and cloud-free. On a day like this, attention is riveted to detail: detail as audacious as the bright sun playing on the glistening ice that hangs from the roofs of the grand Victorian mausoleums; detail as subtle as the swirls made by this flag as the breeze blew it around. I spent about an hour climbing over the drifts and buried granite coping behind the mausoleums, making photographs of the brilliant decay. Yes, the mausoleums are in this condition because of years of neglect and vandalism. Graffiti defaces a few, while all have their doors and windows bricked up. However, like most other things, snow tends to cover up a multitude of sins and makes everything look clean and pure. I decided to walk around the hill behind the mausolea to one of my favorite spots.


There were some people tracks heading toward the area in which I was interested, so perhaps others recently had the same idea. The snow was a nuisance to walk through, but I’d much rather be walking through it making photographs than shoveling it – which is what I had been doing recently. This was a welcome respite from the last two dreary days during which schools were closed due to all the snow that fell during a 24-hour period.

Footprints in front of the Maull family plot, Section 141, Mount Moriah Cemetery

The road along the front of the mausolea takes you up the hill to an area replete with elaborate granite monuments, obelisks, and family plots - many of them in the woods. One of my favorite sites (and sights) at Mount Moriah is the Maull family plot. It is relatively easy to get to, as the roadways, though overgrown and grassy (no vehicular access), are perfectly walkable. That said, it is quite off the beaten path and not usually seen by casual visitors. If you read my blog, you know full well that I am not a casual visitor!

Maull plot after a snow, early March, 2015

The Maull plot is singular in that it has two Japanese maple trees growing in it. Their twisting branches are covered with flaming red and orange leaves in the fall. The scene is made quite picturesque as the leaves frame the headstones and monuments in the plot. In winter, all these shapes, covered with snow, provide a myriad of photographic choices. You just cannot take a bad photograph here – it’s like shooting a supermodel! Well, it is now, anyway. Not quite a supermodel up until recently. In addition to clearing the plot so visitors can have better access, the Friends volunteers have also removed the unsightly graffiti from the back of the plot's large central monument!

Graffiti removed from monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Japanese maple tree
I walked around and finally through the plot, making photos from various vantage points, with different cameras. I was careful to work my way into the plot slowly, to ensure I did not deface the snowscape with my footprints until I exhausted all possibilities before me. I walked out of the plot onto the main road and was a bit startled to see a gentleman walking toward me. He had two cameras around his neck. After hellos and introductions, it turned out that he was none other than local photographer David Huisken, who has posted many of his photos of the Maull plot on Facebook. It was great to meet someone with common interests, even if one is as seemingly bizarre as sharing a “favorite” spot in a cemetery!

I must say, however, that as I left David, I felt a bit guilty that I made all those footprints in the area he came to photograph! He had, however, already made some wonderful images down near Cobbs Creek, which separates the cemetery's Yeadon side from its Philadelphia side. This image below (which David graciously let me publish here) captures the beauty of Mount Moriah with no grave stones in the scene at all - a novel approach! This area along Cobbs Creek Parkway is part of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (at over 9,200 acres, Fairmount Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in the United States).


Cobbs Creek at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia (photo by David Huisken)

I write this a few days after my walk through Mount Moriah. It is fifty degrees and the snow is gone. It has turned to water which will serve to boost plant growth and swell Cobbs Creek. Looking at David Huskein’s wonderful image of the creek and the Philadelphia side of Mount Moriah, you’d hardly guess that he was standing at the mangled rusty guardrail alongside the gritty, grimy parkway when he made his photograph. Snow does cover a multitude of sins and offers us beauty, if just for a short while.

So if you’ve ever wanted to visit the stunning beauty that is Mount Moriah Cemetery, now is the time to go. Winter is great since all the foliage is dead and you can see the monuments and gravestones through the trees. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, you now have much greater access to all parts of the cemetery. However, since only about thirty percent of this hundred-acre wood has been cleared and is regularly maintained, the greater portion of the grounds will quickly be overgrown with greenery come spring. 

References and Further Reading:
The  Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
The  Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Cemetery Photographs of Ansel Adams

The joy of finding things out after the fact, is, in my opinion, more fun than finding things out ahead of time. For instance, if you know about the Grand Canyon beforehand, and then you go to see it, you will probably go, “Wow ... “(while emitting a heavy sigh). On the other hand, if you never knew of its existence, and you stumbled upon it, you would be absolutely stunned.

On a smaller scale, this happens to me a lot. I visit many cemeteries. While I may look up their location beforehand, I generally do no research as to the interesting things inside, so to speak. I prefer to discover them myself.

In certain cases, I get upset when I find that I've missed things, like all the mobsters’ graves at St. John Cemetery in Queens, NY. On the other hand, I was quite tickled when I happened upon, all by my lonesome, U.S. President Grover Cleveland‘s grave marker in New Jersey’s Princeton Cemetery.

I had visited a few small cemeteries in Long Beach, California, in 2013. Sunnyside Cemetery on Signal Hill was singular in that oil derricks surrounded the neighborhood. While doing some research on the cemetery for a blog I wrote about one of its few statues (seeAngel in the House” - The Female Victorian Ideal?), an angel, I happened upon some information related to the only other life-sized statue in the small cemetery – a non-angel. While I found the latter to be less interesting than the former, I did make a few photos of it – some with the derricks in the background, some without. I prefer the photos without the derricks (one of mine is at the beginning of this blog).

"Angel of Sorrows," sunnyside Cemetery, Long Beach, California

It seems that master photographer Ansel Adams preferred the derricks. That is, he made photographs of this statue in 1939 with the derricks in the scene. Well, I cannot say for sure that he did not photograph the statue without the derricks, but this is the one he printed and is part of his vast portfolio. When Adams made these and other photographs in the Los Angeles area in 1939-40, the oil derricks were taller and the trees were shorter.

"Cemetery Statue & Oil Derricks, Long Beach, Calif." - Ansel Adams, 1939
http://www.westongallery.com

Modern oil derricks near Sunnyside Cemetery
While not exactly kismet, it is interesting to me that Adams and I photographed the same statue, seventy-four years apart. Reportedly (ref.), the statue is called "Angel of Sorrows." What I wonder about is why I preferred to photograph just the statue? For me, the relic of someone’s existence should stand alone. For Adams, perhaps the same relic is shown in the context of the bigger picture, amidst the needs and wants of the larger human family,. As a conservationist, perhaps photographing the oil derricks so close to a consecrated burial ground was social commentary. Certainly, this other image (below) that he made for Fortune magazine in 1940 draws even greater attention to that.

"Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach," Ansel Adams, c. 1940 (Ref.)

Adams’ other famous cemetery photograph, by the way, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941" is more pictorial than documentary. The photograph (shown below) is arguably "the best known and most sought after photograph in the field of fine-art photography" (ref.). You may be surprised that other master photographers have also made photographs in cemeteries. Walker Evans photographed St. Michael’s Cemetery in Bethlehem, PA (1935), Paul Strand photographed headstones in Vermont (1944), and even Edward Weston photographed graveyards and funerary chapels in New Orleans (1941).

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 - Ansel Adams (ref.)

Other than Adams’ “Moonrise” photo, none of these other internationally famous photographers became internationally famous for their cemetery photographs. Perhaps they were still cutting their teeth to find their niche. They have since become widely known and have achieved great acclaim for photographing other subjects – landscapes, people, still-lifes. Perhaps their studies of form and shape related to cemetery architecture was part of their formative process of seeing the world. Perhaps it is mine, as well.

I'd like to conclude this post with an explanation of Ansel Adams' Long Beach photographs, which I quote from the Los Angeles Public Library website. You may find this amusing!

"Around 1939, Ansel Adams was commissioned by Fortune magazine to photograph a series of images for an article covering the aviation history of the Los Angeles area. For the project, Adams took 217 photographs showing everyday life, businesses, street scenes, aerospace employees, and a variety of other subjects, but when the article, "City of Angels," appeared in the March 1941 issue, only a few of the images were included. In the early 1960s, approximately 20 years later, Adams rediscovered all of the photographs among papers at his home in Carmel, and sent a letter of inquiry to the Los Angeles Public Library, asking if the institution would be interested in receiving the collection as a donation. In his letter, Adams expressed that, "the weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good" and "if they have no value whatsoever, please dispose of them in the incenerator [sic]." He went on to write that "I would imagine that they represent about $100.00 minimum value." In response, the Los Angeles Public Library gladly accepted the gift of 135 contact prints and 217 negatives, and the staff concluded that a fair value for the collection would be $150.00"

References and Further Reading:


Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil Derricks (Some pretty amazing 1940s-era photographs of Long Beach, CA in this article!)
Christmas in Bethlehem (a Cemetery Traveler blog I wrote which includes information about Walker Evans' cemetery photography)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What a Blanket of Cemetery Snow Can Reveal

There is something very intimate about being in a snow-covered cemetery by yourself. Especially if you’re driving up and down snow-covered hilly roads and can potentially get stuck. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s Hollenback Cemetery in the snow should be part of a driver’s education program. Seriously – a seventeen-year-old passes a driver’s test – big deal – he or she can perform a K-turn. Why is winter driving, driving under the MOST DANGEROUS of conditions, left to on-the-job training?

Hollenback Cemetery Gatehouse on River Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA
But I digress. On this frigid (17 degree) day in early February, I was carefully maneuvering my car up the partially-plowed slope leading to the mausoleums and monuments you see in the photo at top, being careful to keep my drive wheel on the plowed asphalt. One swath of all the roads had been plowed the night before, it seemed, but wind had drifted the snow onto both sides of the swath. Maybe five feet of asphalt was exposed. And they don’t salt cemetery roads.

Hollenback was open this morning – wrought iron gates open, utility vehicles parked near the quaint gatehouse, so if I got stuck, there would almost certainly be people around to laugh. As you’re navigating the uphills and downhills here, the possibility exists that your car can just slide off a steep embankment and get hung up on headstones. Not good. So I was pretty careful. Sometimes, when the drifting snow totally covered the (assumed) roadway, I had to back up and turn around. I spent just an hour there, driving around slowly and taking in the snow-capped beauty. The cemetery overlooks the Susquehanna River, which seemed a mere frozen stream, from this high above its banks.

Within five minutes of arriving, I stopped on a steep uphill grade so I could make this photo (above) of the contemplative old man statue, hoping that I could later regain enough traction to continue my ascent or back down the hill without sliding off! The light was gorgeous, just after sunrise, so that shadows, shapes, and silhouettes were plentiful.

Very rarely did I get out of my car, preferring to make photos from my car’s windows. However, at one point when I saw this small, familiar headless angel (below), I knew my zooms wouldn’t reach. I parked the car in the middle of the road (I mean, who would be fool enough to be driving in a snow-covered cemetery? I didn’t think I’d be blocking traffic) and climbed uphill through fifteen-inch crusty drifts to get to the headstone angel. I’d photographed seriously here at Hollenback a few times, so the angel, as well as a few other sights, were familiar to me. One of my habits is to return to familiar areas in different weather conditions, and snow just makes everything look different.

Headless Angel
Some sights were not familiar. If you’re walking through a graveyard, your line of sight is different from when you are scanning the scenery from a car window. You wouldn’t think a couple feet difference would be so critical, but it often is – almost as critical as walking in the opposite direction. Things just look way different in a cemetery from different directions. In a basic way, mostly all the fronts of headstones, monuments, and statues will be facing the same direction! Why is that? The subject of another blog, I suppose.

The Empty Bed
Snow draws your attention to certain things that may be overlooked otherwise. Like this little marble bed sculpture – no doubt a child’s grave – I would never have noticed it but for the snow and my low car-window vantage point. The entire monument only about a foot square, with the remnant of a flower on its pillow. We think that a blanket of snow would just cover up detail – and it does, to a degree. But unless you’re in a memorial park with all flush-to-the-ground grave markers, a walk (or drive) through a snow-covered cemetery can reward you with some interesting photographs.

Hollenback Cemetery, out my car's side passenger window

I photographed the headless angel on the headstone, but was not terribly thrilled with the result, as this particular grave marker is in the shadow of some large trees. But then – and I would have totally missed this if I had stayed in the car – I noticed the nearby snow-covered crypt with this amazing epitaph carved into its base:

“WITH SORROW
AND HEARTS DISTRESS
WEARIED,
 I FELL ASLEEP.”
 I had seen this crypt a number of times and have never been satisfied with the images I’d made of it. But the snow provided such contrast that the words jumped out. If you’re serious about your art, its easy to get so carried away with the scene you’re photographing that you don’t pay attention to anything else. However, every one of those 17 degrees was beginning to numb the tips of my gloved fingers. Just a couple more images with my other camera before I lose feeling in my fingertips ….


Not paying attention to my surroundings almost killed me some years ago. I was standing on the summit of Aspen Mountain in Colorado, with my camera, photographing the awesome sight of an airplane flying between two mountain peaks – below me! The top of the mountain where I was skiing is 11,242 feet above sea level. I stepped backward to change my angle of view and stepped right off the hard-packed "Snow-Cat" track on which I had been standing! I found myself floundering in a snow drift up to my neck! I grabbed onto the Sno-Cat track and hauled myself up on to terra firma (or actually, just packed snow). You only have to do that once to be forever vigilant in such situations.

A Hollenback mausoleum's forbidding doors

Granted, a jaunt through a cold and snowy cemetery is not as life-threatening as being buried alive, suffocating in a snow drift, but there is the threat of frostbite to the face and fingers. Art is one thing, but to live on the edge while you’re making it brings a natural, well, edginess, to one's work!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Escape from an Abandoned Cemetery

As I pulled my blood-filled gloves off my hands, I contemplated the folly of jumping off the fence rather than climbing down the other side. Also, why I did this before my sprained back had completely healed will forever puzzle historians. It all started with the notion that no one would be around the abandoned cemetery on the day after Christmas. We certainly never expected to get mauled like this.

We got in with little difficulty. A very controlled climb up and over the fence, easy as a ghost leaving a man. Would anyone care that we were in here, with the main gates locked up tight and the high fencing and stone walls thwarting all but the most intrepid and curious? Hard to say. We spent about an hour or so on the grounds, photographing the brilliant decay. Fallen angels and busted mausoleums, everything overgrown with weeds and trees. The invasive and even domesticated foliage had grown so dense and with such aggression, that choking vines had pulled statues off their pedestals. There is beauty in entropy, to be sure, but when actual damage is done, the picture is quite sad.

Nature is simply reclaiming its own, as it does in abandoned amusement parks and the lands once occupied by Olympic Games. However, when a cemetery occupies the land, we consider that land more sacred. These people and their families tried in vain to preserve their memory. I don’t believe that it is enough that the occasional voyeur gets to see their monuments and statuary, to read the inscriptions on the stones in their family plots. But in the quest of making abandoned site photographs, at least some attention is being paid.

Sometimes we need to hold a mirror up to ourselves to realize how much we really don’t care about certain things. Memories forsaken – all these people were once alive, and these monuments were intended to memorialize them, so future generations would remember. We might be that "future" generation.

After exploring much of this once grand Victorian graveyard together, Rick and I temporarily went our separate photographic ways. As I was scrambling through a wilderness that was filled with monuments and tombstones, I realized a car was driving around the access road inside the cemetery! I never expected this. I threw myself to the ground and hoped the occupant (s) wouldn’t see me. The car slowly circled the dirt road and disappeared. I quietly got up, half expecting it to be parked there, but it had gone.  I saw my cohort and motioned to him to get down.

I moved through the weeds toward Rick and said, “It’s go time.” We made our way across the dirt road the car had just traversed and climbed the embankment to the denser weed cover and ultimately, the fence blocking our escape. Exactly why we were afraid of being caught is open for interpretation. We were just a couple of old guys taking pictures in an abandoned cemetery.

As we peered through the thicket of dead “mile-a-minute” weeds for a glimpse of my car, I got a glimpse of something else – a white car, sporting what appeared to be a roof rack. My guess was that it was a police cruiser. With pulses quickening, we scrambled through the high brush along the abandoned cemetery side of the fence so we could get a better look at the car parked on the opposite side – the opposite side happened to be an active and open cemetery. It is ironic that the only way to get into an abandoned place is to climb in from the adjoining active place. Again, would anyone working here have cared if they saw two guys go over the fence?

So, the white car had police lights on its roof. We needed another exit strategy. I had a “Plan B,” but it was not well thought out.

Quietly (well, as quietly as we could), we made our way through the tangle of vines and weeds and crackling tinder along the fence to a place where an old oak tree and its thick vines seemed to offer a way over the fence. I wasn’t really thinking of the way down the other side – gravity would help in that respect. The first tree didn’t have any low branches, so off we scrambled to the next one. Although vines grew up and through the old cyclone fence, they did not offer any protection at the top, where the barbed wire lay.

I climbed the tree and fence, using vines as footholds - that is, until the last vine near the top snapped under my weight. "Power through this," I thought to myself. I pulled my two hundred pounds to the point where I was balancing on top of the fence, looking out over the active cemetery next door. Not a living soul in sight and no way to climb down. Ah, my kingdom for a rope ladder …

Six feet does not seem a great height from which to jump. But it is – especially if you’re on the wrong side of fifty and not in the greatest physical shape. I hung my cameras on the barbed wire for later retrieval and threw myself off into space. I would love to see a video of this graceless act. (Maybe after we die, God will show us home movies of stupid stuff we did.) I suppose when you’re falling you subconsciously, automatically, reach out for something to hold on to. The something in my case was, unfortunately, barbed wire.

I landed it pretty poorly, falling backwards onto the ground. Rick asked if I was okay. I got up and grabbed my cameras off the barbed wire. My wife, who is always at the gym, would appreciate the fact that this experience was great cardio exercise. My heart was racing, muscles burning, etc. My inner thigh hurt as did my feet. I told Rick to hand me his cameras and find a way over the fence. I would walk over to the other side of the cemetery to draw people’s attention. Godspeed! 


It wasn’t really cold, forty-ish, and my black leather gloves felt sweaty. Upon removing them, I saw that they were squishy with blood. The barbed wire had ripped through the leather in a number of spots. I quickly put them back on – I would not want to have to explain bloody hands to a police officer in a cemetery. (Note to self: pick up bottle of spray hydrogen peroxide on way home.) It took Rick about half an hour to finally find a tree he could climb, with vines that would facilitate his descent on the other side of the fence. I kept checking back every few minutes to see if he was making any progress. He finally did it, methodically and with relative safety. He tore his clothes to shreds, but did not hurt himself and did not have to jump!

We walked as casually as two injured and exhausted men could across the clean-cut cemetery. Our intent was to approach my car from the direction opposite the fence we had just climbed. There was the cop cruiser on the roadway a little below my car. Nonchalantly, we got into my car and drove off. I don’t think either of us took a breath until we made it through the exit gate onto the highway!

The Unanswered Questions:

So was the cop just there killing time eating his lunch? Would he have cared if he had seen two old guys climbing the fence? And what was up with the driver of the car inside the abandoned cemetery? He must have had access through the locked gates. Did the driver see me? Us? It almost seems that he must have, he was so close, as he circled slowly around us. Did he call the police? Is that why the cruiser was parked near my car? If the driver saw us, perhaps he was more afraid of us than we were of him. Or maybe he was just there to toss a Christmas wreath on a grave, a wreath purchased long distance by a descendant of someone interred in this mess of a place. There always are one or two Christmas floral arrangements on the odd grave here. So I guess there are some people who do remember and respect their ancestors who were long ago buried in this overgrown jumble of a cemetery. My guess is that they have no idea that this beautifully laid out Victorian-era garden cemetery is locked up tight and has been left to grow wild and crumble.

I understand changing societal tastes, people being more mobile, less focused on the material extravagance of the wealthier ancestral plane, but don’t people want tangible reminders of their past? Perhaps, but maybe not if they have to pay for their upkeep. An abandoned cemetery is clear evidence of people wanting to escape from the whole idea of death.

You know how people conveniently “forget” things when the things are, well, inconvenient for them to address? An abandoned cemetery is a good example of “An Inconvenient Truth” - as former United States Vice President Al Gore called his campaign to educate people about global warming. There is an an inconvenient truth buried in the act of discarding, abandoning, things. Maybe abandoned-site exploration and photography are so popular because these acts attempt to get to the heart of the matter. They hold a mirror up to us, showing a reflection of something we may not necessarily want to see.

There is always a reason things are abandoned. Ghost towns sometimes became such after the gold mines had been tapped out. There are many reasons why cemeteries become abandoned. I learn about some of them as my cemetery travels take me down strange roads, and over strange fences. Although I have yet to understand the situation with the cemetery in question, there is learning to be had if you're willing to venture to the edge, and occasionally, even, to jump off.