Saturday, July 24, 2010

Museum of Mourning Art

While there are a few "Death" museums in the U.S., the one in Drexel Hill's Arlington Cemetery (western Philadelphia suburb) is one of the few that does not cater to sensationalism and grislyness. Officially named "Museum of Mourning Art," this small museum presents a well-executed (pun intended) collection of funereal artifacts mainly from the Victorian Era (mid to late 1800s). This was the period in which funerary art was most popular and widespread in Western cultures. All artforms were affected, from sculpture, painting, and clothing to cemetery architecture, landscaping, and design. Garden cemeteries came into being with their extravagent monumentation and people wore jewely made from hair of the deceased. In other words, we were much more at ease with death than we are now (possibly because it was so much more prevalent and people just had to get used to it!).

At this point, I have no idea how in 2005 I stumbled upon the Museum of Mourning Art--word of mouth, probably. Unless you travel in these circles, how would you know? That's why you need me to dig these things up for you! The museum is located in the town of Drexel Hill, PA., in Arlington Cemetery. I've placed a link to their website at the end of this blog.

The cemetery itself is a rather pleasant suburban one, with no ornamentation or statuary to speak of. The only thing unusual about it is the structure within the grounds that houses the funeral home, offices, and museum--its a replica of Mount Vernon - George Washington's Virginia home. It seems the owners are GW fans! They even have a lock of his hair under glass in the museum!

The museum is devoted to the representation of grief in American and European culture. The docent is happy to show you around, or you can wander among the arifacts yourself (but please call first to make an appointment: 610-259-5800). Earlier I suggested that the proprietors seem to have avoided the shocking and sensational items other death museums revel in, but if you've never seen a life-sized horse-drawn funeral hearse or a cemetery gun, these bona fide historical artifacts can be quite shocking! The museum displays such commonplace Victorian items as original full-color lithographic funeral invitations, an instruction book on how to get into heaven, and the largest collection of funerary jewely I've ever seen! In fact, the first time I went there, the docent had the book for sale that you see here, "Mourning Arts Jewelry" (DeLorme, 2004 Schiffer Art Books). Have a look for a slice of life you may not have known existed here in the U.S. 150 years ago!

Now, I mentioned a "cemetery gun," a device with which you may be unfamiliar. Its purpose was to deter (and destroy) grave robbers! At nightfall when the average law-abiding citizen was not expected to venture onto the grounds, the gun was rigged to a trip wire at the cemetery entrance. A nefarious intruder would theoretically trip the wire by walking into the cemetery, and be shot by the gun. This isn't necessarily Burke and Hare Victorian folklore (notorious Scottish graverobbers/murderers) -- we really did have our own celebrated grave robbing in Philadelphia!

In the 1880s, Washington Square Park (Sixth and Walnut Streets) was a Potter's Field (a burial place for unknown or indigent people). Its quite possible the Quakers who patrolled the graveyard by night to deter tomb raiders may have set up cemetery guns as well. When they could evade the patrols and other deterrents, the body snatchers would dig up fresh cadavers and sell them to the Anatomy Department at Jefferson Medical College down the street (now part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where I work). At the time, this was the only way for medical students to learn the insides of the human body. Though the clandestine practice was common in Western society, it was after all, illegal. Jefferson's involvement was monumental in the advance of medical practice because it spawned the Anatomy Act of 1883. In 1882, Dr. William S. Forbes, chairman of Jefferson's Anatomy Department, was arrested for complicity in the crime of grave robbing. Like the artist Thomas Eakins who risked his career and reputation for principles regarding the importance of anatomy in art education, Forbes, too, suffered public humiliation in achieving his goal of legalizing anatomical dissection in medical education.

The Anatomy Act promoted medical education "by the distribution and use of unclaimed human bodies for scientific purposes through a board created for that purpose and to prevent unauthorized uses and traffic in human bodies." The Pennsylvania law stopped the practice of body snatching and served as a model for other states which adopted similar legislation.

But I digress. Not only will you see one of these automated cemetery rifles at Arlington Cemetery's Museum of Mourning Art, but you'll see mannequins draped in mourning clothes, and a wooden coffin with a face window (so viewers can see if the deceased is breathing by fogging of the glass!). Death symbolism is studied and it was here at the museum I learned that the common cherub representation on modern tombstones evolved from the skull and crossbones! Evidence that the concept of death became socially less terrifying in the Victorian era than it was in prior times. (Click here to read more on the topic of this symbolism at my StoneAngels site.) So be prepared to learn if you go to the Museum of Mourning Art! While it may be shocking at first, you'll more likely be fascinated and leave with a greater appreciation of mortality and how it was viewed by our ancestors!

For more info on the Museum of Mourning Art, please see Arlington Cemetery's site. They even have a Facebook presence!

On the other hand, if Pet Death Taxidermy and Human Execution Devices are more up your alley, then the Museum of Death in Hollywood, CA might be what you seek. Or, if Civil War embalming techniques and Fantasy Coffins interest you, then the site for the National Museum of Funeral History (in Texas) might be worth a visit!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Tell Me They're Not Zombies...."

Somewhere in 2009, my friend Frank, who works for Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, invited me to do some night shooting with him. Now, I would never pass up an opportunity to be in a cemetery at night--as long as I wasn't alone!

I met Frank on the appointed day at the solemn hour of 10 pm at the cemetery. He unlocked the gate and I entered. We'd planned on Harvest-moon lighting, but there were some drifting clouds which occasionally plunged us into near-darkness. Even by moonlight, its kind of dangerous to step off the roads or paths for a number of reasons--you could fall into a sunken grave or trip over a knee-high tombstone. I've experienced the latter and I must say, its neither good for one's knees nor one's camera equipment.

The celestial light was amazingly eerie, and Frank took great advantage of it with his new Nikon DSLR (which seems to respond to color in a much livlier fashion that my Canon DSLR). The image you see here of the monuments silouetted against the night sky is one of the few useable ones I made. While composing the scene, Frank ambled off to find other scenes to photograph, leaving me alone. I'm a big boy, I can do this. So what if the cemetery exit is a quarter mile away. Just concentrate on my work....nothing to be afraid of--except maybe the five silhouettes of people walking slowly, very slowly, in single-file across the cemetery ridge about a hundred yards away. Gulp.

Frank had locked the main gate behind me after I'd arrived--no one else could've gotten in. I called Frank on his cell phone and asked where he was; he said "Off to your right down by the mausoleums." I told him to come back. He came up alongside me a few minutes later, and with the slowly moving figures outlined against the moonlight, I said to him, "Just tell me they're not zombies."

This photo must have been what I looked like when I saw them! Frank laughed and said "They're ghost hunters, people from the South Jersey Paranormal Research group! They've been here a few hours." He never mentioned there was anyone else on the grounds--I could've killed him. After I got over this business of having the bejesus scared out of me, it occurred to me that we should  scare the bejesus out of the ghosthunters! I mean, their sophisticated video and audio recording devices are not tuned to detect live people, right? Not being cruel, we decided just to go and meet up with them.

The South Jersey Paranormal Research group amounted to about five members, all of whom had devices of some sort to sense and document paranormal activity. They told us about the energy they measured in various areas of the cemetery and the audio recordings of "human" voices they made. A very serious group of people, who have made their findings available to anyone with an open mind about such things. They had visited Laurel Hill prior to us meeting them that night, and you can go to their site and see what they found in 2007. Apparently, this particular cemetery is rife with spiritual activity:

So we never came upon any actual zombies, but we did learn a bit about a different kind of fascination some people have with cemeteries. If you're afraid of going into a cemetery at night, the whole 'scarey ghost' thing can handily be put in perspective with a comment a friend of mine once made. She worked for a cemetery and believed that if a person died under some horrible circumstance, the unruly spirit must hang around the particular site of demise--not the cemetery in which the person's body was laid to rest. Someday maybe I'll believe that, but my imagination still paints too vivid a picture of werewolves with chainsaws for me to venture into any cemetery alone at night!

Cemetery Book Recommendation!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Exposure" -- A Book about Death and Photography

Exposure: A NovelThe first thing to have in a library is a shelf. From time to time this can be decorated with literature. But the shelf is the main thing."— Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936).

Exposure: A Novel by Kathryn Harrison (2006, Random House) would be a fine addition to any shelf. I knew it was about photography from the jacket notes, but as the death parts creeped up on me, it just made the whole experience that much more interesting! The fact that it was a New York Times Best Seller didn't really enter into my decision to buy it, though it does intrigue me that so many people must have purchased it when it was first published.
I guess its a bit unusual for me to write a book review in my blog. What the hell. I picked up a used copy of Harrison's book at a flea market as light reading for a trip. It is anything but. A superbly crafted fictional suspense novel about a mentally ill woman who is the daughter of a famous photographer. She spends her adult life trying to come to terms with her youthful experience of being her father's only model. Sally Mann portraits come to mind.

The book goes heavily into accurate detail regarding photographic gear and processes, as the author skillfully weaves this information seamlessly into the story. An example being the protagonist's great-grandfather, who made a living photographing (and making daguerrotypes of) dead children. This was a common practice in the 1800s, where parents would pay for a final formal photographic portrait of their dear lost child. The great-grandfather lived in the time of cholera, so there was work aplenty. (There is actually a book called "Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America," by Stanley Burns (1990, Twelvetrees) that is a marvelous collection of such death photographs--not for the squeamish!) Might a non-photographer reader find the book's photographic details distracting? Possibly. One could simply ignore (or be impressed by) the technical jargon a la Tom Clancy. However, the story so depends on the subject of photography to provide infrastructure that it seems to me that the reader MUST be fluent in the language to fully appreciate the story!

The book was interesting to me on another level. The mental health issues (e.g. cutting, depression) addressed in the book were familiar to me. For most of my adult life, my friendships have gravitated toward people in the mental health professions. This is for the most part a subconscious thing. I would make friends with someone, then later find out the person is a therapist, psych nurse, psychologist, etc. Call it a flaw in my personality.

In summary, "Exposure," by Kathryn Harrison is a highly entertaining read, and never predictable. If you like death and photography, you might enjoy this. Anyway, that's my subjective opinion. And as Walter Cronkite said, everyone's entitled to my opinion.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pirate Graves!

Okay, so after not being able to find the blasted pirate grave everyone photographs in Tampa's (Florida), oldest cemetery, "Oaklawn," this past weekend, I head over to the Italian Club Cemetery in Ybor City. It promises more white marble than any of the other possible local choices. Ybor is slightly east of Tampa and is more residential and industrial than Tampa. Like most interesting cemeteries, The Italian Club Cemetery is in a kind of run down section of town. Great BBQ place nearby, tho--"Nephew's Auto Detailing and BBQ."

Driving over here with the air conditioning on my rental car, I was not prepared for the heat-- 96 degrees with 85% relative humidity, which made the "Real Feel" temperature 104 degrees! With the clear sky, I was sunburned within 15 minutes! Crazy weather--the forecast for later that evening: "Gusty winds 35 to 45 mph will occur. Frequent lightning is expected. To be safe go indoors immediately. If caught outside... find a low spot... and stay away from tall objects." Good thing there are no tall obelisk grave monuments hereabouts.

The Italian Club Cemetery is similar in layout to The Italian Cemetery in Colma, CA, (tho smaller) which is to say unlike any other Italian cemeteries I've ever seen. The photo at right shows the neat and orderly, ultra planned rows of glossy marble slabs with their intricate headstones. Beautifully detailed mausoleums border this extremely well-preserved cemetery. The unusual thing about many of the memorials here (and what differentiates it from the cemetery in Colma) is the plentiful mosaic tile inlaid into the tombs and headstones (note top photo). Apparently this is unique to Tampa cemeteries. Very beautiful, and certainly gives one a feeling of celebrating life. That is, until you kneel on one baking in the sun with your bare knees! At that point you end up inventing new curse words and alarming the passersby.

To be truthful, there are no passersby. No resident in his right mind seems to venture outdoors here in the summer. You see very few pedestrians in Tampa and Ybor City. In this weather, people leave their air-conditioned homes (no matter how humble), get into their air-conditioned cars, shop in air-conditioned stores, then return home. Here's a picture of me recuperating in my air-conditioned rental car after half an hour in the cemetery. Great art comes from great pain! After cooling down a bit, I tooled over to Nephew's BBQ and had this delicious smoked sausage dinner for only $5!

While there were no large cemetery angels here for me to photograph, I was intrigued by the multi-colored tile inlays. Each tile is about a square inch. The ornamentation was supposedly the invention of Sicilian immigrant Francesco Constantino, founder of the Constantino Monument Co. in 1906.
The family story is that Francesco had decorated many Ybor homes and gardens with his mosaic tiles. After a child's death, a client asked him to fashion a pretty tile gravestone. More soon followed. To read more about this and other actual historic information on the Italian Club Cemetery (as oppposed to my subjective ramblings), do click here.

Cemetery Book Recommendation!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Gypsies in the English Cemetery

In 2008, I visited The English Cemetery (also known as the Protestant Cemetery) in Florence Italy. My wife and I had just seen Michelangelo's "David" at the Accademia and decided to spend a few hours on individual missions. Mine was to continue walking about a half mile to the Piazzalle Donatello, site of the only cemetery in Florence.

The only traditionally Victorian cemetery, that is. Since these tend to have more statuary and other ornamentation than do the catacombs, I wanted to see it. Florence and Rome each have such an above ground outdoor Victorian cemetery, but most of the cities' dead are buried in catacombs. The name "Victorian" implies that the cemetery was designed during the era 1837 - 1901 (the reign of Britain's Queen Victoria). Owned by the Swiss and managed by the English, this cemetery originated as an ecumenical burial spot for non-Catholics and non-Jews  (who were previously not allowed burial in the city of Florence).

On approaching the grounds, I noted with dismay that the gates were locked. As I tried to figure out how to get in, I noticed a woman in a light blue habit scurrying around the cemetery buildings. A nun! I headed over to talk with her and she was most gracious--even though the cemetery was closed, she let me in to photograph the statuary. I spent about an hour amidst the magnificent artwork (as you can see by the life-sized skeleton, American sculpture can hardly hold a candle to Italian craftsmanship), before asking her where Elizabeth Barrett Browning's grave was.

The nun--who turned out to be the accomplished author Julia Bolton Holloway, PhD-- was the most amazing host! Caretaker of the English Cemetery, Julia is from Britain (her PhD is in Medieval Studies). She retired from academics as Professor Emerita to join an Anglican convent. She explained to me the history of the cemetery, as well as its curious upkeep. It seems that Julia routinely affords sanctuary to gypsies traveling west from Romania (it is illegal for them to be in Florence). She educates their children, while in return, the adults spend the weeks restoring rusted ironwork (see photo of ancher) and rebuilding stone walls and monuments. She marvels at their abilities and explains that this is the predominant method of restoration here.

Julia took me to where Browning's monument stood. As you may be able to tell, the grave monument (essentially a catafalque) is rather large--possibly the largest in the cemetery. I was of course embarassed that I'd walked right past it--several times! Afterward, Julia offered to show me the "historic" photographs. We went into the gatehouse, through a library where 4 or 5 monks pored over architectural drawings of the cemetery, then into a darkened room with framed photographs on the walls. Each piece had a small curtain over it to protect it from light degradation. You had to pull the material aside to see the image. All were original black and white images of the cemetery, made in the late 1800s. On the way out through the library, I noticed all the childrens' crayon drawings on the walls. I asked her why some of the gypsy children's artwork involved helicopters. She told me that police raids and arrests by helicopter are a common occurrance among the gypsies.

I also noted a small stack of copies of  the book, "Aurora Leigh and Other Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning." I mentioned that it seemed like a good idea to sell copies of such things here to raise money for the cemetery. Julia modestly stated that she was the editor of the text! I purchased a copy and asked her to autograph it for me, which she did. You can see the book by clicking the icon at left. As a fitting end to my visit to the English Cemetery, my proper British host called me a cab on her cell phone and bid me good day. For more information on this most amazing place, please visit The English Cemetery's website.