Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in the Cemetery

“Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver..’        - from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (1954) by Dylan Thomas
Know what Christmas and photographing cemetery statuary have in common? No? …. Well neither do I. But suddenly, its Christmas, and I feel the need to connect the two. Sure, I could use Angels as the crossover vehicle, but that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Christmas decorations in cemeteries are generally sad and depressing--I needed something edgier.

I was talking with my Mom recently and I guess because it’s close to Christmas she launched into a story about how much she enjoyed taffy pulls and plum pudding as a child at her grandmother’s house. Her grandparents were Welsh coal miners and celebrated Christmas in traditional ways, playing dominoes and Chinese Checkers, enjoying family. I never knew them, unfortunately--they all died off before and during my early childhood. I picture her as one of the children in Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine.”

Perhaps the connection between cemeteries and Christmas is that the people in my mother’s story, as well as in Thomas’ poem, are long dead. Friends have died as well—kids I knew and played pond hockey with—fell through the ice and drowned, as Thomas writes, "small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned…”

Not having any particular talent for marrying an assortment of disparate topics together in any sort of cogent narrative, I decided to temporarily shelve this blog. While I usually wear my limitations with pride, I believe, like Keats, that if writing doesn’t come as naturally as leaves to a tree, it ought not to come at all. So instead of forcing myself to continue, I’ll put it aside until the ending ceases to elude me.

There, I’m back. That didn’t take long, now did it? Like writer’s block for Stephen King. To get the incubus of this story off my chest, I drove out to my favorite abandoned cemetery and realized that what I REALLY want for Christmas is snow! I want to see the tombstones and mausoleums in this godforsaken overgrown forest of a cemetery, “in the muffling silence of eternal snows.” What a wonderful decoration that would be!

Snow, a metaphor for purity, always adds a layer of beguiling beauty over the ground, like pancake makeup on the face of a grimy old clown. Such a pall would cover the dumped loads of building materials, the old mattresses and church pews. It may add some adventure as you step through the snow only to smash through some discarded stained glass window or bag of garbage. But all this can only add to the experience. Snow is magical and theatrical at the same time--it would cap and clothe the broken limbed cemetery angels and hide our indiscretions.
“It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. …snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees.”
Me, climbing over a tombstone, desecrated by wreck of a torched car 
In such a winter wonderland, the abandoned cemetery may not seem such a sad place. Like a veil hiding the sins of stolen cars and illegal burials, the snow would make everything sordid appear normal and clean. The feral cats and wild pit bulls will either adapt, or die. The cats turning into polar felines gliding through the drifts, like the ones Thomas describes as he waits to snowball them. One wonders where the feral pit bulls have gone for the winter? Maybe the turkey vultures got them.

I write this as an old friend emails me and tells me he’s having brain surgery in two days, and may not make it. Back yonder, I wasn’t sure how to end this story. Be careful what you wish for. The regret I have is not seeing him as often as I should have, like the regret of not having made the effort to save an abandoned cemetery. Ironic in that the purpose of a cemetery is to help us remember people. When we desert a cemetery, we desert our own history. Do we fear the ghosts of our past so much? Our society is not as apt to pave a cemetery as it is to raze an historic building. The result is that in many cases, the cemetery is simply abandoned. Better that it be forgotten than lost, however, because then there is still hope for recovery.

That’s when it occurred to me—what better way to bring attention to urban blight in need of healing than to light up this old forgotten dump of a cemetery with Christmas Lights! A cause célèbre! If I had the wherewithal, I’d buy a diesel generator, tow it here, and use it to power thousands of big old-fashioned lights that I would string from the peaks and eaves of the old mausoleums!

Wait, I know what you’re thinking—that I’m writing this on my day pass from the asylum. But think of it! With snow falling, standing in the center of a circle of decrepit old tombs, faux dwellings illuminated by joyous lights strung from one to the other, like so many South Philly rowhomes! The mausoleums built on the high ridge are about the only structures you can see from the parkway--imagine the drivers slowing down to look! Imagine this circle of mournfully extravagant, blocked up and grafittied memorials awash in falling snow—a funereal snowglobe of emotion that would draw everyone’s attention to mortality, and possibly encourage us to respectfully treat each other as equals, or as Dickens put it, "fellow passengers to the grave."

Christmas lights on Mausoleum Ridge

This Christmas I think of all the familiar voices that have fallen silent in my life, whose lives have vanished and become no more than a dream. This once-grand Victorian cemetery that boasted inhabitants of consequence, now rots in peace. Its residents no more heeded than angels with broken wings. Maybe the Jews have the right idea, avoiding “guardian angels” in their funerary art. A cracked angel is a forlorn sight, and makes one even more sullen when seen in the midst of such squalor. I once asked a Jewish friend of mine why there are no angels in Jewish cemeteries. She humorously answered, “They would interfere with our suffering.”

I’ve just seen the weather report—it’s supposed to snow on Christmas! I’ll dream about abandoned mausoleums strung with Christmas lights, to illuminate the memory of people we’ve lost and people we’ve forgotten. To quote Dylan Thomas, “I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.“ Merry Christmas, everyone.

Notes and Links of Interest:

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas
Read more by Dylan Thomas
Lose yourself in the musical imagery of John Cale’s version of Thomas' poem:

Photo of me and the torched, stolen car taken by Frank Rausch.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nana’s Ashes

A number of secrets were buried with my Lithuanian grandmother, Leona Snyder, in 2000. She spent the last five of her ninety-two years  in a nursing home, the final two with dementia. Late in the game, she made hardly any sense—to me, anyway. She would be loving toward see my children one minute, then not remember their names the next. It was heartbreaking to see her degradation from the six-foot matriarchal battleaxe and stalwart of our highly dysfunctional family. That's her at the picnic table, sitting on the left, and me sitting second from right, circa 1963. Not sure what the noose was all about...

Once while visiting her, her youngest sister (then in her sixties) was present. “Nana,” as we called my grandmother, went off on some ridiculous tangent about THEIR sister not leaving them a penny when she died, having accumulated “a chain of whorehouses that the state got hold of.” Both her sister and I nodded in agreement until Nana fell asleep. Out in the hallway, I lamented to my great aunt about how difficult it is for me to see my grandmother this way, just rambling incoherently. She said, “What do you mean? You didn’t know about any of that?” Their heretofore unmentioned entrepreneurial sister ran a business that serviced Northeast Pennsylvania coal miners in back in the day. I have every reason to believe that Nana is living as colorful an afterlife as she did in her physical life!

When she died, it was decided to bury her ashes at her parents’ gravesite. My family has cremated most of its kin, for reasons of economy, they’ve said. In retrospect and since they all hated funerals as much as I do, I suspect the real reason is because they cannot bear to see their relation in a coffin surrounded by flowers. Many folks just don’t like long goodbyes. Seeing their loved one die gave them all the sense of closure they needed. Disposal of the body was a simple housekeeping task.

I don’t even know where the cremation was done (some details we just block out, you know?). I do remember, however, my parents asking me to bury the ashes. My first thought was to do this in some romantic fashion, such as scattering them across several farmers’ fields where she had us, as children, steal corn. She’d pull the car over to the side of the road and throw a bag at us: “Fill this up—they’ll never miss it!” However, the family thought it fitting to bury her ashes at her parents’ grave.  Now this isn’t as “normal” as it may sound. Her parents’ grave stone had been originally stolen by her two brothers, a nice red marble "model" lifted from a monument dealer's display. They took it to a different stone carver to have it engraved.

Photo by Tim Snyder
In addition, the intent was to not notify the owners of that little rural cemetery (shown above) that we were burying her ashes here. While its okay to scatter someone’s ashes to the four winds, you’re not supposed to just dig a hole on someone’s private property and bury them! Cemeteries make their money by SELLING you a burial spot, charging you to dig the hole, provide you with a fancy urn for the cremains, etc.That's how they make their money to stay in business.

Doing this illegally just runs in my family’s blood, I guess. As much as I enjoyed them all, they were either criminals, liars, or drunks, and sometimes all three--actual descendants of Molly Maguires gone awry. Once when paying a surprise visit to Nana’s brother, “Uncle Joe,” in Maryland, we found his house burned and boarded up. At about fourteen, I remember walking into the Glen Burnie police station with her as she went up to the officer at the front desk and said (and I’m sure she had no idea of his rank), “Sergeant, we’re looking for Joseph Wilkes.” Without even looking up from his paperwork, he replied, “Who ISN’T, lady?” We slunk out of there.

So one Spring day, three carloads of us drove out to the hillside cemetery where Nana's parents were buried. Not much going on, it being a weekend and the quarry down the road was closed. No houses for a quarter mile in any direction. We were all uncomfortably polite to each other—my parents (that's me between them in the photo below), an aunt with her daughter and child, my brother (not in the photo--he took the picture), and my cousin Albert (far right). You know how you begin to feel twelve years old again after spending a half-hour with your parents? Not this time; I was 42 years old and felt strangely adult.  Nana was there too—her ashes, that is, in a plastic bag.

Photo by Tim Snyder
Albert and I found ourselves in front of the family headstone, shovel in hand. Time settles down and concentrates on the moment, as writer Salman Rushdie would say. Albert and I hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, but we had been almost inseparable as kids. We shared many formative experiences, mainly during weekends and summers spent at Nana’s. I dug an adequate hole and Albert and I opened the bag. Over some nervously light banter, we began pouring the ashes into the hole. As the wind began to kick up and ashes took flight, I looked at him and asked with a grin, "You ever see ‘The Big Lebowski?” thinking of the scene where John Goodman empties a coffee can of Donny’s ashes off a Pacific coastal cliff and the wind blows them into Jeff Bridges’ face. Albert snickered and said, “Yeah…

No member of my family ever won an award for subtlety. Remember “The Loud Family” from the late 1970’s Saturday Night Live? Where everybody yelled? You know my people then. You could never be certain what they said was true, but they more than made up for it in volume. That said, as our little caravan of cars left the cemetery, my cousin Albert pulled an M-80* out of his shirt pocket, lit it, and threw it out the window! WTF! As the goddamn thing exploded in the woods, we heard invisible horses frantically neighing, as if someone had just uttered “FRAU BLUCHER!”  (from Mel Brooks' movie Young Frankenstein). As the main road behind the quarry came into view, we saw two horses reared up on their hind legs with their riders holding on for dear life! As the horses with their helpless riders galloped down the dirt road like twin bats out of hell, I realized that grieving is a very individual thing—and Albert was grieving in his own special way. It was the perfect denouement to my grandmother’s complex life, and a fitting tribute.

Some Notes and Links you may find amusing:


*An M-80 is a large firecracker, illegal in the U.S. due to its great explosive power (approximately equal to 1/20 stick of dynamite).

Some years later, we buried my father’s ashes in the same spot, with somewhat less fanfare. You can read about it here.

I would have loved to link you to an episode of SNL’s “The Loud Family,” but can’t find anything on the Web. If anyone can locate one, please let me know! Here’s a link to a transcript of an episode, anyway.

Molly Maguires

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lost Civil War Graves of the Johnson Cemetery

The photographs that accompanied the blog related to my initial visit to the abandoned Johnson Cemetery were not my best (see link below). I know that’s like the cardinal sin of the public speaker—apologizing that he had a memory lapse and left something out. Regardless, after that first visit to this abandoned/repurposed Cemetery “Park” in Camden New Jersey, I lost one of my camera’s memory cards. The images on that card were better than the ones I published. So with a heavy heart (and much profanity), I returned a week later in an attempt to recreate those better photos and slip them into the first article without you noticing. As I found out, you really can’t step in the same river twice, as they say. My second  Johnson experience was radically different.

No drug deals going down this time, just a pair of homeless guys hanging out at the ersatz main entrance. As it was late in the day, I went right to the headstones laid flush in the grass to get some better shots of them. I noticed that some of the stones had the surrounding dirt brushed away, as with a broom. I kicked some booze bottles out of the way and shot about five images, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two figures in overcoats moving quickly toward me with what looked like machetes.

Bracing myself, it turned out to be two women, maybe in their late thirties, each well-dressed and brandishing a long ice scraper/snow brush—the kind we northerners use to scrape the ice and snow off our automobile windshields on winter mornings. They came up to me and asked if I could take some photos of the tombstones for them! Guess I watch too many horror movies.

They said they were doing genealogical research and were looking for members of their family tree. One had a point-and-shoot digital camera, but she said the battery died. I said, sure, I’d shoot some images for them. They had just been to the dollar store to buy something to sweep off the stones and came back with these brush scrapers. The devices turned out to be quite the archeological tools with which to excavate many of the UNSEEN headstones! I hung out with them for about an hour while they continued sweeping off the exposed stones. During my prior visit, I counted about 20 partially exposed grave markers.

At one point I think it occurred to all of us at the same time that there was a pattern to the way the stones were laid out, sort of in a long, gradual curve, from the northeast corner of the cemetery toward the center. There were spaces between some of the stones so one of the ladies flipped her instrument over and began using the ice scraper end to dig through the dry, grassy dirt. About an inch or so down came the unmistakable sound of plastic on stone! The soil was so thin, it was relatively easy to scrape it away. I watched and photographed with amazement as they unearthed about six additional stones--it was like finding buried treasure.

Periodically people would walk by, entering or exiting through the mangled cyclone fence that separated the cemetery from the projects. They seemed to pay us no mind. The two homeless guys kept their vigil on the bench near the road the entire time. One of the ladies told me about her research and visits to many south Jersey cemeteries, and finding hundreds of relatives to fill out her family tree. She was quite excited to find the Johnson graves and told me about some small old churchyard burial spots in Mt. Laurel (NJ) that I may need to locate.
It’s my guess that wind and rain covered most of the Johnson headstones with dirt and debris over time; according to the fragmentary information available, over a hundred people are buried here. Two of the more decorative stones uncovered today are shown above, perhaps the first time anyone’s seen them in a decade or more. They are decorative to a degree, that is--the elaborateness of a grave marker being directly proportional to the affluence (and sometimes influence) of the deceased. I couldn't help but contrast in my mind these meager, sad stones with the opulent monument to (presidential candidate) John and Elizabeth Edwards'  teenage son, Wade. I had photographed this ten-foot high contemporary marble sculpture (below) at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina some years ago. The angel that cradles the lost son seems to elevate the value of that life over that of say, African-American veterans of the Civil War (the main inhabitants of Johnson Cemetery--see previous blog link below for detail). It's a skewed way of looking at things, but we often remember those with the biggest monuments, don't we?

Wade Edwards' Monument, Raleigh, NC

After a while, I counted the headstones, 30 in all, when one of the women made an astute observation—it looked as if there were actually TWO curved rows of stones! It was getting dark and chilly at that point and my camera battery had just died. I told them this project looked like it should be continued at some later date and was about to excuse myself. We traded contact information and said our goodbyes when I realized they had every intention of staying! Hmmm. Either they’re twin spectres of (Sir Walter Scott’s) “Old Mortality” or just naïve. I looked up the hill at the homeless guys and suggested the ladies not stay there much longer. They looked around and realized we were standing at the bottom of a gully beneath a grove of pine trees, not in plain view of the road—not the safest area to be after dark. The fact that they were well-dressed, drove an Acura SUV, and were not from the area, I assumed they didn’t know the place was nicknamed “Needle Park” and so I merely suggested they not remain there too much longer. The cold hard light of reality broke their genealogical reverie and they quickly followed me up the hill.

As we passed the benches at the entrance, the two homeless guys got up and hustled down to the benches close to where we’d been working. Apparently they had dibs on these as sleeping quarters--that’s why there were flattened beer case boxes laid out on the benches. These gents were about to enjoy the dead man’s sleep,  above the remains of a hundred forgotten and battle-scarred Civil War infantry and naval servicemen. As I drove away, I thought of the recent popular song “In the Room Where You Sleep,” by the band Dead Man’s Bones, and these lyrics in particular:

"There's something in the shadows
in the corner of your room.
A dark heart is beating
and waiting for you.
There is no open window, but the floors still creep.
In the room where you sleep.
In the room where you sleep......"

Further Links of Interest:

First Visit to the Johnson Cemetery

Listen to the song “In the Room Where You Sleep,” by the band Dead Man’s Bones 
Dead Man’s Bones’ Website

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cemetery Vandalism

Back around 1998, it wasn't as acceptable as it is in 2010 to walk around cemeteries taking pictures, at least in Philadelphia. Many cemeteries had been left to ruin and the rebuilding and re-branding of these Victorian era memorial parks as tourist destinations wasn't yet a national movement. In 1998, Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery (near Ridge Ave. and Roosevelt Blvd.) became a Certified National Historic Landmark--one of the few cemeteries in the United States to earn that designation.

But as I say, around 1998, these operations were still trying to figure out how to find the money to stem the vandalism and restore essentially a grand Victorian sculpture garden to its original splendor. The image you see above is a life-sized granite monument from Laurel Hill, depicting the Angel of Death opening a coffin lid and releasing the spirit of the newly departed to the heavens. It was sculpted by Alexander Calder, great grandfather of the famous mobile sculptor. The former Calder also sculpted the enormous William Penn statue that tops Philadelphia's City Hall (in 1893).

When I originally discovered this wonderful snow-covered statue in 1998 (known as the Warner Memorial), I was with my daughter. As we were photographing it, a park ranger came up to us and asked if we had signed in at the gatehouse. We had not. He asked for my drivers' license! As he copied down the information I nervously asked why. He told me people come into the cemetery, photograph what they want stolen, then give the photos to thieves. The thieves enter the cemetery at night and vandalize statues, ironwork, and mausoleums, breaking pieces off statues (note in the photo above that both of the statue's forearms are missing) and removing stained glass to be sold on the black market. Laurel Hill originally had seven Tiffany stained glass windows in various mausoleums, all of which were stolen in the 1970s. Such windows have been known to sell for over half a million dollars apiece in black market auctions! There are actually authorities that track such stolen artwork (e.g. Interpol, see link below).

With all this going on, it should become apparent that there really might be actual danger facing you if you venture into a cemetery at night. It's not uncommon (at least in Philadelphia) to see bullet holes in mausoleum windows. Recently a local mausoleum was broken into, with the iron door violently bent and broken.Thieves likely broke in to see what there was to steal. You always hear about people being buried with their jewelry, etc., and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that only the wealthy can afford elaborate mausoleums. What the thieves don't realize, however, is that the ironwork of the gates and doors that they break are probably more valuable than anything inside!

Why are such artifacts of value? Aside from the fact that funerary sculpture, ironwork, and stained glass have aesthetic and historical value, there just isn't that much of it around. Not because its been stolen or vandalized, but because much of it was removed by family plot owners in the 1920s! People forget that the avant garde of the 1920s was Art Deco. Ornate Victorian design was viewed as being too gaudy, elaborate, and dated.  In essence, an embarassment to the owners! Families would remove and discard such beautiful ironwork as this harp-shaped gate, along with all the associated fencing surrounding a dynasty plot.

For more information on theft of cemetery art, please see my interview with Ross Mitchell, then the Director of the Laurel Hill Cemetery, on my StoneAngels website.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Colder Than Ice On a Tombstone

November has only just ended, and it’s colder than a witty analogy. Four o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in the kitchen watching the wind blow the dead morning glory vines outside; Leonard Cohen accompanies their St. Vitus’ Dance in a weird streetlight serenade. Don’t even want to look at the thermometer outside that window; as my mother would say, it’s even colder because of the “windshield” factor. What am I doing up this early? Too much sleep and your genius evaporates, as film director John Waters said. Heh.

Actually I think I was totally bothered by a photography exhibit I saw in a gallery on New York’s Lower East Side yesterday. Didn’t sleep well. The exhibit, “Anne Morgan’s War,” consisted mainly of photographs documenting the experience of a group of American volunteer women who went to help people in the devastated regions of France at the height of WWI.  The images of the human cost of war were so gripping that it had me on the verge of tears; I had to leave. I can’t imagine my own photography ever having that effect on anyone, but it’s certainly a goal to aspire to. The nearest I can come is to make the work as personal as I can. If it moves me, maybe others will find meaning in it.

I started thinking about using cold weather to evoke a certain response to a photograph. Since cemetery monuments are cold stone to begin with, what better device than snow and ice to accentuate this feeling? I want the viewer to experience a thoroughly penetrating and numbing cold, much as I felt it as I was making the picture. I made the photograph above while lying in the snow, on a blistering cold day in 2007. I call it “Colder than Ice on a Tombstone.” What fool would be outside on a day like that? Because of this, my winter cemetery photographs are highly “personal”-- no one in their right mind would be out taking snapshots under those conditions! But then what do I know. The writer (and private secretary to Abraham Lincoln) John Hay said the two greatest gifts of an artist are memory and imagination; that doesn’t work for me—to create art, I think arrogance and inexperience are more useful qualities.

Since exhibiting “Colder than Ice on a Tombstone” in various shows, it now speaks to me on a number of different levels. Maybe memory does have something to do with it--the image on one hand reminds me of my ex-wife, who was, well, you can guess. Also, I use the image in my upcoming book (“Digital Photography for the Impatient”), to exemplify the idea of putting yourself out there if you want to make good photographs.

“Putting yourself out there” applies to all sorts of photography, actually. If you don’t immerse yourself in your subject, become part of the action, as it were, you end up with snap-shoddy pictures. People can tell from your work that you’re on the outside looking in. You certainly don’t get the impression that the photographer was a casual observer from this image (above), which I made during a snowstorm while my teenage daughter held umbrellas over me! As I sit here, it makes me shiver just looking at it- a real visceral hallucination. Brrr.  Must make some Italian coffee and turn the heat up. There’s this infernal low chime coming from somewhere outside (or in my head)—like the sound old elevators make when they descend past each floor. Going…DOWN… I look up, shades pass by my window…I think I just saw Voldemort. Hmm, I wonder if this is how you feel when your Zoloft is stolen from your glove compartment?

Okay, I’m back. From making coffee, not the edge of the abyss—I’m still there. This last image was made a few years earlier. It’s a film image and I’ve always been afraid the roll of film would crack in the extreme cold, but it never has. And so far, neither have I. I remember having a title in my head, “Angel’s Wings, Icing Over,” and searching an entire winter for an angel statue that would do honor to it. The line is from the song “Sweethearts” by the band Camper Van Beethoven, and always intrigued me. Pursuing an image to match the beauty of the title has, so far, been a fool’s errand. I’m not satisfied with the pairing, but it is an object lesson on the danger and vanity of inspiration. You gotta have goals though, right? And the more personal they are, the better.

Links of interest:

“Ann Morgan’s War” exhibit at the Morgan Library 

Read more by Ed Snyder:

A celebration of t...
By Ed Snyder