Monday, November 8, 2010

Human Hearts Found in Jars in Cemetery

No one ever accused me of being a man of few words. I mean, given a topic, I can empty the dictionary at it. So the point of this blog is that I recently saw a news story about human hearts being found in jars buried in a cemetery in California. Having been to this particular cemetery two years ago, the story brought to mind a few anxieties and musings I thought I’d share with you. We all kind of assume it’s just bodies that are buried in graveyards, you know? Somehow the idea of body parts down there skeeves me out.

The jar story gave me the weird feeling that maybe I walked right over them, which is different from finding voodoo dolls or sacrificed chickens, which I have stumbled across in various graveyards. These objects are just evidence of nocturnal rituals, not body parts. The parts found recently were human hearts in jars--with photographs of young couples pinned to them! What’s up THAT? The specific location was Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, CA (see news video link below for story). A cemetery maintenance worker noticed the jars sticking half way out of the ground. Homicide was ruled out, but not necessarily religious ritual.

"Police opened up one jar and found a human heart with the photo of a young man and woman pinned to it. Nearby was a second jar with the same contents, but bearing a photo of a different young man and woman. Officers also found partially burned cigars and candles…"

-The Oakland Tribune, 10/22/2010

I remember Holy Cross vividly—it was the final cemetery I hit at the end of a maddening two-day photographic frenzy through the cemeteries of Colma in 2009. The oldest (1887) and largest of the town's cemeteries, it was a fabulous place, with unusual mausoleums and an amazing columbarium. I made the photograph at left of the beautiful marble angel perched atop the gatehouse. If you’re a cemetery photographer, Colma shouldn’t be missed. A city just south of San Francisco where the dead inhabitants outnumber the live ones—1.5 million to 1600, the town's 17 cemeteries comprise approximately 73% of the town's land area! And they call New Orleans the "City of the Dead!"

So did I walk over the hearts in jars when I was there? It freaks me out to think I may have. While it was probably just some practical joke by misguided med students (the hearts had traces of formaldehyde in them), it does conjure up the notion of romantic parting. Romeo and Juliet, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, that sort of thing. Wait-- Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe? In case you didn’t know, baseball great Joe DiMaggio is buried here at Holy Cross. Although he and Marilyn divorced in 1954, his love for her didn’t die when she did. For 20 years, he had a roses placed daily in the vase alongside her crypt at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. It gave me chills to see one of the roses when I visited in the early 1990s. "Marilyn had asked him for roses – she wanted him to leave roses just as William Powell had for Jean Harlow after her untimely death in 1927. It’s funny the things people say, and the things people remember." (from Marilyn & Joe – The Longest Goodbye).

As for hearts entwined, the practice of removing the heart and burying it apart from the rest of the body was really not that unusual in Victorian times (1837 – 1901), a period when the romanticism of Valentine’s Day reached its peak. To officially have one’s body buried in the family plot and one’s heart buried with the spouse satisfied both allegiances with proper Victorian propriety.

I have a friend who used to work at a cemetery and one time he was asked to compare the burial records of a particular family crypt with the actual spaces available.  Apparently, there was a planned burial and the cemetery needed to make sure there was room. So he went down into the underground mausoleum, counted the used and unused crypts, noting the plaques on their covers. Next he went through that family’s interment records. As he read through the death certificates and compared them to the crypt numbers, he came upon something unusual (to him at the time). The notations read something like (and I’m making these names up):  “Crypt 1 - Jacob Smith, 1873,” “Crypt 2 - Lucretia Smith, 1889.” The next one said something like “Crypt 3 – Randolph P.  Smith, 1875; the heart of Marietta Smith, 1878.” The records indicated that Marietta's heart was buried with her husband’s body in his family tomb, while her body was buried in her family’s burial place.

So were the Holy Cross hearts actually a statement of romantic love? It will be interesting to see what the police turn up. Fascinating fact does sometimes make fiction unnecessary, you know?

News video link to original story
Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery website
Marilyn & Joe – The Longest Goodbye