Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cemetery Photo Day

A Day in the Life
In October of 2010, I took an after-work ride up to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, to do some shooting (photographs, that is, not groundhogs). Best to get as much of this sort of thing in before Daylight Savings Time ends and such endeavors become impossible during the winter months. I didn’t expect anyone to be there (after all, it is a cemetery!), but to my surprise, there were couples, families, and individuals walking around—with cameras! Weird. Even at Laurel Hill, this is unusual. I drove and walked around for an hour or so, taking some fall foliage photos, when I noticed one of the maintenance vehicles parked near a monument. There was an air compressor running in the back of the truck—maybe someone I know is working—“Hey! Frank!

It’s interesting knowing someone in the cemetery biz—Frank fills in the gaps of my cemetery knowledge. I’ve learned a lot more about how cemeteries operate, how monuments and statues are maintained and repaired, how and why bodies get disinterred, and so on. Also, these people say the darnest things. Once we were hanging out and I asked him how his week was. To the surprise of some strangers around us, he said, “Great! We got all six bodies out of the ground!

I pulled my car over to the side of the road and got out. Frank turned off the compressor and said, “Come on up here, I want to show you something.” Frank and I share a common passion for cemeteries and photography, plus he knows that I like weird stuff. His invitation was quite innocent, and I followed him up the granite steps to the base of a giant monument. There was a rectangular hole in the ground, with a ladder sticking up out of it. As far as I could see, Frank and I were the only ones there.

I, of course, walk over to the hole and am about to look down when a man’s head and shoulders pop up out of the hole! Scared the living hell out of me! One of Frank’s coworkers was working down in the crypt and was climbing out. Frank sees this sort of thing every day—people climbing in and out of crypts is a routine occurrence for him. He hadn’t intended to shock me, but he did get quite a kick out of my reaction.

What he actually wanted me to see was the inside of the large burial crypt which was made of brick and had an arched ceiling. To place a casket in one of the many spaces in the crypt wall, one had to dig about six feet down to the vaulted brick ceiling, pull up the four-inch-thick slate covers, place the ladder, and … man, that’s a lot of work! How do they get the coffin down the ladder? Well, for this burial, they were just placing an urn of cremains in one of the crypts, so the hole only had to be large enough for a person to get down there with power tools (to grind the sealing mortar from around the proper crypt cover) and the urn. If a casket was being buried, the hole would’ve had to be larger so as to lower the casket into the underground mausoleum (see below for how they do this). As I got there, the worker who was grinding off the crypt cover was coming up the ladder (don't you love the phrase, "grinding off the crypt cover?" I know I do.).

People see these big cemetery monuments and they don’t realize the monument may be perched atop a huge underground mausoleum! One of the reasons the ceiling of the underground structure is arched is to provide the strength needed to support the gigantic, ten-ton granite monument!

The next day, I came across this email announcement:

"The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) is launching Philly Photo Day to celebrate their one-year anniversary. PPAC is designating October 28, 2010 as Philly Photo Day. They are asking anyone to take a picture in Philadelphia on this day, and submit it electronically to PPAC. They hope to receive hundreds if not thousands of images that will constitute a broad portrait of Philadelphia on that day. Then on November 9, 2010 PPAC will open an exhibition of the submitted images in the Crane Arts Building."

Interesting. Do I have anything worth submitting? The only photographs I shot that day were at Laurel Hill. I assumed the photo must have people in it. Maybe one of the images I made while I was with Frank—ah, THAT’S why there were so many people at the cemetery with cameras! Maybe I got scooped and all those other people will be submitting great photos! Ah, well, I submitted the image you see at top of this blog and it was accepted. Hey, a day in the life—and death—of Philadelphians.

It's unusual for me to have live people in any of my photographs—let alone one I took in a cemetery. I typically only photograph stone people, rather than live ones! Strangely, at the reception (which was fabulous--thank you Sarah Stolfa and PPAC), there was only one other cemetery photograph, and it was one of a solitary stone angel. Stranger still, many of the hundreds of images in the exhibit lacked people.

I wonder what that says about us as photographers? As people? Would you have assumed such a photo should include people? Was my assumption caused by some flaw in my personality? Have a look at a small sampling of the hundreds of entries on PPAC’s Facebook site.

Further Reading:

I was curious how a coffin could actually be lowered fifteen feet down into a crypt, so I looked it up. Oddly enough, such devices don't actually have a fancy professional-sounding name--they're just called "Casket Lowering Devices." Mechanical lowering devices, usually sitting on straps and perhaps attached to a portable winch system, are typically used. You can see such a device here.

No mean feat, lowering a heavy casket, or concrete crypt, into the ground. Since this is typically done relying mainly on the brute force of man and muscle, its no surprise that it costs so much to bury someone. You pay for the labor and hopefully, they do it right. You don’t want accidents to happen, such as the incident at an Arizona cemetery when a coffin slipped, fell, and broke open to the horror of onlookers!

Links of Interest:

Sarah Stolfa runs The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC).
Check out her engaging book, "The Regulars," portraits she made of patrons, while she was tending bar:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oakwood and the Confederate Cemetery

Obviously, the Snow Demons have not been appeased. They’ve unleashed their fury a second day in a row here in Philadelphia. As feet of snow drift down past my window, the lyrics of Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away” take me back to a warmer clime—June in Raleigh, North Carolina, to be exact.

Back in 2007 I was photographing in Raleigh’s beautiful Oakwood Cemetery, which is situated in the Historic Oakwood district of North Carolina’s state capitol. You can tell by all the Victorian homes here that this perfectly manicured cemetery had its origin in the same era. Though this National Historic District contains one of the largest collections of Victorian-era homes in the country, I was surprised that Raleigh seemed to be such a modern city—very little antebellum architecture (though there is some in the cemetery itself, as you see here). I guess I expected “Old South” plantation homes and “Gone With the Wind” mansions—sort of like how my Dad expected to see Royal Canadian Mounted Police (on horseback) as we crossed the border into Canada when I was a child.

Oakwood Cemetery  is wonderfully picturesque, with its flowering catalpa trees and magnolias, its massive shady oaks. Just up the road a piece is the coolest Krispy Kreme I ever saw, with a magnificent retro neon sign about the size of Rhode Island. So, equipped with a bag of warm glazed ones and large coffee (breakfast of champions), I entered Oakwood Cemetery. In one of my past lives, I’m sure I was born Southern—I’m inexplicably drawn to Krispy Kremes, crawdads, and smoked BBQ, as well as Southern music ranging from Robert Johnson to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Headstone of the Controversial Jesse Helms
Boasting a mix of the old and the new, Oakwood captivates the taphophile. Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell is buried here, along with her first husband, Berrien K. Upshaw. Upshaw, a Raleigh native, is believed to be the inspiration for the Rhett Butler character in her book. Political characters abound in Oakwood--North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms is now a resident. Helms, who died in 2008 (after my visit) conservatively had his pre-need planning done, as you can see from my 2007 photo. In December 2010, Elizabeth Edwards (ex-wife of presidential hopeful and North Carolina Senator John Edwards) was buried nearby after her long bout with breast cancer.

The statuary and other memorial sculpture at Oakwood range from the simple to the sublime. One of the most amazing monuments here rests at the grave of Wade Edwards (son of John and Elizabeth), who died in an automobile accident in 1996. The 10-foot high, 10-ton white marble sculpture “Wade’s Angel” shown below (sculpted by Robert Mihaly), is one of the most stunning contemporary memorials I’ve ever seen.

Wade Edwards' Angel, Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh

Within Oakwood is the “Confederate Cemetery” (seen here mapped out on granite), with about 1500 graves marked with uniformly sized “CSA” (Confederate States of America) headstones. The stones are rather oddly peaked at the top, not flat or rounded, as you typically see in a military cemetery. Gazing out on this expanse of CSA graves for the first time gave me the same feeling I got in New Orleans when I saw slave shackles and “receipts” in a collectible store. History meets reality when it smacks you in the face. You think, damn, this “war between the states” stuff really happened…

For anyone who was as poor a history student as I was, here's the Civil War in a nutshell: The Confederate States of America was an unrecognized group of eleven southern slave states of the USA (North Carolina was one of them) that had declared their secession from the United States. The U.S. government rejected secession as illegal, and after four years of fighting in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), the Confederate armies surrendered, its government collapsed, and its slaves were emancipated. The sanitized, history book version usually doesn’t account for the magnitude of lives lost—618,000 Americans died before the Rebel Yell was finally silenced (compared to 404,000 who died in WW II).

"Deo Vindice" - "With God our Vindicator" (in other words, God will justify our actions)

It was interesting to me that such a significant number of Confederate soldiers were buried there, given that the cemetery was not established until 1869—four full years after the Civil War ended. I thought maybe these were not graves of casualties, but of veterans who died after the war. I noticed a cemetery employee near the office building so I thought I would go ask. As I was packing up my camera gear, and about to walk down the hill toward my rental car, I noticed another car driving up the narrow roadway toward it. Though I didn’t see it happen, I heard the unmistakable sound of two vehicles scraping each other...!

I grabbed my cameras and ran down the hill, in time to see the moving car parked in front of mine, and an older gentleman (its driver) outside looking at the side of my car. I asked what was the problem, and an old woman in the passenger seat yells out to me, “Oh nothin’ … we just heard a noise and was wonderin’ what it was!” Um, yeah. Before they sped off, I photographed their license plate—just in case. Of course they hit my rental car, on which I had waived the insurance rider. Oh well, a little mud and dirt splattered on the scratches and maybe the agency won’t notice it was side-swiped. Here’s a photo of my Guardian Auto-Angel asleep on the job…

Afterward, I did manage to track down the cemetery employee and speak with him about the origin of the Confederate Cemetery within Oakwood. It wasn't as obvious as one might think. To summarize his words, I'll quote the author and historian Michael Hardy, from his article  "North Carolina and the Civil War:"

"Cemeteries exclusively for Confederates were a product of post-war bitterness..."

Hardy explains:

"Oakwood Cemetery had its origin during the occupation of Raleigh by General Sherman’s Union troops. Prior to that, Confederate soldiers were buried at Raleigh’s Rock Quarry Cemetery [later renamed Raleigh National Cemetery] alongside Union casualties. After General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Raleigh started to become flooded with wounded Union troops. [As more and more of them died, larger burial facilities were needed.] The Federal Army wanted Rock Quarry Cemetery all to themselves, for a National Cemetery for Union dead.

In 1867, when the Ladies Memorial Association of Wake County was formed, their mission was to "protect and care for the graves of our Confederate soldiers." The reason that it was the "Ladies Memorial Association" was that men were banned by the Federal government from meeting in large groups. The ladies acquired a piece of property from Henry Mordecai and began to clean and level the property. Their goal was to move the Confederates interred at the Rock Quarry Cemetery, and others buried in the surrounding area, to the new Confederate cemetery. There were an estimated 500 Confederates interred at the Rock Quarry Cemetery.

On February 22, 1867, the group received a letter from the Federal commander in Raleigh. All Confederates had to be moved from Rock Quarry Cemetery immediately to make room for a National Cemetery. The Ladies Memorial Association set about work. Volunteers disinterred the [nearly 500] Confederate graves and began moving them to the new cemetery. Their progress was too slow for the Federal government, and in March 1867, the Federal commandant issued a letter, stating that if the Confederate dead were not moved by the given date [three days later], "their remains would be placed in the public road." [Can you BELIEVE that?!] By the end of March, the ladies and their volunteers had finished the work."

“So," Chardy says, "If the Federal government came and told you that the remains of your loved ones would be dug up and dumped in the road, well, I guess that could cause a little bitterness.” As they say on the Sopranos, “To the victor, belongs the spoils." Christ—no wonder the old folks whacked my car. “Damn Yankee...,” they were probably thinking. Legend has it that the tops of Oakwood's CSA grave markers were cut to a point so that no Yankee could sit on a Confederate tombstone.

The nonprofit Raleigh Cemetery Association, established in 1869, continued to add land to the original Confederate Cemetery site, chartering it as "Oakwood Cemetery." Its present size (102 acres) is attributable to the city itself and private donors in acquiring adjoining land for expansion. As CSA veterans died over the next several decades, many were buried here, bringing up the total to the present 1500 graves.

As a parting thought, if you're tempted to take sides, have a look at this wonderfully touching film of a 1913 meeting of Civil War veterans in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Links to Further Reading:

For the politically correct, history book version of Oakwood’s origin, see video here.

Northern Industry in the Civil War
Oakwood Cemetery Website
Raleigh's Confederate Cemetery 
Elizabeth Edwards' 2010 Burial at Oakwood Cemetery
Rhett Butler in Oakwood Cemetery 
Raleigh’s Serene And Scenic Oakwood Cemetery

Hear Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hell Hounds of the Abandoned Cemetery

As I hunch through the underbrush while keeping my cameras from falling into the snow, I’m trying to visualize, then compose, creepy photographs within this inner circle of abandoned mausoleums. Death beneath the permafrost is not as unnerving as the relatively close barking of wild dogs. After half an hour, I hear Veronika call out “Ed!” Then silence. Shit. I call her cell phone—no answer. What the—then my phone rings. It’s her. Christ. I tell her, “Let’s stay close to each other, okay? YOU’RE the one with the tazer!

How did I get myself into this? The question is, how could I NOT get myself into this? The cemetery is so overgrown that it’s essentially a forest. A forest punctuated with monuments, tombstones, and mausoleums—so bizarre, you'd half expect you were on a movie set. The thrill of urban exploration notwithstanding, think of the photographs! In other seasons, the dense foliage of trees and bushware obscure the statuary and granite memorials, to the degree that you must hack your way through the graveyard. Thorns and brambles, full of life, rip your skin right through your clothing. In winter, however, when the foliage is as dead as the bodies below, one finally gets a clear view (through the trees) of all the freakishness of this abandoned 380-acre cemetery.

Ed, as BatBoy
Yesterday morning, as I waited for the Snow Demons to unleash their fury, I pondered whether or not to take my lovely Nikon F3 out into the elements. On most cemetery photographic excursions, the main questions are: which camera(s) to bring? Film or digital? If the former, what kind of film? Tripod? For this visit, my main concern was a different type of equipment—weapons. When I make a trip to one of Philadelphia’s abandoned cemeteries, my concern is more about PPE—Personal Protective Equipment, in healthcare parlance. My own arsenal of PPE consists of an antique ice hook and an aluminum baseball bat. Since I don’t have a license to carry, I usually leave Grandma’s Winchester at home. For the upcoming excursion I didn’t expect to run into any people, what with the snow and lack of hiding places, so I just took the bat. However, as the resident wild pit bulls of Mt. Moriah have definitely NOT gone south for the winter, I asked along a friend with a tazer.

Honestly, I thought they would’ve gone to Lauderdale or something, but last week I saw one of the little scamps trot up the steps and around the back of one of the old mausoleums. Same area, in fact, where this little beauty of a pit bull skull greeted me! So in planning my visit following the storm, I thought a tazer might be in order. If one of the little beasties goes for your leg in the underbrush, you really have no room to swing a bat.

Veronika’s boyfriend gave her the tazer for Christmas—quite the sentimental gift! Part of the reason actually was so that she would have reasonable protection for visits to Mount Moriah Cemetery! Apparently on her last visit, she was alone and exploring the back wooded area when she heard some noises ahead. As she continued to push her way through the thicket, she came upon a shovel, some rope, and bag of lye! Not wishing to be part of some unhappy event, she beat a hasty retreat and hadn’t been back since. Today there is snow—so forgiving, it hides the fact that this cemetery has been degraded to base uses.

So there I was, clambering out from inside the circle of grafittied, blocked-up mausoleums so I could meet back up with her. Almost stepped in a huge groundhog hole, that was burrowed under some granite coping. Its dining area padded down outside the hole, the eerie remains of its dinner scattered on the packed snow. A woodpecker perched strangely close tapping at a small tree. We rejoined and went off in a seemingly rudderless fashion, yet going deeper into the cemetery. Stepping into 2-foot drifts, beautiful blue sky, great light, 35 degrees, packs of wild dogs. What’s not to like? We decided to head off toward the area where she had seen the shovel and other implements of destruction. Then we heard the dogs again—deep, throaty barking—only this time they were closer. We wondered if it would be more dangerous to be attacked in the open or in the woods, but then we figured we’d risk it for the good of photography.

Tunneling under dead vines and pickers, we soon came to what had once been a dynasty (family) plot with a 15-foot high cast iron monumental funerary urn, listing to port in the uneven ground, rusted to the point where little of its original green paint remained. As we were swooning over this find, Veronika looked over my shoulder and froze, saying, “Look….” I turned slowly around to see a pair of small dog-sized creatures turn tail and disappear deeper into the woods. At first glance I thought they were a couple of the pit bull puppies I had seen a few months before, trotting back to alert their over-protective mother. However, Veronika pointed out that these had bushy tails. Hmmm, yeah, couldn't be pit bulls. I tried to convince myself that they were really cute furry red foxes, a scene right out of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.” We joked about the “pit bull foxes” for a half a moment, when we heard the barking again … I had a visceral hallucination of a wild dog clamping its jaws around my ankle. You get distracted from the dangers of this place when you come across some interesting monument to photograph. Then abruptly, all your little nightmares bring you back to reality. Steady, old soldier.

Tracks of attack dogs (right) following Veronika's
Veronika with Taser
Having second thoughts about our second thoughts, we decided it would be safer out in the open. As we plodded up the long snowdrift-filled road around the center wooded area of the grounds, Veronika noticed her footprints from her earlier walk. I humorously noted the three sets of dog tracks alongside hers, and asked if they were there when she entered the area. She said, “No…you think they were…following me?” I intimated that that was a distinct possibility, and asked her if she could keep her tazer out and ready. When she almost lost her balance in a drift, she pointed out that if she dropped the weapon in the snow, it might short out. Even to a pair of intrepid explorers, this scenario lacked appeal.

As we ventured out into the wider open spaces, it became obvious that the dogs were circling us and periodically asserting themselves. At first we would hear the barking chorus. At one point we saw them all together, watching and barking at us from across an open patch of desolate graveyard. Soon after, their relatively close barking startled us—we turned to find them facing us at the end of a snow-filled road. Too far to photograph, but close enough to make out the three of them, different shapes and sizes—junkyard dogs! We were being circled by the Hounds of Hell, Philadelphia branch! Probably got loose from one of those reclamation sites behind the Auto Mall. These were definitely NOT pit bulls, but that did nothing to ease the tension—legend has it that staring into a Hound's eyes causes you to, uh...die.

After the stand-off, we were kind of rattled and were about to call it a day when I realized my Holga (cheap 120mm plastic toy camera) was no longer hanging from my arm. Damn. Must back-track to where we just were, back toward the dogs. I found the lowly Holga mostly buried in the powder (better it than the Nikon). For a camera that allows prodigious light leaks, it seemed to block the snow fairly well! It was getting late. Tired, we plodded through drifts down to my car, loaded the weapons and photo gear in the trunk, and said goodbye to no one. I drove up Cemetery Road past the crumbling gatehouse and off to find some alcohol to steady our nerves.

Gatehouse, Mount Moriah Cemetery
Do I really need this? Why do I keep coming back here? Surely not for the photo ops, which are only marginally interesting, at best. Do I just do it for the thrill of it all, or is there some deep-seated psychological reason? I keep thinking how people continually buy more books than they can possibly read in a lifetime with the subconscious purpose of prolonging that lifetime. Obviously, my obsession has something to do with death—maybe its this: If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be forgotten after you die, visit Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cemetery Photographer Wanted by FBI

However powerful a tool the camera may be, I'd never considered it to be a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI has its own opinion, however, evidenced by their questioning of my photographic activities in the summer of 2006.

I used to live near an industrial gas supply company--you know, the kind of place you take your gas grill propane tank to be refilled. Well, one hot summer day I found myself in front of the place, idling in traffic as I waited for a freight train to pass. I was probably on my wait to shoot cemetery statues somewhere. Anyway, this company has a giant propane holding tank in front, painted to look like an enormous hot dog, complete with mustard and bun. I was in my convertible with my camera on the seat next to me. I don’t know about you, but as a photographer, I can’t avoid taking pictures of goofy things, so I snapped a few images of the giant hot dog. Without me realizing I was arousing anyone’s suspicion, an alert citizen took my license number and reported me to the Department of Homeland Security!

An Adventure in Homeland Security

A couple days later and totally unaware that I’d been reported, I get home from work and grab mail out of the box. There’s a business card in there from an FBI agent, with a message scrawled on the back, “Please call me.” Not bad for a practical joke, I think, as I promptly forget about the card. Next day, I get home from work and ask my son how school was. “Okay,” he says, then adds, “Two guys from the FBI were here looking for you.” Hmmm. Maybe I should call that number.

Now realize that I had no idea why the FBI would want to talk to me. I always try to cut the mustard legally, so I thought maybe this might be about the recent drug raid on the house next door. (Though I didn’t know the neighbors very well, it gave me an odd feeling to come home and see the head of household being escorted to a police car in handcuffs. As he sheepishly nodded to me and gave me a little wave with a cuffed hand, I felt like yelling, “I do not know this man!”)

But it wasn’t about drugs, it was about dogs—hot dogs, to be precise. I called the locally-based FBI agent and introduced myself. To the best of my recollection, here’s how the conversation went:

FBI: “Mr. Snyder, you were observed photographing something over the weekend.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Uh…. photographing what? I take a lot of pictures.”

FBI: “It was an industrial site.”

(Normally I take a lot of pictures, mostly in cemeteries, so I really had no idea what he was talking about.)

PHOTOGRAPHER: “Could you be more specific? I take a lot of pictures.”
FBI:Do you…?” (he replies, in character reminiscent of Mr. Bookman, the Seinfeld library detective).

PHOTOGRAPHER: (Pause while thinking) ”Where was this?”
FBI: “Near where you live.”
Hmmm, knows where I live...or he’s bluffing…then it hits me and I exclaim:

PHOTOGRAPHER: “Oh! You’re talking about the giant hot dog…?”
FBI: (Silence)

PHOTOGRAPHER: “At the propane place?”
FBI:Go on…” (he says, as if he were Sgt. Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV series).

At this point I rattle off my explanation that I was stuck in traffic, and like any photographer, I'm genetically unable to resist photographing odd things, like this silly hot dog which was obviously put there for people to notice and be amused by!…I start chuckling, like its all one big misunderstanding, but quickly realize I’m just digging myself in deeper. By Sgt. Friday’s profound silence I realize that the Fed has no sense of humor. Assuming I was either a lunatic, a terrorist, or both, he continues:

FBI: “The fact that you work for a hospital makes this even more suspicious.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: “Um…what? Why?” (I stammer, as I realize that they investigated me! AND…they've determined my M.O.!)

Once you know what they’re after, you can begin to talk your way out of it—I’ve always found it much easier to get forgiveness than permission. This guy got the report of someone photographing an industrial complex, but never actually went there to check it out himself! Not having seen the giant wiener, I guess he didn’t realize how silly this all sounded. So I offer:

PHOTOGRAPHER: “Look, its just that there’s this giant hot dog there smiling for all the world to see and…”
FBI: (In a manner totally devoid of emotion, he says) ”What do you plan to do with the pictures? Have you printed them?”

Cleverly avoiding the subject of digital photography, and its infinite potential for communicating via the Internet, I said:

PHOTOGRAPHER: “I rarely print what I shoot because, well, I just shoot on impulse (perhaps a poor choice of words) and I have thousands of images—“
FBI: “Well, you won’t print them. If your story checks out, you won’t be hearing from us again. You will, however, be getting some calls from other agencies. Keep my card and when they contact you, just give them my name and tell them you’ve spoken to me.” (Hangs up—no fanfare, no twenty-one bun salute.)


If my story ... “checks out?” I imagine him calling in a 10-3 for a black and white to be dispatched to the scene … “Affirmative on the outsized red-hot, over.” I guess they were able to corroborate my story, as I was never contacted again. They must have verified the existence of the ginormous wiener and determined that I was of minimal threat to the free world. So the FBI has a file on me, due mainly to the paradigm shift of our post-9/11 planet. I'm kind of surprised I wasn't contacted even when the gas supply company did subsequently explode, but that was years later (see link below).

At some point, I may have promised Sgt. Friday that I would not do anything with the pictures I took, and I’ve been true to my word. They are lost among thousands of other images I’ve captured over the years and will never look at again (digital allows us to do this quite easily, as you may know). So for your benefit, I returned to the scene and took other pictures for this article. Hey, I was true to my word—technically. I never printed the ones to which he referred--I went back and took different ones.

Further Adventures with the Man
As an aside, a few weeks after my run-in with the “Bureau,” I found this little squeak toy between the seats in my car. Now, here’s the deal: I only told the FBI story to a handful of people. A few of them know where I park my car in South Philly (I walk the rest of the way to work). Even fewer know that I leave my car unlocked (due to a break-in a few years ago which left my ragtop slashed). So, it follows that one of these people planted the item in question. Who was the perp? To this day, no one has fessed up to the deed! The entire FBI experience taught me something--that I should just stick to taking pictures in cemeteries--I get in less trouble there! Call me paranoid, but as the great philosopher Charles Manson said, total paranoia is total awareness!

Watch video of Sept. 1, 2010 Scully Propane Service Corporation Explosion

Monday, January 3, 2011

Tombstone Rubbing

Time for a lighthearted human interest story--this is about tombstone rubbing. Sometime in the 1980s, a friend of mine was a Scoutmaster for the Cub Scouts. Scouts (both boy and girl versions), as you may know, are into activities of various kinds. You know, earn a merit badge for tying rope knots, helping little old ladies across the street, that sort of thing.

Well, my friend Mike the Scoutmaster thought it would be a great activity for his Scout troop to go tombstone rubbing in graveyards. At the time Mike and I worked together near Rochester New York. Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery offered many fabulous examples of Victorian-era stones, so they spent many hours there. The idea was a success and the Scouts enjoyed not only the stone-rubbing activities, but seeing history up close -- Susan B. Anthony and Buffalo Bill's foster son (Johnny Baker) are buried here.

Tombstone rubbing is a process by which one creates a physical impression of a tombstone's surface design. Typically a large piece of paper is fastened to the stone's surface and is rubbed with the side of a crayon to bring out the words and the carved details of old tombstones. People do rubbings for a variety of reasons--their own enjoyment, preserving the historical record, genealogical studies, etc.  Here are some examples of Tombstone Rubbings if you've never seen one.

So back to our story. The Boy Scouts of America were scheduled to have a Jamboree* at the Rochester convention center, during the era when Mike was Scoutmaster. These are regional, national, and even international events at which individual Scout troops and visitors gather to see how Scouts do things in various parts of the world. Mike thought it would be interesting to show people how tombstone rubbing is done, i.e., have the Scouts demonstrate the activity and let interested visitors have a go at it themselves. The only problem: where to get a headstone with which to demonstrate?

Being the resourceful person Mike is, he goes to one of those gravestone memorial stone cutters, explains his need, and walks off with two borrowed stones. No doubt outtakes from the carver’s sample display—you’ve seen them lined up out front of such shops, or like in the photo here, piled up out back. These are misprints (misspelled name, incorrect date, etc.) or just stones people made deposits on but never picked up.

So picture this: Mike and the Scout Troop are all set up at their table. People pass by, Mike engages them in discussion, the Scouts have a blast demonstrating and explaining their project. Except that’s not exactly what happened. While I'm not usually one to let facts get in the way of a good story, I think its best to hear it in Mike’s own words:
“We had an old lady who was one of the first people to stop by our table at the Jamboree. She almost keeled over when she saw her husband's gravestone on display! She screamed that I had stolen the stone from his grave. Then she saw that his name was spelled wrong. The company had made an error on the original stone and had not told her they had made a duplicate to place on his grave. “

Can you imagine yourself in that situation? Poor Mike thought he was providing a community service, but as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. I believe he later absolved himself of the grievous offense by bathing in a pool of sacred lambs’ tears.

References and Links of Interest:

*Scouting Jamboree - The national Scout jamboree is a gathering, or jamboree of thousands of members of the Boy Scouts of America, usually held every four years and organized by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Referred to as "the Jamboree", "Jambo", or NSJ, Scouts from all over the nation and world have the opportunity to attend. They are considered to be one of several unique experiences that the Boy Scouts of America offers.

How to Make Tombstone Rubbings

Want to try it yourself?