Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flattened Tombstones

King David Memorial Park, Bensalem (NE Philadelphia)

What do Nancy Spungen (of "Sid and Nancy" fame) and actor John Barrymore have in common? Admittedly, not much. However, they both have flat-to-the-ground tombstones. Spungen is buried in a cemetery where flat stones are required, and Barrymore, along with the rest of the Barrymore theatrical dynasty, seems to have chosen flat markers by choice. While practical, I can't imagine anything more mundane.

Mt. Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia

Back in the early 1990s, I made a trip to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale California to see the Lone Ranger's grave, among others. I found that the majority of the 250,000 inhabitants have flush to the ground grave markers - all the same size! I certainly didn't find it very attractive - grassy fields punctuated with cheesy modern sculptures here and there. I could find none of the graves I came there to see. I remember asking the groundskeeper why its like this, and he replied, beaming, “It makes it so easy to cut the grass!

Obviously, that's the main attraction - ease of maintenance. But I just don't get it. Granted, we could not reproduce the splendor of a Victorian sculpture garden cemetery today - the cost would be prohibitive. Plus, stone carving just ain't what it used to be! While such cemeteries had a distinct plan, the sheer variety of the monuments themselves gave an air of and uniqueness to each cemetery.

The trend today, of course, is vastly different. Flat markers, or "grass markers," as they're called on the Bertolini Memorials and Monuments website, are only one of many regulations we are warned about:


Most cemeteries have regulations and rules concerning the size, style, color, and design of headstone, markers and memorials. Some examples are:

1. Catholic cemeteries always require a religious design on the headstone.
2. Some may not allow porcelain pictures placed on the surface of a stone.
3. Many sections of cemeteries require specific styles of markers such as a flat type. This makes it easier for lawn care maintenance.

A cemetery can not refuse acceptance of your memorial as long as it meets their provided specifications. The client has the right to purchase their memorial from a vendor of their choice.

As it turns out, the Forest Lawn Cemetery chain (in Southern California) may have actually been the instigator of this trend toward flat grave markers. In 1906, Forest Lawn was founded by a group of San Francisco businessmen, with Dr. Hubert Eaton credited as its founder. According to Wikipedia, Eaton developed  the "memorial park plan," of eliminating upright grave markers.

[Eaton] was convinced that most cemeteries were "unsightly, depressing stoneyards" and pledged to create one that would reflect his optimistic, Christian beliefs, "as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness." He envisioned Forest Lawn to be "a great park devoid of misshapen monuments and other signs of earthly death, but filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, beautiful statuary, and ... memorial architecture" - ref

Ed at Jack Kerouac's grave

So in a cemetery filled with flat markers, how do visitors even find the graves of their loved ones? If the grounds are not maintained, grass and dirt can just cover them up! And what about all the states where it snows? I can see Forest Lawn not needing to concern itself with this, but the Barrymore and Spungen graves are in the Northeast part of the U.S. - Pennsylvania, in fact. It snows here! And what about Jack Kerouac's flat stone in Lowell, Massachusetts? Do you just not go and visit your loved ones' graves in the winter? (Click here for an amusing video of an adventure in the snow.)

Granted, my trip to Glendale was in the early 1990s, and the Internet was not yet the wealth of information that it is today.Websites like now help us in our quest. During a current search for comedian Sam Kinison's burial place, I was surprised to find these directions!

Burial: Memorial Park Cemetery
Tulsa,Tulsa County
Oklahoma, USA
Plot: Section 28 - Garden of the Apostles in the SE quad. GPS coordinates are N 36°05.095 W 095°52.814.

I think I'll end my little rant here with a story about Spungen's grave, and how Sid Vicious' mom wanted to bury his ashes there. The punk rock musician from the Sex Pistols supposedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in their suite at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan in 1978. Spungen was laid to rest at King David Memorial Park, Bensalem (NE Philadelphia), in Bucks county, PA. Vicious was arrested for the murder, but never went to trial. Three months later while out on bail, he overdosed on heroin and died. His mom, Ann, and some close friends had Sid's body cremated and intended to fulfill Sid's wish: "When I die, bury me next to Nancy."

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, by Eileen Polk (ref.)
Spungen's mother, however, wanted no part of this, so the keepers of Sid's ashes attempted to do what my family has done in the past - illegally bury them on another person's plot. As bizarre as the following account is, I can relate. (Read about my own bizarre experiences disposing of family cremains here and here). Eileen Polk describes the experience in the book, Please Kill Me, The Uncensored Oral History of Punk; Polk was a photographer and friend of Sid and Nancy.

We're standing at the gravesite and it was snowing. We were all crying. We just said some prayers and left some flowers.Then we drove around to the other edge of the cemetery. We parked the car and Ann [Sid Vicious' mother] took the ashes, went over the fence, back to the gravesite, and dumped Sid's ashes on Nancy's grave. Then she came back and got in the car and said, 'Well, they're finally together.' And that was that.

Further Reading:

Read my other two Cemetery Traveler blog postings about disposing of cremains:
Nana's Ashes
Ceramic Death Portraits

About Forest Lawn Cemeteries, from Wikipedia:

"Forest Lawn's 300 acres of intensely landscaped grounds and thematic sculptures were the inspiration for the biting commentary of Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel The Loved One and Jessica Mitford's acerbic The American Way of Death. Many commentators have considered Forest Lawn to be a unique American creation, and perhaps a uniquely maudlin Los Angeles creation, with its 'theme park' approach to death."

Many thanks to Melanie Hoch at REPO records in Philadelphia for inspiration for this article.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Graves of the Mob Bosses

Mob boss Angelo Bruno's grave
As I said in a previous blog, I feel a bit like a peeping tom when I get ideas from the pages of Facebook friends. I originally conceived of this blog as a memoir of sorts, but occasionally I get new ideas from Facebook, so thanks to you all. A month or so ago I happened on a page of photographs called "Grave Sites of Gangsters," by J. David Perry. Got me thinking about the grave sites of Philly mobsters.

In my 14 years of cemetery travel, I only remember one instance when I actually looked up where certain people were buried, in order to visit their graves. This was during a trip to Hollywood and the surrounding areas. Back in the early 2000s, I visited Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, a few of the Marx Brothers, Rudolph Valentino, The Lone Ranger, Alfalfa from the Little Rascals, and so on. Some day I’ll come across the photos from those cemeteries.

So if I ever find a notable tombstone or monument, it’s strictly by chance. It's been fortuitous to stumble upon the graves of John Barrymore, John Wilkes Booth, and Grover Cleveland, but I'm mainly shooting with blinders on. Think of all the interesting things I must be missing! What can I say, other than it’s taken a number of years for my interests in cemeteries to mature. Back then it was all about angels.

That’s where my focus was in the early days. Shot angels all over the U.S. for six years or more before I ever read a headstone inscription! I guess I just wasn’t prepared to take it all in. I wouldn’t even go into a cemetery if I couldn’t see angels from the road! Only after I kind of exhausted the obvious angelic possibilities, did I begin paying attention to other things. That led to an ever-expanding interest in cemeteries-- reading books, seeing what non-angelic cemeteries had to offer, appreciating other types of memorial architecture, talking with people who worked in cemeteries, and even dating them!

Gravesites of Gangsters

So I kind of surprised myself when I saw the “Grave Sites of Gangsters,” page. It occurred to me that, hey, Philly used to be rife with organized crime – I wonder where all those mobsters are buried? About 5 minutes of Internet searching brought me to the odd finding that the most notorious ones are buried in the very same cemetery where I began my cemetery photography in the late 1990s, right under those very angelic noses! In fact, this is one of the very first angel photographs I ever made, on the very first roll of film, in Holy Cross Cemetery in 1997.

Holy Cross Cemetery 

Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA is about 2 miles from where I used to live in Delaware County − the southwestern suburbs of Philadelphia. It’s one of Philadelphia’s most unsung cemeteries. Why? It has more statues, monuments, and mausoleums than most cemeteries in the area. Although it’s of late Victorian age (est. 1890), it isn’t landscaped with the typical rolling hills and arboreal splendor. It’s all rather flat. None of the Catholic cemeteries in the area promote themselves as tourist destinations, so Holy Cross gets no publicity. However, it is kept up extremely well by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and is a lovely place in which to wander. It was very convenient to my house – whenever a gathering storm arose, I would jump in the car with my cameras and head over there. For me it was wonderful − the place has so many angel statues you can’t swing a cat without hitting one (as Mark Twain would say).

It’s ironic that a Catholic cemetery would allow known criminals to be buried within its grounds. And then care for the graves, perpetually. No more hypocritical than Italian-American  mobsters being faux religious, I suppose, you know, all Catholic and god-fearing on the surface. (There have been a few, however, who have been denied a church funeral −John Gotti, Paul Castellano, Carmine Galante and Frank DeCicco.)

Googling Mobsters’ Graves 

My search began by Googling Angelo Bruno’s and The Chicken Man’s graves. Both had just been whacked when I first moved to Philly in the early 80s, and the city was still abuzz with the news. Specifically, I Googled “Angelo Bruno grave.”

The Websearch itself was rather interesting. “” is typically what comes up first when you search for a specific person’s grave. The site boasts “61 million grave records!” For each burial, the site gives a short bio with the specific location within the cemetery where the person’s buried. As I alluded to, both Bruno and the Chicken Man are noted as being buried at Holy Cross. Here’s Bruno’s data from the site:

Burial: Angelo Bruno
Holy Cross Cemetery
Delaware County
Pennsylvania, USA
Plot: Section 23, Range 2, Grave 16

FindAGrave even includes a map of the cemetery so you can find the section. Most cemeteries mark their sections with a small stone at the edge of the road border. The range and grave number is fairly easy to figure out, the range being the number of rows in (but you have to figure out from what side), and the grave number being the count from the end of the row (but you don’t know which end). Navigating around section 23 with the help of these coordinates and a bit of dead reckoning (pun intended), I came upon Angelo Bruno’s grave without too much trouble. The only thing notable was a tarnished 1959 penny on the stone. Makes you wonder if it was a family member who placed it there or what might happen to you if you snitched it.

Bruno is perhaps the best known Philly mobster of recent times, having been the boss of the city’s organized crime family from 1959 to 1980. Bruno was murdered with a shotgun blast to the head while sitting in his car in front of his house. The Bruno killing sparked years of family infighting with dozens of slayings. A year later, Bruno’s successor, Philip 'Chicken Man' Testa was blown up by a nail bomb at his home.

Angelo Bruno's house in South Philadelphia
Bruno’s house was up for sale in 2010. His daughter still lived there and wanted to move to Jersey (where all the Goodfellas seem to end up). Since his house is only about a mile from mine, I thought I’d stop by and snap a photo. People assume mobsters live in fancy homes or estates like the bosses on the  Sopranos. Bruno’s house was a very plain end-of-row, as you can see in the photo. John Stanfa, Bruno’s driver at the time of the killing, did the brick work on the front (in case you were wondering).

(Map link to Bruno's house – note that it is located on “E. Snyder Avenue!”)

Philip 'Chicken Man' Testa 

Though Phil Testa was only a mob boss for a year, he’s more famous in pop culture than Bruno. Bruce Springsteen opens his song “Atlantic City" with the line:
“Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night, now they blew up his house too….”
Philip "Chicken Man" Testa's house (r.) in South Philly
Testa, whose nickname came from his involvement in a poultry business, was killed when a nail bomb was exploded on his front porch as he was entering his house in South Philly (21st and Porter Streets). I took this photo a few days ago. The house is still there. His was the one on the right side of this twin. Obviously some remodeling has been done since the blast in 1981.Unlike the very commercial Snyder Avenue area where Bruno lived, Testa seemed to prefer the residential tree-lined streets across from Steven Girard Park.

Finding Testa’s grave was a bit more challenging. It probably took me 15 minutes to locate Bruno’s headstone, but it didn’t seem like Testa’s was there, at least according to the directions on You figure it would be relatively easy, since they show you a photo of the actual stone.  So I gave up and re-checked the site. It was supposed to be in Section 27, but it didn’t seem to be there. I started thinking all these cloak-and-dagger thoughts like they must have moved the grave because rival crime families were desecrating it. Turned out FindAGrave had the wrong information. (I went back to the site today to send an email correction to the site author, but found all the specific location information for Testa’s grave removed.)

I visited the record keeper at Holy Cross and asked if she could tell me where Testa’s grave was located. That was a bold move on my part – I wasn’t sure they would give me any information at all, or they might want an explanation of why I wanted to know. Turned out not to be the case. No questions asked, the woman looked it up and gave me a map. Section 21, not 27. Strange how we often assume everything we read is factual (like Wikipedia, for instance).

Additional information I was given was the exact location and depth of Testa's coffin relative to the family stone and the other family members buried there. This kinda weirded me out, like, who would need to know that...? You’ll also notice Salvatore Testa’s name on the stone. Salvie was Phil Testa’s son. According to Wikipedia, “Three years later Salvatore was murdered on orders from Nicky Scarfo. Scarfo, despite being Salvatore's godfather at birth, began to feel threatened by the young capo's popularity in the family and was jealous of an article in the Wall Street Journal that noted Salvatore as a rich, young rising star within the Cosa Nostra underworld."

I was rather surprised to also find this mausoleum at Holy Cross. Michael Maggio was an old-time Mafia Don who sponsored Angelo Bruno for membership into the Philadelphia Family in the 1930s. A lot of people glorify such criminals, treat them like movie stars or folk heroes. One hopes that the line from Springsteen’s Atlantic City, “everything that dies someday comes back, “ does not apply to their kind. In closing, it amused me to see this notation with the Sad Pansy at the bottom of all the mobster’s pages on the FindAGrave site:

The Virtual Flowers feature has been turned off for this memorial because it was being continually misused.

References and Further Reading:

Italian Catholics against mobster church funerals
Canadian Catholics rationalize mobster church funerals
Angelo Bruno's House for Sale Angelo Bruno Philip Testa Michael Maggio

Chicken Man Video:  Mob Scene w/George Anastasia
Angelo Bruno Video:  Mob Scene w/George Anastasia
Archdiocese of Philadelphia Cemeteries

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Civil War P.O.W. Cemetery

Confederate burial trenches
Rest on embalmed and sainted dead
Dear as the blood ye gave
No impious footstep here shall tread
The herbage of your grave 

from "Bivouac of the Dead", by Theodore O’Hara (1820-1867)

Military cemeteries have never held my interest, photographically. Call it a flaw in my personality. Sure the tombstones create interesting patterns being all the same size, shape, and color (white marble, typically), spaced equally apart, but I’m more about entropy. And statuary. I’ve tried to photograph military stones, but the images just look clichéd. So imagine my surprise when I came upon “Finn’s Point National Cemetery” – certainly the strangest military cemetery around.

I was actually headed for Salem, New Jersey, driving south on Route 49 from the Delaware Memorial Bridge last fall. There’s a quaint churchyard cemetery in Salem, New Jersey where I hoped to make some fall foliage photos. A few miles from the center of town, I saw the sign for “Finn’s Point National Cemetery,” within Fort Mott State Park. What the heck, I had the time, and maybe being right on the bay, the place is all picturesque, who knows? So I headed down the road toward Fort Mott.

I drove miles through the rural farmland (which is actually in Pennsville, Salem County) until I almost gave up. No signs, nothing. Couldn’t even see the Delaware Bay. The woods and fields were beautiful, though, with their changing colors. One of the few times I actually pulled the car over to get out and make some photographs, another car slowed down, checked me out, and pulled off the road about 100 yards ahead. A guy with one leg got out of the driver’s side, went to the trunk, opened it, and took out some sort of election sign on a wooden stick and proceeded to hammer it into the ground. As I drove by, I glanced at the fellow in the passenger seat, and he was dressed in a white suit, sitting there all satisfied with himself like Boss Hogg from the old Dukes of Hazzard TV show! Small town politics.

And this area surely is small town America. Or has been since the early 1900s when the fishing industry collapsed. Throughout the 1800’s, oysters, sturgeon (for caviar), and blue claw crabs were overfished and as a result, entire industries disappeared. Now the sparsely populated coastal bay area subsists mainly on retail and farming, that is, until you get further south to Cape May where beach tourism takes over. I made the photo above in a small churchyard cemetery in Pennsville, NJ.

So the cemetery is smack dab in the middle of all this. You drive through the little Jersey towns of the Delaware Bay area and you’d swear John Prine had it in mind when he wrote the song, Paradise: "it’s a backwards old town that is often remembered, so many times that my memories are worn." This, to me, describes Salem perfectly – a place that’s been in existence since 1730 and whose main claim to fame is that it was on the steps of the Salem courthouse in 1820, that Colonel Robert Johnson proved the edibility of the tomato. Before 1820, Americans often assumed tomatoes were poisonous (ref.).

P.O.W. Cemetery on the Delaware Bay

As I drove through Fort Mott State Park (nature preserve) to get to the cemetery, even this jaded photographer was taken by nature’s charms. A forest of brightly colored trees lined the road to the right, while dense foliage almost hid an old canal to the left. When I arrived at the cemetery, I was surprised that it was so small (less than 5 acres). The area is all swamps and marshland, with retaining walls on two sides – very enchanting, yet desolate. There was a parking lot for about 5 cars, in which a solitary empty pickup sat. A groundskeeping crew of a few men were cutting grass around the old office building. Everything was locked up, even though this was the middle of a weekday. Obviously not a popular tourist destination. Look at the photos on the Fort Delaware website and you can see how remote this place is.

  Fort Delaware, built in 1817 on Pea Patch Island in the bay opposite Finn's Point, and was used as a prison camp during the Civil War (1861 - 1865). Both Confederate and Union dead who had died at the prison were buried here at Finn's Point. The fact that it’s a Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) cemetery distinguishes Finn’s Point from other military cemeteries. As I read the informational signage overlooking the bay, I found that 2,436 Confederate POWs are buried here, along with 135 Union soldiers. The fact that both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried within the same cemetery makes it quite unique. In a small separate section of the cemetery (shown below), you'll also find the graves of Russian and German P.O.W.s from WWII. Very odd indeed. The Germans and Russians had died while prisoners at Fort Dix, NJ.

German and Russian P.O.W. graves

Finn’s Point National Cemetery resides within Fort Mott State Park. Fort Mott was part of a three-fort defense system designed to protect the ports of Philadelphia following the Civil War. The other two forts in the system were Fort Delaware and Fort DuPont in Delaware City, Delaware. According to Wikipedia:

Originally purchased by the federal government to build a battery to protect the port of Philadelphia, the land became a cemetery by 1863 for Confederate prisoners of war who died while in captivity at Fort Delaware. One hundred and thirty five Union soldiers who died while serving as guards at the prison camp are also buried here. The death toll among prisoners of war and the guards was high, especially in the latter part of 1863 and throughout 1864. By July 1863, there were 12,595 prisoners on the island at nearby Fort Delaware which was only about 75 acres in size. Disease was rampant and nearly 2,700 prisoners died from malnutrition or neglect. Confederate prisoner interred at the cemetery totaled 2,436 and all are in general unmarked graves. - Wikipedia

You read dry statistics like that, and you're distanced from the actual pain and suffering. Think about that – 2,436 soldiers died while in prison. In addition to captured Confederate soldiers and sailors, convicted federal soldiers (Company Q), and local Southern sympathizers, most of the Confederates captured at Gettysburg were imprisoned here. R. Hugh Simmons, a member of the Fort Delaware Society adds a touch of humanity to the story:
The prison was built to house 10,000 POWs, and the barracks were divided to hold about 2,000 officers and civilians in one compound and about 8,000 privates and enlisted men in the other. "So you had 3,800 (Confederate) prisoners suddenly appear on the doorsteps," he says. "These guys were sick as dogs. They were badly treated en route, and the Union officers have testified to that. When they arrived here, they started dropping like flies." With little space on the island, Soldiers Burial Ground at Finns Point was pressed into service. There are 2,436 Confederates buried in seven parallel pits at Finns Point that run east to west, Simmons explains. They were buried in wooden coffins stacked three deep. Names plates were put on each coffin and covered in leather for future identification. But no records were kept, and it was impossible to identify anyone after the war. In 1875, the year the ground was designated a national cemetery, the Corps of Engineers exhumed the remains of 135 Union soldiers and 187 Confederates on Pea Patch Island and reburied them at Finns Point.

Confederate Monument
Within the cemetery are two monuments an 85-foot high obelisk (at left) dedicated to the Confederate dead, and a smaller memorial dedicated to the Union soldiers buried there (below). During my visit, the tall obelisk was encased in scaffolding, so I used a photo of it from The names of the 2,436 Confederate military prisoners who were interred in the mass burial trenches and pits at Finns Point appear on the 12 bronze memorial tablets placed around the base of the monument.

Union Monument (
Another interesting memorial is the series of seven metal plaques overlooking the end of the Confederate burial trenches (which you can clearly see in my photo at the top of this article – kind of chilling, isn't it?). On each plaque is engraved a quatrain from Theodore O'Hara's poem Bivouac of the Dead, the first of which is quoted at the beginning of this article. (If you go to Sheena Chi's Flick'r Photostream, you'll see individual photos of the plaques as well as many other fine photos from her well-documented visit to Finn's Point.) 

Reading this poetry as you walk quietly along the trenches, you assume its been solemn and peaceful like this since 1864: "No impious footstep here shall tread, the herbage of your grave." Almost as a mockery to O'Hara's poem, spree killer Andrew Cunanan committed one of his murders here on May 9, 1997, killing cemetery caretaker William Reese and stealing his truck. Cunanan had murdered at least five people, including fashion designer Gianni Versace, during a three-month period in 1997. If I had known this at the time I visited the cemetery, I probably wouldn't have even gotten out of my car.

Up until the end of 2009, Finn's Point National Cemetery had been allowing burials of U.S. military veterans from all wars after the Civil War. Over the past several years, the marshy ground has become an issue due to the high water table, so all burials, caskets as well as cremains, have ceased.  

For Further Reading:

Fort Delaware website
Fort Delaware Society/Finn's Point National Cemetery
An interesting history of Finn's point Cemetery
Pea Patch Island Documentary
Bivouac of the Dead article and poem
Fort Delaware Video Tour
Delaware River Forts

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

One Year Anniversary of The Cemetery Traveler!

Hard to believe it’s been a full year since I began writing this blog. Since May 2010, I’ve posted 67 of these buggers. My original goal was one per week, but I got a bit carried away.

A friend once asked me what I like best about Robert Burns’ poetry. My answer was ‘mainly, the words.’ Words are things I’ve only recently attached to my photography – words don’t come naturally to artists, it seems. I’ve always had difficulty writing artist’s statements, for example, and I dislike giving titles to my work. But people will ask, “Where was this taken? Why do you photograph cemetery statues? Have you ever been to XYZ Cemetery?” So I started writing about my work.

A blog became the perfect vehicle, because it could be nothing more than an informal travelogue, punctuated with particular photographs I made in a certain cemetery. This is how Mark Twain began writing novels, by the way – his first two bestsellers were travelogues.  It was only after he began making attempts at an actual novel that he realized how difficult it was!

I began The Cemetery Traveler thinking I’d mostly reminisce about my decade of wandering through graveyards photographing the monuments and statues. Writing about my travels never occurred to me at the time, so I rarely took notes. Although history has a way of merging fact with fiction, my writing does not suffer on that account. Like Twain said, my memory’s so good I can remember things whether they happened or not.

But frankly, I’m thrilled by the interest and attention paid to the blog by followers, subscribers, Facebook  friends, and email friends. Heck, in addition to all my virtual readers, I even know actual people who read my work! So I thank you all. Knowing there are folks out there who like what I write makes it all the more enjoyable to do.

Is it Curtains for The Cemetery Traveler?

Have I run out of material? Exhausted my trove of experience and now my blog will suck? Heavens, no − I can go on and on. This is just a way of stopping to catch my breath. You may have noticed that my recollections have been punctuated with new adventures. Not only has writing about past travels become a sort of catalyst for new ones, but I’ve found people who are more than willing to accompany me on cemetery trips. Ten years ago, people just thought I was weird.

I do welcome suggestions and comments on the blog, as they often spark an idea for a new topic. For instance, I have one vigilant reader to thank for the suggestion to write about photographing mausoleum stained glass windows, and another to thank for (inadvertently) prompting me to visit a cemetery I hadn't seen in eight years.

In addition, as I go through my archives of thousands of graven images to post on my Facebook site, Ed Snyder's StoneAngels Photography, I’m reminded of experiences I had while making those photographs. Since I’ve barely begun to scan the negatives from my first six years of cemetery photography, I have plenty of material. Like the time I impressed a girlfriend when my car broke down in a Syracuse cemetery 300 miles from home. Or the time my friend John and I drove two hours to Baltimore only to find our destination cemetery locked up and surrounded by police, with a wanted killer holed up inside (so to speak).

New Adventures

As I’ve said, I started writing the blog with an eye toward reminiscing about my past cemetery travels. I didn’t plan to continue to have new adventures to write about. But the process of recounting my experiences seems to have triggered the urge to continue the forays. For instance, it never occurred to me a year ago that I’d become so interested in abandoned cemeteries. But then, you can’t really do anything without experiencing something new. In addition, comments and questions from readers spurred me revisit cemeteries I hadn’t seen in years. A pleasant result of such an instance was when I returned to Philadelphia’s Knights of Pythias Cemetery to find that it was no longer abandoned, but in the process of being restored!

Too Revealing?

Spoken like the true psychotherapist she is, my wife said to me the other morning, “I had the weirdest dream last night. Want to hear what it meant?” Personally, I’m not quite so introspective. In fact I used to brag about my profound inner shallowness.

The blog, however, has kind of forced me to dig in and find out more about what I do and why I do it (which I still can’t succinctly explain). Sporadically, I’ve revealed some very personal things in The Cemetery Traveler, and have been surprised by the outpouring of emotion and support from readers. I’ve learned a little more about myself and a bit more about people in general.

I also have new adventures planned. On the docket for this summer is to visit my Mom, and the cemetery in which her two brothers and sister are buried. Until about six months ago, I thought she was an only child.

Social networking via Facebook and blogging has helped turn my morbid fascination with cemeteries into a healthy sense of wonder about people’s views on death and dying. Though I’ve written a lot on these subjects for my StoneAngels website, the experience is very different – websites don’t actively invite feedback.

Abandoned Graveyards

Some surprising feedback I've received has to do with my investigations of abandoned graveyards. They're fascinating to me, but can be a source of real anguish to others. It really seems to suck all the joy out of cemeteries for them.  Here’s one comment I received:
"ed this story upsets me so much. i can't BELIEVE nobody has done anything about this..."
I’m always asked the question by perplexed people, “How does a cemetery become ... abandoned?” That’s a topic for another blog post, but it has become evident to me that many are appalled by the idea. Hey, sorry, that’s how we roll, people – sometimes we just don’t care. Although such places are inner city and a bit dangerous, it isn’t just about thrill-seeking for me (okay, it started out that way). It’s a fascinating real-time exercise in demographics, history, and the changing attitudes of a population. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have."  (Thanks to writer and cemetery photographer John Grant for that quote.) 

A positive outcome of this is my growing interest in Philadelphia’s notorious Mt. Moriah Cemetery, which is leading me toward becoming a member of the Friends of Mt. Moriah, a volunteer organization dedicated to saving the cemetery. Can it be saved? There are best and worst case scenarios to compare. Looking to the past, the city's Monument Cemetery was allowed to decay to the point where it was plowed over and turned into a parking lot in 1956. But then Laurel Hill was in the same condition in the 1970s. Luckily enough people with the wherewithal slowly resurrected it from the garbage and graffiti to the wonderfully restored Victorian cemetery it is today.


Angelo Bruno's Headstone
Okay, I feel a little guilty about this, voyeuristic, really. Sometimes I get ideas for blogs from reading other people’s Facebook comments or viewing their photographs of cemetery statuary. For instance, I’m presently working on a blog about a cemetery in which several organized crime notables are buried. I got the idea from a Facebook friend who has an entire photo page of mobster’s gravesites. I began thinking, huh, the mob’s always been pretty active in Philly – I wonder where they’re buried? Turns out that many of them are planted in the very cemetery near my old house where I began making cemetery photographs in 1997!

But let’s rationalize. This from Keith Richards autobiography, Life, regarding where ideas for songs come from:

“the other thing about being a songwriter … is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert….Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You shouldn’t really be doing it. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter.”

So that kind of brings me full circle—I began my cemetery photography at this very same cemetery 14 years ago, I learned something new about it, which made me want go back and do some research. I never used to go to cemeteries looking for anything but angel statues. Facebook has helped me to expand my horizons, to appreciate cemeteries as continual sources of interest and inspiration.

Readers Reactions

I’m humbled that people with such seemingly disparate backgrounds have an interest in The Cemetery Traveler. Photographers and other artists, ghost hunters, horror enthusiasts, genealogists, funeral home directors, even morticians reading and commenting on the work has helped me develop the blog into more than I originally intended it to be. At some point in the near future, I hope to coalesce it into book form. Perhaps it will include readers’ favorites, with sections on Getting Locked in a Cemetery, Zombie Attacks, Abandoned Graveyards, etc. The cover idea I owe to a reader who noted that a photo (below) I posted on my Facebook site “Screams ‘book cover!’

As I’ve accumulated readers, I’ve also lost some. Some have disagreed with things I’ve written. Some have shied away when a friend or relative died this past year. I may wonder why someone’s stopped reading and shoot them an email. You have fun around cemeteries and you forget about its raison d'être – death.  It’s like the time I lost my cell phone in a graveyard once. Some days later, a woman called a friend of mine, whose number was stored in my phone (she called the stored numbers trying to locate me). When I got the message, I called her, thrilled that she had found my phone. Like an idiot, I asked, “Did you just find it walking through the cemetery?” She said, “No, it was on my son’s grave.” Sometimes even I am rendered speechless.

Drawing the Shades

As the preacher said last week at the funeral service for my friend’s Dad, ”know who you are and know where you’re going.” As I continue to write this blog, I may eventually find out who I am and why I take pictures in cemeteries. So on this one−year anniversary of The Cemetery Traveler, let me again thank my readers for putting up with the highly subjective accounts of an itinerant cemetery explorer. There are still tales to be told, mourning art to be shared, cemeteries to visit, and lessons to be learned.