Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving and Abandoned Cemeteries

Its six a.m. and raining outside. I’m nursing a head cold. Still, I’m thanking the Lord for yet another day above ground. It is Thanksgiving Day, as it happens. Rainy, bleak mornings like this make me think of abandoned graveyards, and how the cold and dismal rain beats down on the old stones. It can be a pitiful sight.

Prior to my cemetery travels, I don’t remember even being aware of the existence of an “abandoned cemetery.” Surely, when I bring up the subject at parties, people look at me funny. You’d be surprised how many folks are unfamiliar with the concept. They might ask, “How do cemeteries become 'abandoned?'" Well, that’s the topic for today, friends. How do they become abandoned? And what happens to them after they attain this substandard status? 

Mount Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia
Well, first off, what do we mean by ‘abandoned?’ Intuitively, we would think no new burials have occurred in decades, and there is no “perpetual care” of the graves. Relatives stopped visiting ages ago. The place becomes overgrown and filled with trash. While this is mostly true, there are actually LEGAL definitions. For instance, state of Missouri law says an abandoned cemetery is one in which no one has been buried for at least 25 years (RSMo 214.131). 

Resurfaced Texas Cemetery
When I was headed for Texas last spring, I went searching for abandoned cemeteries on the Internet, when I realized, “Hey, there are ghost towns throughout the old west!” In many of these deserted places, the last structures standing are – you guessed it – tombstones. A news item was brought to my attention last week by my friend Renee Rausch: a Texas town, complete with cemetery – recently reappeared as the lake covering it dried up in a drought! Tex-Atlantis had been submerged beneath 30 feet of water for the past 50 years! There are little forgotten small-town graveyards still standing all across America,from long-gone 1850s gold and silver mining towns in California and Nevada to long-exhausted coal mining towns in Pennsylvania.

There are probably hundreds of reasons why cemeteries get abandoned − I’ve only run into a few of them. Religious sect cemeteries that are left standing and unattended after the congregation is disbanded (a la B'nai Israel Cemetery in West Philly). Private little family plots on the old homestead (I’ve seen these in Virginia), where the homestead had long ago been divvied up and sold off as small land parcels leaving the little graveyard in the woods. Or the farmer’s field where they’ve plowed around an island of headstones for as long as anyone can recall. Facebook friends tell me these exist all over the country. In some states, you have legal right to cross private property to visit a cemetery that has no public access!

Philadelphia's Mt. Moriah Cemetery
Most people think cemeteries simply exist. You know, just hovering out there on the fringes of polite society. Far from fact. Even if you had come across the reality of an abandoned cemetery, you probably never even thought about how it got that way. People may ask, “How could ‘they’ let it go to pieces like that?” The key word here is ‘THEY.’ In the case of Philadelphia’s most notorious abandoned cemetery, Mount Moriah (which happens to also be the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania), the owners can’t be found. They’ve all long since died and there’s no one left from the original board of directors to take responsibility for the upkeep of this several-hundred-acre overgrown forest. The city has an albatross on its hands.

Sometimes I think we have the same false notions about cemeteries as we have about Thanksgiving (which had nothing to do with turkey and pumpkin pie, or giving thanks, for that matter). Thanksgiving Day was a single event in 1621, one day when politics brought pilgrims and Indians together. Tension and posturing by each group was evident as Pilgrims and Indian tribes attempted to ensure their own survival. What has come to be accepted as a harvest celebration or day of thanks wasn’t even referred to as “Thanksgiving” day until 1841. Thanksgiving as we know it did not become a national holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln could no longer take the relentless badgering by Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. He conceded that it might help national unification after the Civil War. Needless to say, the idea of a New England-originated Thanksgiving Day Holiday was not embraced by Southern states.

But I seem to be getting off track here. I apologize. My narrative may become more linear as the effects of whatever medication I ingested last night wears off. The Native American community calls our Thanksgiving Day their “National Day of Mourning,” the day they mourn the genocide of their ancestors and the theft of their land.  This largely fabricated holiday of ours is a prime example of history re-written to make us feel better about ourselves. Kind of reminds me of the following story.

Franklin Cemetery, c. 1940
When you read about how bodies are reinterred elsewhere so a cemetery can be repurposed, think about what happened to the residents of Philadelphia’s Franklin Cemetery in the 1940s. This cemetery in the city’s Kensington neighborhood was at the center of a political swindle gone bad. Its 8,000 buried bodies disappeared when someone was promised a huge profit if he sold the cemetery land back to the city after the bodies had been removed. An outraged citizen (Margaret Alice Butler) even wrote a song about it! Part of it goes like this:
"I'm telling you, in this day and age,
The dead people aren't even safe.
. . . Everyone's out for that almighty dollar.
Now only if the dead could holler."
What can happen after a cemetery is abandoned is that it can get condemned and then obliterated, if the land has any value. The bodies are (theoretically) moved and the land is repurposed. That’s the case with the photo at the beginning of this article. It may seem shocking, and it is. In 1922, Philadelphia condemned the Hanover Street Burial Ground, and left it up to relatives of the deceased to remove the bodies!

The Business of Running a Cemetery
Unless a non-profit group is responsible for it, a cemetery is run as a business. As such, it is susceptible to all the financial problems any business might experience – a bad year, a drop in popularity, embezzlement of funds by the owners or other financial mismanagement, and of course, over time, it can become filled up, so no more burials are possible!

Discarded tombstones along Delaware River
After cemeteries are abandoned, what happens to them? The Hanover Cemetery situation is one hard dose of reality. A derelict cemetery can be an eyesore, blight on the community. Back in the 1950s, people just were not into cemetery upkeep like they are today – it could easily get plowed over in the name of urban renewal. Sometimes relatives are contacted to move the bodies before the city either paves over the cemetery or moves the bodies to a mass grave somewhere. This happened in many major cities. Both San Francisco and Philadelphia dismantled many old cemeteries (because the land was getting too valuable) and dumped the monuments and grave markers in the local waterways.

Though they seem to be in the limelight right now (with many neighborhood efforts to clean them up and restore them), abandoned graveyards are not a modern issue, a contemporary conundrum. The Hanover photo at top was taken around 1922! By then, the Hanover Street Burial Ground in Philadelphia’s Fish town neighborhood had long been abandoned (it was about 117 years old). (My thanks to Ken Milano for allowing me to use the image from his superb book, Palmer Cemetery and the Historic Burial Grounds of Kensington and Fishtown). Capitola Playground in South Philly and Johnson Cemetery Park (I swear this is really what it’s called, see blog) in Camden Jew Jersey were both originally forgotten cemeteries landscaped over to become neighborhood parks.

Some forsaken cemeteries reside on land that is worthless to real estate developers. These are the ones that languish, and may never get revitalized by any charitable organization. Small ones seem forlorn and pitiful, larger ones can be frightening, like sleeping monsters. The detritus of a civilization, one that doesn’t seem to attach much value to its own history.

As I watch a scavenger outside my kitchen window pick through my trash, I’m taken by its parallel to my interest in abandoned cemeteries. I feel like I’m picking through things other people no longer want. Looking for something that interests me, never really knowing what I might find. The more we educate ourselves about cemeteries, the more can we learn about ourselves – information is preservation. Preserving memory is supposed to be what cemeteries are all about, isn’t it? Well, maybe there are some things we’d just rather not be reminded of.

References and Further Reading:

Ed Snyder has written many Cemetery Traveler blogs about abandoned cemeteries. Here are a few:
New Jersey: Abandoned Cemetery...or just Repurposed?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dunmore Cemetery and the Dearly Departed Players

I guess those of us living in the northeastern part of the U.S. get to enjoy a unique aspect of our cemeteries that people in other parts of the country cannot – the rainbow of colors brought on by leaves changing colors in the fall. (I have this ridiculous notion that you can never see Minnesotan cemeteries because the ground is always covered with snow!). If you happen to pair up the fall foliage extravaganza with a truly beautiful cemetery, the result can be breathtaking. I experienced this at the beginning of November at the Dunmore Cemetery in Dunmore, Pennsylvania.

Dunmore is in the northeastern part of PA, an old coal mining region, two miles north of Scranton (made famous on the TV show “The Office”). The reason I was in Scranton was because I was invited to participate as an artist in Scranton’s First Friday Arts Walk. Most cities have them – once a month, galleries change their exhibits, stay open late, and offer free wine and cheese doodles. Sometimes other businesses get involved, hanging artwork, hosting live bands, etc. You see bookstores, restaurants, bars, ever even churches participating. The good people at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scranton were my hosts for the evening. 

Prior to arriving at the church, I spent a few hours photographing in the Dunmore Cemetery, at the recommendation of the two fine people who were responsible for my being invited − Julie Esty and Wendy Belaski, members of the Dunmore Cemetery’s “Dearly Departed Players” theatrical group. This group offers a stone by stone walk though the history of the residents of the cemetery (sponsored by the Lackawana Historical Society).

Established in 1828, Dunmore Cemetery offers unique and well-preserved ironwork, headstones, statuary, and mausoleums. Across its hilly 35 acres, you'll see a pyramid, a lovely chapel, ornate crypts, even a zinc memorial thrown in for good measure – all blending art with the preservation of memories. Many memorials are quite unique, e.g. the castle-like crypt of the Boies family - with its filigree metalwork inside the entrance. its every bit as extravagant as anything you'd see in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Boies Mausoleum, Dunmore Cemetery

Julie Esty's book
Many cemetery companies strive to be what the Dunmore Cemetery is − a destination spot for all sorts of activity. It is a wonderfully landscaped and meticulously attended to Victorian-era sculpture garden. As I drove through and walked around on this gorgeous fall day, I was taken by the fact that there were so many other people here on a Friday afternoon! There were walkers, drivers, visitors tending to the graves of their loved ones, groundskeepers, and so on. Just a bevy of activity – in fact, more people than I’ve ever seen in any cemetery anywhere! The place is obviously a source of great community pride. Its office was immaculate, the sole worker very cordial and helpful. I noticed they were selling copies of Julie Esty’s book, Stories in Stone – Tales of Life from the Dunmore Cemetery, so I purchased a copy, figuring I would later ask her to autograph it. (You can purchase your own copy here.)

As cemeteries revitalize and try to earn more money to stay in business, a major thrust is to get more live people to spend time in them. Why would that matter? Well, if you can offer novel and interesting attractions to people (such that they’ll pay money to come to the cemetery), you can generate income from:
  • ·         Historic tours
  • ·         Concerts
  • ·         Beer tastings (!)
  • ·         Special events such as Halloween parties and presentations
But there’s a subtle yet very important reason to attract people to cemeteries, which Julie and Wendy pointed out to me later that evening − the more people who are around, the less likely vandals and thieves will be to damage and steal. As the founder and artistic director of the Dearly Departed Players, Julie Esty has figured out a way to get people into a cemetery (live people, i.e.). Over the course of two Sundays this past October, her two-hour tours of the Dunmore Cemetery drew eight hundred people! She is quite passionate about what her group does in this very popular form of historic preservation (there is actually no fee for the tour).

Photo by Tim Snyder
Early that evening, my brother Tim met me at St. Lukes, where he helped me with the load in and load out. I was given the front room in the church hall − a beautiful space in which to set up my books, photographs, and greeting cards. Inside the hall itself were a half dozen other artists and exhibitors, and a choir performed in the connected church. These people really know how to throw a party! They had a separate room set up with free coffee, cookies, bottles of water, and so on. 

Wendy Belaski, Ed Snyder, and Julie Esty
The whole affair was well attended and the visitors were great fun to talk to. Such a warm welcome! New friends and old stopped by, teens, people who were familiar with my work on Facebook, members of the Scranton Photography Club. People had suggestions to visit various local cemeteries, some discussed photographic techniques and camera gear, others asked me the stories behind certain images in my book as I autographed copies for them.

Stained glass from Dunmore mausoleum
Julie Esty and Wendy Belaski (who specializes in the art of mausoleum stained glass), arrived in Victorian hoop dresses and bonnets, as they were exhibiting pieces of funeral history, including post-mortem photographs, mourning clothing, and other artifacts. They’re as much into dead things as I am, so we hit it off well. I appreciate all the tips on nearby cemeteries to visit (especially the run down and nearly abandoned ones) and will definitely head back to Scranton soon. All in all, it was a fabulous visit, and I thank everyone for their hospitality!

References and Further Listening and Reading:
Hear Julie Esty’s podcast interview on the Dunmore Cemetery (hear what goes into planning a historical cemetery tour!)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Exploding Burial Vaults

Title got your attention, didn’t it? While I’m sure you’ll agree that “Exploding Burial Vaults” would be a GREAT name for a rock band, you’re probably thinking that I simply made the phrase up as an attention-getter. Nah. I’ll come right out and say that this article is actually, really, about a vault that exploded in a cemetery. Well, to be painfully accurate, it was a receiving vault. And you can go there to see the aftermath, now, years later.

Palmer Cemetery's bier house, built 1872
The Palmer Street Burying Ground is one of the quirkiest cemeteries I’ve ever seen. Named after Anthony Palmer, the founder of Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, the cemetery is in Fishtown, the next neighborhood over, near the Delaware River. Its interesting to note that Kensington was in existence before William Penn's arrival in 1681! Palmer founded Fishtown in 1730, with the cemetery dating back to 1732. The place didn’t appear on my radar until about five years ago, but now I find myself visiting it every few months. It’s a nice quiet little community cemetery, lots of trees, walkways, and gentle hills. Its about a city block in size, very well kept. They still have active burials.

You really wouldn’t know how quirky Palmer Cemetery is unless you lived in the neighborhood, or read up on the place. Or walked through it. Only place I've ever seen a wooden tombstone! Or a bier house (shown above, in Frank Furness architectural style). A bier house is not where the locals go to drink (although Fishtown has some mighty fine drinking establishments) - its a structure which houses a bier - a stand on which a corpse, coffin or casket containing a corpse, is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave (Wikipedia). Currently, a cemetery might have a chapel to serve the same purpose.

Also, Palmer is the only cemetery in which I've seen hundreds of iron burial markers just stacked against the fence and propped up against trees - the poor man's grave marker. These things are just jabbed into the ground at the gravesite, but over time, I suppose they get removed and tossed around. I'm sure no one really knows where in the cemetery these people are actually buried.

Difficult to say how many burials there are in Palmer, though the estimate is as high as 50,000. Hardly seems to be enough room for that many people, and the grave markers don't seem to be overly crowded. Well, over the course of 280 years, records of locations get lost, caskets get buried at different depths, and so on.

Quite possibly, the quirkiest thing about Palmer is that its free to be buried there - as long as you're a resident of the neighborhood. From the news article, "The Plot Thickens  - Locals are dying to get into this Fishtown cemetery:"

"But even more intriguing than the souls spending eternity here are the unconventional dictates by which this operation is and has always been run. Like most other entitlements, the right to be buried in Palmer comes with strings attached. First, you must be living in Fishtown at the time of your death. Specifically, you must be living within the original boundaries of Fishtown-York Street, Frankford Avenue and the Delaware River." 
Also, it's also up to you to have yourself or loved one buried. The official rule is that you walk around the cemetery with a long iron bar. When you find what you think is an open space, you're supposed to ram the bar down into the ground to see if you hit any coffins. If not, the space is yours! I swear to god this is true.

Last winter I happened to be at the Kensington community center for a chili cook-off, when I saw a guy with stacks of books on a table. I went over and found the book not to be a cookbook. Its title? "Palmer Cemetery and the Historic Burial Grounds of Kensington and Fishtown." The fellow signing copies was the author, Ken Milano. I bought one and we chatted a bit, as I was anxious to learn more about the Palmer Burying Ground.

Account of the Exploding Receiving Vault

For the uninitiated, a receiving vault was a common structure in cold-climate cemeteries in the 1800s (when graves were manually dug). If a body had to be interred during the winter months, the building served as temporary storage for bodies, until spring, when the ground thawed.  The big marble "Palmer" stone that sits in the grass at the corner of Palmer and Belgrade streets is the only thing left of the receiving vault after it exploded. It originally was the "ornamental frontispiece" on top of the roof (ref).

The vault was erected around 1870, a rather large brick and marble structure built partially underground. Surviving records show that up to ten bodies were stored in it at one time. So how did it come to explode, you might ask? Let's let Ken Milano tell us in his own words (from his book at the top of this article):

"The vault lasted just over a century. In 1975, with a build-up of kerosene fumes along with old rags being stored in the vault, plus the participation of some juvenile delinquents, the vault exploded. The roof caved in and the PALMER stone crashed to the ground. The explosion destroyed the vault. The remains were shoveled into the underground portion of the vault, and it was buried over...the PALMER stone was moved to different places in the cemetery and then finally to its present location."
So those are just a few choice observations I've made regarding the Palmer Street Burying Ground. As I'm sure you'll agree, it has had a long and colorful history, which the neighborhood is actively trying to preserve. Work seems to be constantly in progress as walkways are repaired, old tombstones are patched together, and trees are pruned. Its obviously a source of community pride, and it does my heart good to see it!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boot Hill Cemetery

Even if you HAD ever heard of Elkton, Maryland, it was probably for just one thing – the no-fault divorce. While Las Vegas gets all the publicity for such things, in little Elkton, you can get a non-resident divorce, whether or not both spouses agree! If you don’t find yourself in Elkon for some very specific reason, it’s very likely that you’re very simply, lost! I’m referring to an area about ninety miles northeast of Washington D.C., about where the Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland cultures collide. I like to think of this vicinity as an extension of the Brandywine area, quite dark and spooky, with all the houses looking like they were painted by Andrew Wyeth.

So I was in Elkon last week, not for a divorce, but to do some cemetery photography. Elkton has a small town center, which radiates out into serious farmland. I’m talking cows here. Of all the cemeteries I mapped out to visit, I had hoped the one named “Boot Hill Cemetery” would be most interesting. While it shares its name of course with the much more famous Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona, in its own way, it did not disappoint.
Boot Hill Cemetery is not the easiest thing to find. Of course, printed-out scraps of paper from Google Maps lying all over the seat of my car may not have been the best plan (my wife keeps insisting on a GPS). Feeling that I must be within spitting distance of the cemetery, I pulled up to a group of good ol’ boys to ask directions (I’m not above that, especially at dusk). They pointed and said, “Right up the hill.” Huh, so Boot Hill Cemetery is actually on a hill. I turned around in the driveway across the street (with the “Parking for Dale Earnhardt Fans Only” sign nailed above the garage) and headed up yonder.

Boot Hill is a rural churchyard cemetery - the small wooden church you see at top of this article (and at the top of the hill) was established in 1858, which appears to be around the date of the oldest graves here. On the church side of the road, the cemetery is rather new  – with the oldest graves from the early 1900s. There was a couple standing on the grounds when I pulled my car in, but they left quickly. I saw no other people during my visit. Though I did find this interesting epitaph here, the much more interesting area for me was the opposite side of the road. There, the older graves ranged from the 1850’s to maybe 1945 − a beautiful little place. Like so many other small rural graveyards I found in the area, the gates do not lock. This, fellow cemetery travelers, is always a pleasant find. 

Right at the entrance, I was surprised to find three zinc (or white bronze) memorials in a row! My personal best, as a tombstone hunter. Once in a while you'll find one or two of these in an entire cemetery, but three together was an unusual find in this geographic area. (Read more about White Bronze Memorials.)

At the base of the zinc monument in the foreground was the imprint you see below. The Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport CT had an interesting history, which you can read about in my blog link just mentioned. They created all the zinc memorials you see throughout the United States! Yep, they all came from one place. Which is why they all basically look the same. While you could choose from among a variety of funerary symbolism and have custom name imprints made, the structures are basically the same. Which is different from stone carvings you find in cemeteries.

In one of the photos above, you see the words "W. McDevitt, Elkton," engraved in the lower corner of a white marble headstone. Unlike white bronze memorials which were shipped all over the country (between 1870 and 1912), stone carvings are rather unique to the vicinity of the graveyard itself. This is pretty much the case all over. Stone is just way too heavy and fragile to ship. It also explains the great variations in stone type, sculpting and engraving styles, headstone shapes and sizes, even fonts, from one geographic region to another. You tend to see the same style headstones in cemeteries in the same geographic region. Travel fifty miles in either direction, and you're bound to start seeing differences!

Dynasty plot, with headstones engraved on walls
I roamed Boot Hill Cemetery for nearly an hour, making photographs, taking in the ambiance. Quiet. Peaceful. Like the church mice that live in the old building across the street. Lichens grew on the old marble headstones, and on the fifty-year-old seashells bordering some of the burial plots. Why do so many people put seashells on the graves of their loved ones?

Down near the wood line, there was a big old busted wooden pumpkin crate filled with old plywood and broken headstones. What was to become of them? With that to contemplate, I exited Boot Hill Cemetery and drove off into the sunset.

Lichen-covered marble headstone at Boot Hill Cemetery

Further Reading:
White Bronze Memorials blog by Ed Snyder