Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Witch's Heads in the Holy Rood Cemetery

"Holy Rood Cemetery has all the looks of a haunted graveyard. Perched at the crest of a hill and held above Wisconsin Avenue by a stone wall, the cemetery looks from the street like the setting of an Edgar Allen Poe thriller." - Holy Rood: A Cemetery With a Tell-Tale Heart

One of the very first cemetery angel photographs I ever made was this one, possibly around 1998. I was tramping around the cemeteries in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., and came across the “Holy Rood Cemetery” on Wisconsin Avenue. Having not a clue what a “Rood” was (Holy or otherwise), I went inside. I remember walking around the hilly place, most of it knee-high with weeds, and finding this solitary angel. The grounds were in deplorable condition and the angel seemed frozen in the act of beseeching the Heavens for help.

The idea of an unkempt cemetery was not a concept with which I was familiar at the time. It kind of baffled me - the broken fence, the scrappy sign, tombstones knocked over in the high weeds. I never thought to write about Holy Rood, since I only actually got one photograph from there, and it was kind of a nondescript place. However, I recently came across some interesting material on the cemetery while I was looking up other things.

The reason I only have one photograph is because I improperly exposed the entire roll of film I shot there. Back then I was shooting black and white film, Kodak Tech-Pan to be exact, an unwieldy film that rarely gave me more than a few good images. Kodak Tech-Pan was extremely unusual − you could expose it at any ISO between 25 and 320, and what varied was not so much the grain, but the CONTRAST. The lower the ISO, the finer the grain, the lower the contrast. At ISO 25, it was the world’s finest grain black and white film. The roll I shot at Holy Rood was at high contrast ISO 320 in bright sunlight. I over-exposed everything. Somehow, the angel survived (possibly because of the ability of the film to capture celestial bodies? It was in fact very popular with astronomers!).

At the time, I had no idea this cemetery had such a tumultuous history. Holy Rood is the English way of pronouncing  the Scottish haly ruid, or holy cross, and this cemetery certainly has a cross to bear. The cemetery was established by Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church in 1832, and was predominantly Irish Catholic. Over the years Georgetown's founding fathers have been buried here, alongside German and Irish immigrants, former slaves, and Revolutionary War veterans. When the church joined the archdiocese of Washington in 1942, the cemetery was given to Georgetown University.

The land on which the cemetery was located was extremely valuable to the university, and a plan was set forth to move the bodies and develop the land. This raised the ire of plot owners and historians alike, so the idea was shelved. The university to this day has been stuck between a tombstone and a hard place - it would certainly like to use the land for expansion (like Temple University did in Philadelphia in 1953, when it condemned nearby Monument Cemetery so it could build a parking lot), but it does not want to risk another public black eye. As a result, this unenthused cemetery owner puts forth minimal effort to maintain the place. As a result, it is an overgrown, dilapidated mess. The homeless set up camp inside and deer give birth to their fawns here - thus we have contradictory life among the dead, as described by John Gillis in his 2011 article, "Holy Rood: A Cemetery with a Tell-Tale Heart." 
“The patchy, browning grass is dotted with headstones and funeral monuments, which are mostly toppled over or sinking into the ground.  Weeds break through the asphalt path that winds around the hilly graveyard.  Leaves remain unraked, and untrimmed bushes overwhelm gravestones. “ - Six Feet Under GU
 In 1931, Holy Trinity’s original cemetery was discovered during a construction project on Georgetown University’s main campus (currently the site of its Reiss Science Center). By this time the church had long ago filled it up and had been using the larger Holy Rood Cemetery, about ten blocks away. For the next twenty years, the old original graveyard went untouched.

“Just a few years after being unexpectedly uncovered, the graveyard also became an established part of campus lore. In February of 1939, The Hoya ran an article claiming that a century earlier “the burial place was a playground of strange apparitions known as ‘Witch’s Heads.’ On hot nights, ‘transparent, luminous globes’ floated over the cemetery, terrorizing students.
The Hoya’s explanation for these ‘Witch’s Heads’ was that at the time, bodies were buried unembalmed in crude coffins, so their decomposition released gases, particularly phosphorous, that seeped through the ground and would hover above the graves.” - Georgetown Voice, 10/29/2009

In 1953, the land on which the smaller cemetery was located was developed to make way for the new science center. Many of the graves were moved to Holy Rood. I imagine the Witch’s Heads disappeared after the bodies were reinterred, since they usually place the crumbling coffins and bones in a new box, or a concrete crypt. [The photo above is actually from Mt. Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia; when I read the piece about the hovering (yellow) phosphorus, I immediately thought of this image.]

Holy Rood Cemetery was closed to new burials in 1984. As of 2011, there are no plans to develop the land, nor is there any upkeep done to the cemetery.  It is just one of countless small graveyards (and even some very large cemeteries) in the U.S. that exist in a limbo of disrepair. A glimmer of hope exists, however, for Holy Rood - there is currently discussion among parishioners of Holy Trinity Church to negotiate with Georgetown University to have the cemetery returned so that improvements can be made.

"Holy Rood is no longer an operational cemetery. It is in very sad repair, although there has been an  improvement in grounds keeping in the past few years.Numerous gravestones are destroyed or  overturned." - Holy Rood Cemetery  Gravestone Transcriptions

References and Further Reading:

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