Friday, July 27, 2012

Graves of Lost Siblings

In a couple weeks I’m planning a trip, the trip of a lifetime. A few years ago, my Mom let it be known that she was in fact, not an only child. She had two brothers and a sister. They were all born seven to ten years after her, and all died shortly after birth. My Mom also let it be known that they were buried in a cemetery in Shavertown, Pennsylvania (near where she lives in northeast PA), the vicinity in which I was born and raised. I’ve asked her to take me there, to see the graves. I’m writing this before the fact. I’m not at all sure what I’m in for. So keep your hat on, we may end up miles away from here.

Since my Dad died eight years ago, my Mom has been talking. This may seem unusual. However, my Dad was overbearing to the point where he monopolized all conversations and didn’t allow other people to speak − and this was one of his better qualities. Our lives basically revolved around his family. My Mom’s family was seldom mentioned, and never visited – the living or dead.

So after he died, my Mom started to talk. It’s been great. I’ve learned wonderful things about her family – my family. The most shocking thing was the existence of Robert Daniel, Daniel Robert, and Joyce Elizabeth − and the fact that she knew where they were buried.

I didn’t know any of this back in 1981 when my first wife was pregnant with our first child. It died in utero and had to be aborted.  My mother, after the fact, wanted to have a tree planted in the baby’s memory in a local park. Both my ex-wife and I thought that was ludicrous. We just wanted to forget the horrific experience. About twenty years later, my mother told me that she had gone ahead anyway and had that tree planted. I figured, whatever, if it means that much to you, fine. I forgot about the tree until she began telling me about her lost siblings.

I realized in a flash how meaningful it was to her to plant that tree. She needed something like that to hold on to the memory of what, at the time, would have been her first grandchild. People cherish things they’ve lost in all sorts of ways, and far be it for me to criticize any of them. Over the past thirty years I've provided my mom with FOUR wonderful grandchildren, all of whom she loves and adores. Perhaps even more than she would have if she had not lost the first.

My mom, Beverly Snyder, at the grave of her grandparents
So the fateful day arrived when we planned to visit the cemetery where her siblings are buried. We did this yesterday – my Mom, my brother Tim, and I. After literally months of ninety-degree weather and near-drought conditions in this part of the country, this is the day it rained like hell. I made the wet, hundred mile drive to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the general area in which my Mom lives. We all jumped into my brother’s car and drove out to Shavertown, where Evergreen Cemetery resides. I lived around here for the first nineteen years of my life and never knew this cemetery existed.

My great-grandparents' grave, Evergreen Cemetery
My mom, it turned out, had not been to Evergreen since 1945, when her newborn sister Joyce Elizabeth died, and was buried here. She surprised herself by remembering approximately where the plots were, but we had to search a bit for the actual grave markers. First we found the Jones plot, in which are buried her grandparents, Daniel and Elizabeth Jones. Seeing my mom standing on her grandparents’ graves and looking teary was heartbreaking, as she said that my deceased father had not allowed her visit these graves. Daniel and Elizabeth had a son, Daniel Jr. (who is not buried here), who became my mom's father. Daniel Sr. died in 1920 and Elizabeth later remarried Robert Berwick, whose family plot is about fifty feet away. My mom’s siblings are all buried at the larger Berwick plot.

Brother Tim and my Mom
Until I saw the headstones, I thought it unusual (or even uncreative) to name your first-born boys Robert Daniel and Daniel Robert. But seeing the names engraved on the stones explained all: Daniel was the children's (including my mom) biological grandfather and Robert was their step-grandfather. (My middle name, by the way, is Daniel.) As I said, I always thought my mom was an only child. Her parents Daniel Jr. and wife Anna tried to have more children after my mom was born (in 1938), but the children did not live. Daniel Robert contracted pneumonia and died shortly after birth. Robert Daniel was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and died at birth. (My twenty-one year old son Christopher was also born with the cord wrapped around his neck, but as the delivery took place in a tertiary care medical center in 1990, he received better medical care and survived.)

My mom was six or eight years old when her brothers were born (and died) and does not remember much about the situation. She was ten, however, when her sister Joyce Elizabeth was born. She remembers the baby had a dislocated hip, among other problems, and died shortly after birth. Although the boys were buried at the Berwick family plot, she was not present at the burial. She does remember, however, being present at Joyce Elizabeth’s burial. She said “I remember them lowering that little white casket into the ground.” I just about broke down when she said that. 

Tim and Mom at the Berwick plot
Standing on their graves sixty-seven years later, she added, “They were all beautiful babies. I wonder what they would have looked like if they lived.” I suggested, "Like you?" She smirked and said, "What, short and fat?" None of the children’s names appear on the Berwick stone, for whatever reason. A gigantic evergreen shades the plot. As I was standing beneath it with my family, feeling firmly present in my past, I thought about that tree my mother had planted for my almost-firstborn. I can’t imagine ever being strong enough to visit it, wherever it is.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Zombie Chill

I finally made my way onto the set of a zombie movie. I’ve had several opportunities over the years, but last weekend the planets were finally in alignment. My friend Frank, who works at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, rung me up to tell me that a movie company was filming zombie scenes that night in the graveyard. Would I want to come by? Do zombies feast on human flesh?

Demons and Zombies
When I arrived, the actors were getting their makeup applied – fake brains oozing out of the top of baseball caps, torn clothes, fake blood spattered over flesh. After a bit of this fascinating scene, Frank  and I walked through the cemetery to the place where the scenes would be shot. A generator was running, power cables lay in the grass and a few barn door movie lights were on. This part of the cemetery looked quite eerie with the tombstones lit up white and the background pitch black.

Laurel Hill at Dusk
We chatted a bit about his previous night’s work – on Friday the Thirteenth – helping to set up for an outdoor screening of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and a 1937 court-ordered exhumation film made at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The latter a fascinating story involving a will valued at twenty million dollars that was thought to be buried inside a woman's coffin, which you can read about here (someone had actually found the film at a local flea market!). Believe it or not, nearly a thousand people showed up for movie night at the cemetery! (Read this if you think I'm exaggerating!)

Evening, Laurel Hill Cemetery
In comparison, this mid-July zombie evening was very quiet. It was also quite warm, about eighty degrees. The sky was cloudy, and their reflection of the distant city lights gave a luster of midday to objects below … well, maybe not quite that bright. It was light enough at 10 p.m., however, that you didn’t need a flashlight to navigate your way around the cemetery.

Frank, about to be demonized
Frank is Laurel Hill’s night man – he’s the guy called upon to do all the night work at the cemetery. Night work? There are many people who request night access (when the gates are locked) to do model shoots, music videos, movies, and paranormal investigations. Frank lets them in, shows them around, helps get them set up, and is available for any issues that might come up. He also lives on the grounds (well, in a house on the grounds) and serves as night watchman for the cemetery. So he’s seen a lot.

As we chatted, waiting for the film crew and actors to arrive, I was thinking I should’ve brought of few beers, it was so hot. About that moment, I felt an unmistakable coldness on my left elbow. It was brief, about two seconds, but I felt it. There were no breezes that night. I stopped Frank in mid-sentence and told him, after which he replied, “The paranormal investigators always say this is the most active part of the cemetery.” Out of seventy-eight acres, odd that the zombie folk chose this spot. In all my cemetery travels, this is the first time I ever experienced the “ghostly chill,”  which I did not feel again that evening. I've looked up the "rational" explanations for the cold sensation, and none of them wholly explains what I felt. I had no goosebumps, and I wasn't scared (consciously or subconsciously).

Film makers at Laurel Hill Cemetery
The rest of the evening was uneventful, as far as ghosts were concerned. I was intrigued by the fact that the cinematographer (videographer?) was using a professional-grade DSLR with video capability, which seems to be the equipment of choice for even some high-budget motion picture projects (see link to read more on this technology). After my initial fascination with being on a movie set and seeing zombies wore off, it was all rather tedious. Multiple takes of every scene kind of wears on you, as an observer, anyway. Still, it was a bit weird having zombies come up to me in a graveyard asking if I was afraid …. I was actually afraid they would continue telling me bad zombie jokes.

Beetle incineration
The more interesting part of the experience was seeing parts of the cemetery artificially lit with movie lights (of a temperature balanced for daylight, by the way), which made it apparent to a photographer (me) how cinematographers use light to create mood. The kind of creepy thing was seeing all the night beetles crawling up the marble obelisks all around us. Every once in a while, one would land on a hot light and be slowly incinerated. The first time I saw this, I thought the light was burning up, there was that much smoke! I alerted a member of the crew, who went over to examine the burning hot surface of the light. He picked it up by its stand, shook out the beetle parts, and the show continued on.

I shot a few of the scenes that were being filmed, being careful not to click my shutter after the “Quiet on the set!” proclamation was made. Some of those images you see here. Having my camera with me made me feel somewhat official, like it was a press pass or something. It’s interesting how the camera, as writer Susan Sontag puts it, can make everyone a tourist in other people’s reality – and eventually in one’s own.

Further Reading and References:
Secret Cinema at Laurel Hill Cemetery
Graveside Movies Draw 900+ to Laurel Hill Cemetery
Ed Wood's Film

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strange Adventures of a Cemetery Superintendent

Rocky Balboa at Laurel Hill Cemetery
Last week I attended a tour at Philadelphia’s Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery called ”Dishing Out the Dirt: The Strange Adventures of a Cemetery Superintendent.”(Laurel Hill is historic for two reasons, by the way: 1) it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and; 2) it is America’s second Victorian garden cemetery, established in 1836 – five years after Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, Massachusetts.)

Bill Doran, Laurel Hill’s maintenance superintendent has not been at his job since 1836, but he gives the impression that he has. Bill gave members of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery an hour-and-a-half long guided tour of the cemetery, pointing out some of the strange aspects of the death-care industry that only a Cemetery Superintendent would know. (That's not Bill in the image above, by the way, that's Sly Stallone at Laurel Hill in a scene from the movie, Rocky Balboa (2006), but more on that later. Bill is the better-looking chap in the center of the image below)

Cemetery Superintendent Dill Doran addressing crowd
Let’s first look at what Laurel Hill itself says about Dishing Out the Dirt (from its website) before I get into my own experience:
 “Not everyone is cut out for cemetery work... It can be a strange, emotional and unnerving venture. But, it also has its bizarre and often comical surprises. At a cemetery like Laurel Hill – a provocative historic site that works daily to put the rave back into graveyard – those surprises become ever more frequent. Encounters with the living – human and animal – are often as memorable as encounters with the dying and the dead."
I kind of thought, then hoped, this would be an indoor lecture. It was a hundred degrees on the Saturday afternoon of the presentation, and I was looking forward to sitting in a cool air-conditioned room. However, I was informed upon my arrival that it was a guided tour of the cemetery grounds, led by Bill Doran.

McDowell monument, 1891
About thirty people showed up and actually trudged through the graveyard with Bill for an hour and a half in the blazing heat –diehards! Worth the effort? Absolutely! Bill is riveting with his good-natured Irish brogue and workingman language. His knowledge of the business is vast, and he is quite effective as a public speaker. Obviously proud of his heritage, he was quick to point out that many of the fabulous statues and monuments at Laurel Hill were actually sculpted by Irish artisans, not Italians, as one might expect. Case in point is the enormous granite McDowell monument you see at left. Mr. Doran commented on the cost at the time to build various pieces, as Laurel Hill maintains these records. The McDowell monument, for example, cost $12,000 to make in 1891!

Headstone in tree!
Having access to all the cemetery’s records dating back to 1836 is rather fascinating. Our guide pointed out that lot sketches exist for a one-hundred foot-high pyramid that was planned for construction right near Laurel Hill’s gatehouse on Ridge Avenue! The structure, with underground mausoleums, was never built. Imagine the tourist attraction this would have been! For now, we must settle for subtler novelties, like this grave marker that was found to be embedded inside a tree when the tree fell down!

"Millionaires' Row"
Bill and his maintenance crew dig graves, move graves, and maintain graves. They plan the placement of monuments, shore them up, and maintain the mausoleums – both above ground and underground. I wondered if the rest of the audience was as surprised as I was years ago when I first found out that many cemetery monuments actually mark the spot of an underground mausoleum. These are accessed either through a door in the monument or by digging down to the roof of the underground structure. Bill said some families have their funeral services below ground, in the mausoleum, necessitating family members to scale a ladder down sixteen feet into a hole. Imagine that.

Vacant mausoleum at right
There were a number of interesting stories imparted to us by our host, but my favorite had to be the one about the father who came to the office complaining that his young son (I think maybe eight years old) was frightened by what he saw in a mausoleum on “Millionaire’s Row.” The father had peeked into the decorative holes in the door (as we all do, admit it!) and then invited his son to do the same. I’m guessing he said something like, “See, there’s nothing to be afraid of!” As his son peered into the building, the door opened from the inside and a man came out! The man proceeded to walk up the road. After vehement complaints to the office personnel by the man, the management apologized and told the visitors that homeless people sometimes take refuge in the mausoleums.

There is a vacant mausoleum here, by the way, which is for sale. Odd.  I suppose that if you can’t afford to buy, maybe you can get it on a thirty-year lease …? Picture a “VACANCY” sign on the door...!

Tour of portion of Laurel Hill Cemetery overlooking Schuylkill River
Mausoleums were the subject of a number of Bill’s stories. One bizarre one was how he saw a raccoon jump down an air vent into a mausoleum built into the side of a hill (they need air vents to allow for the escape for gases caused by the decomposition of bodies). Knowing there was no way out, Bill went and got the key, then opened the door to let the raccoon out. On opening the solid granite door, He was shocked to find the structure filled with the skeletons of all the other animals that had jumped in over time! Some had starved to death, probably, but some may have been baked to death. As Bill said, the temperature inside these structures can reach 300 degrees in summer. Subsequent to the raccoon episode, a screen was placed over the mausoleum’s vent to keep animals out. Strange adventures, indeed.

If you’re a bit put off by the stories so far, I am writing about a CEMETERY, after all, which has as its primary focus, death. Sometimes we cemetery fans forget that, in all our exuberance to learn about odd burial practices and photograph the beautiful statuary.  For others, a cemetery might have a more fleeting, yet final meaning for them. Some years ago, a man’s suicide note said “You can find me at Laurel Hill.” Police found his body lying on his family plot where he had shot himself. Another time, one of Bill’s workers found a small lifeless form, wrapped in a blanket behind one of the mausoleums. He poked at it and saw blonde hair. He panicked and went to get Bill. Upon closer examination, the bundled form turned out to be a dead poodle. Someone had cared enough about their dead animal to wrap it up and reverently deposit it inside a cemetery.

Cemeteries will do just about anything these days to generate income. This is especially true at Laurel Hill, which has a very minimal amount of space left in its 78 acres for new burials. You have to give the management credit for being so creative as to negotiate with film companies to use the cemetery as a destination location for making motion pictures. Laurel Hill has been host to a variety of big-budget Hollywood films over the last six years, including Rocky Balboa (2006) and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) (and yes, cemetery personnel do get to meet the stars!).

Transformer at Laurel Hill Cemetery (ref.)
Rocky's chair at Adrian's grave
Rocky’s wooden folding chair from the movie stands vigil at Adrian’s headstone (near the gatehouse) and some of the cemetery’s asphalt roadways were a gift from Transformers 2 producer Michael Bay. Why? Because all the staged explosions in the film melted the original roadway! The film company told Laurel Hill this in advance and that the options were: protect the roadway with steel sheets or repave the roads afterwards. In keeping with Laurel Hill Cemetery’s drive to improve, it chose the latter.

Revenue generated by movies and tours, along with donations by the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, is used to continually improve and restore this National Historic Landmark. Bill Doran showed us another example of this on our final stop of tour. When little or no trust fund money exists for such large projects as the restoration of this Egyptian style mausoleum, the money needs to come from somewhere. This mid-1800s marble mausoleum was falling apart. Most of the individual pieces of the structure had shifted over the years so that both the outside and the inside were falling apart. One of the surprising finds inside the structure was the absence of wall vaults, into which coffins are typically placed. For all its grandeur, this particular family had an unfinished basement! Built into the hillside, the interior had a simple wooden floor where about sixteen wooden coffins were just stacked on top of each other!

If you have the opportunity to attend any of the Laurel Hill tours, they are fascinating, The cemetery people are great hosts. As is their usual practice after an event such as this, we were presented with an area in which to relax and socialize, completing the tour with complementary wine, beer, and crudités. Thankfully, this relaxing wind-down at the conclusion of Bill’s “Strange Adventures of a Cemetery Superintendent” tour was not held in a 300-degree mausoleum – it was held in the air-conditioned gatehouse.

References and Further Reading:

Source of Transformer image in Laurel Hill Cemetery
See Laurel Hill scenes in the trailer for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

Source of Rocky Balboa image at Laurel Hill Cemetery
Rocky Balboa filming locations

Thanks to Bob Reinhardt, member of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, for inviting me along as his guest.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Deerly Departed

This morning I woke up to rolling thunder, lightning, and darkness that spread like a funeral pall over the city. Perfect day for some cemetery photography? Possibly, yes, though certainly challenging under such conditions. 

However, as I went out to my car about an hour later, I saw the blue sky and felt the heat. The day quickly turned into one of those white-hot summer days where birds, caught in the intensely magnified rays of sunlight reflected off plate-glass office buildings, burst into flame in mid-air.  As Buddy Holly sang in Raining in My Heart, “The sun is out - the sky is blue there’s not a cloud to spoil the view.” 

You can photograph the most typical cemeteries in the rain and everything looks new. But on a sunny, scorching day, I needed something new. Even with scores of cemeteries to photograph in and around Philadelphia, you would think I’d have hit them all. Not so. Mount Hope Cemetery in Lambertville, New Jersey, was in my sights. This is a little rural tourist town across the Delaware River from New Hope, Pennsylvania, about ten miles north of Trenton, New Jersey.

I found the cemetery down a side road, off the main street running through town. Cleverly hidden, as some of them are, from non-residents. I drove up the small hill road for a couple blocks until a grassy embankment appeared on my left. Quaint houses, bungalows, really, populated the right. As I slowed down expecting to find the entrance, I noticed quite a strange sight.

A young deer, a fawn, was struggling up the weedy embankment. This was right out my car widow, about twelve feet away. I made this photo there. I watched the fawn struggle to the top, where its siblings waited - two more fawns of the same size. At this point I had gotten out of my car and was snapping pictures. They were obviously aware of my presence and had the sense to move away. I could see from here that the cemetery entrance was blocked by a downed tree. From this vantage point I could also take in the breadth and width of this lovely hillside cemetery. It was small enough to see that there were driveway entrances around the other side of the grounds. I mounted my steed and drove around Mount Hope back to the center of the cemetery, returning to the area where I had left the fawns. 

I’m not a wildlife nut, and am a pretty bad nature photographer, so why am I so intrigued by deer? Well, for one thing, you don’t see them often in South Philly, where I live. So it’s a novelty, for sure, almost like being in a petting zoo when you can get this close to the animals. Also, I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, where deer abound and everyone gets a hunting license – even me.

My dearly departed daddy, a Great White Hunter, forced me into it when I was thirteen. He dragged me along for about four years running, until I almost accidentally blew off my uncle’s head. Though no words were ever spoken, Dad and I both took this to be a sign and I was no longer invited  to participate in this manliest of man-sport. Happy to say I never shot a deer. Shot AT them, else I would have incurred the wrath of the Great White Hunter. No one knows this but you, dear reader, that I always aimed a little high. 

It amazed me early on that you only needed to be TWELVE years old to be licensed in the state of Pennsylvania to carry with a high-powered rifle. This was maybe 1971. At the same time, you needed to be SIXTEEN to legally drive and EIGHTEEN to legally drink! My parents had a farm out in the boonies where my cousins and I could do all these things, even before we became of legal rage. We lived in the town, but the farm was sixteen miles away, in some direction of which I am still unsure. Anyway, back to the deer.

My best friend George, with whom I grew up, used to laugh about my family’s fixation with deer. My father would be driving us to the farm in our Ford Country Squire station wagon some Saturday morning, through some godforsaken Bumfukville, when he would slam on the brakes, point out the window into a field and yell “DEER!” We would watch them off in the distance, my parents marveling at their beauty, grace, and gamey flavor, while us kids would be sneaking peeks at our much more interesting Spiderman comic books. George committed the ultimate sacrilege once by rhetorically asking me why my parents are so into deer. “They’re just deer,” he said. And so they are. 

Three fawns, with adult deer in background.
So maybe its because of my bizarre upbringing that a deer standing in a field still gets my attention. This mini-herd of three fawns sure had me intrigued. I found a shady tree under which to park my car (otherwise, this 100-degree heat would have melted my black leather seats), got out with my cameras and approached the fawns. They were now grazing among a cluster of headstones about twenty feet away. They were wary and would stop and look at me if I got closer. I was satisfied to remain at this distance and tried several times to get all three in the shot, classically posed. This I never succeeded in doing. 

If you look in the background of the photo directly above, you’ll see the brown blurred shape of a larger deer (top center, between the house and the large monument). I did not see this through my camera lens. After about ten minutes, I was taken aback by a thumping and snorting!

Doe to the left, buck (in velvet antlers) to the right.
The mama and papa deer, doe and buck, were staring me down! I suppose one or both would’ve charged had I stepped closer to their brood, but I backed away. The mother was more aggressive, the father just standing by (having just been roused from his easychair by the doe, probably). I had no intention of messing with them. The parents trotted toward their fawns and veered off toward the road. The three fawns trotted after them, as best they could on their awkward new legs. To my surprise, they deerly departed down the embankment, through the weeds, into the road, and across the lawn of a nearby house! Living here must be like living in a nature preserve.  

Although Mount Hope Cemetery has woods bordering just one side, it’s all quite rural here. The road surrounding the cemetery turned out to be a dead end, so there really isn’t much traffic to speak of. A lovely place to raise a family, it would seem. Glad I was able to witness it all without my father around.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Human Soul Found in Graveyard!

Can you believe that a groundhog could single-handedly exhume a human being? Believe it or not, a pair of metal coffin handles were found recently near a grave next to a groundhog hole in one particular cemetery (whose name will go unmentioned). The sole of the deceased’s shoe appeared on the ground near the hole the very next day!

Whoops  - seems as though I misspelled 'sole' in the title of this blog (caught your attention, though, didn't  I?). When I was in Catholic grade school and the nuns told us about our souls, I actually pictured its shape, and it was close to that in the photo above. Pre-cognitive dissonance, I suppose. Anyway, the beast in question apparently decided it was easier to clear out the current tenant's belongings (along with the current tenant) and move in, than to dig an entirely new apartment. What an embarrassing situation for a cemetery! And what to do about it?

You've walked through cemeteries and have seen the holes, no doubt. Maybe you've even seen the elusive critters themselves - woodchucks, groundhogs, gophers - whatever you want to call them. What people don't realize is that the destruction wrought by these beasties can be overwhelming. Farmers are sometimes plagued with groundhog infestations, as are some unfortunate people with nice lawns. You can’t seal the hole, as the groundhog will just dig another one (plus, they always have auxiliary tunnels). Therefore, the animal must be removed. Now, as you try not to think of scenes from the movie Caddyshack (in which Bill Murray wages a one-man-war against the gophers infesting a golf course), how do you eradicate the beast? The easy thing to do, of course, is to hire someone else to do it.

Services exist for you to employ on the web, for both live-trapping and, well, let's just say, a more permanent solution. I was going to include videos in this blog, but most of those available on YouTube show a couple hillbillies plugging the varmints with a .022 rifle or blowing them up with explosives (feel free to search them out, if you're in the mood). Yikes. So glad I live in the city (Philadelphia) and don't have a lawn!