Saturday, October 27, 2012

"I Have Felt a Presence in the Cemetery"

Julie Esty
This week on The Cemetery Traveler I present a guest writer, my good friend Julie Esty. Julie heads up the annual theatrical production The Dunmore [Pennsylvania] Cemetery Tour and is herself one of the Dearly Departed Players who brings the tour to life. With Halloween just around the corner, I think you’ll enjoy this!

 (I’ve added my photos to her text, which were taken in the Dunmore Cemetery.)


In the spirit of the approaching holiday, your host and fellow taphophile Ed Snyder has asked me to share with his readers my “otherworldly” experiences.  As a historian I have spent the better part of my life in cemeteries, as well as handling funerary ephemera and memorabilia.  For this reason I am constantly questioned about the existence of ghosts.  Unfortunately, I have no tales to relay that will strike fear in your hearts or send chills down your spine. My story is one of comfort, solace and hope.

For me the word “ghost” summons images of Dan Ackroyd in full ghostbusting regalia chasing ectoplasmic blobs.  In cemeteries I have seen no such thing, no ectoplasm, no ghosts and certainly no Dan Ackroyd.

From funerary objects there has been nothing.  No flashes, haunts, spirits of the dead or glimpses of an afterlife.  Perhaps this is because many of the objects were held by the skillful hands of an undertaker, a man or woman who took pride in their task of aiding the mortal remains of the deceased to their eternal rest.

Have I gotten a glimpse of what lies beyond the veil that separates this life from the next?  I would like to think that I have not only seen it but felt, heard and smelled it.  The experiences have come without the aid of microphones, meters or modern technology.  All encounters have taken place not under the cover of darkness but in the bright light of day.

Yes, on more than one occasion I have been in a cemetery in the “dead” of winter and gotten the scent of perfume from a spirit unseen.  Yes, I have heard the frantic cries of a woman perhaps seeking her lost child as I rested on a tombstone in the “Potter’s Field” section of a cemetery.  Yes, I have seen the flashes of a Union blue uniform peek from behind a tree as I tended to my research.  And yes I have felt a presence in a cemetery and received its wonderful message.

My encounter with a presence began one day as I looked up a hill in a cemetery.  There was something fixed squarely at the hill’s apex.  Initially I thought it was the sun reflecting off a tombstone but realized whatever it was it was definitely not a reflection.  Whatever “IT” was, was strong, powerful and male.  “IT” wanted something.  For more than a year I avoided that section of the cemetery and refrained from looking in its direction.  Curiosity always got the better of me.  Eventually I would look and the presence was there, silently occupying its position on the hill.  When it became obvious that the presence was not going to go away I resolved to find out exactly what it was and wanted. 

I spent the next year and a half on that hill.  There was something “IT” wanted me to know, I just had to figure out what that was.  In the autumn I watched the leaves cover the hill.  In the winter I sat in the car and gazed at snow.  In the spring I watched the trees bud and flowers bloom.  No closer to an answer with the coming of summer, finally I trudged up the hill and stood silently staring off into the cemetery damning myself for not be able to figure it out.  And then – someone tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around expecting to see a cemetery visitor seeking the grave of an ancestor but there was no one there.  It was then that all became very clear.  I had been looking in the wrong direction and needed to turn around.  Within days of the shoulder tap, the story and message “IT” wanted me to know unfolded.

While the tale is much to lengthy to relay here, I will tell you it involved a group of men, strong, strong powerful men who formed a bond of loyalty, friendship and love well over one hundred years ago.  The placement of their eartly remains created a symbol and coincided with the rising and setting of the sun and cycles of the moon.  In life the men had met regularly by the light of a full moon, not for any supernatural reason, but for strengthening their bonds of friendship.  In death, they still meet by that lunar light.  The position of their final resting places leaves a tangible message that in life these men were united and in death their bond would remain unbroken.

What I learned from this group of men from years gone by is that as surely as the autumn leaves flit to the cold ground in their dance of death, life will again flourish as it does every Spring - and go on in this life and the hereafter.  No ectoplasmic masses, orbs or strange mists have crossed my path in a cemetery.  I have seen only goodness, love and light shining brightly through the veil that separates this life from the next.  

Further reading and reference: 

The Dunmore Cemetery Tour on Facebook
The Dearly Departed Players on Facebook
Julie Esty's first book, "Stories in Stone," is shown below. Her latest,Murder in Scranton: A Trilogy,” details four murders in three stories. It is available by contacting Julie at

Order Julie Esty's book, Stories in Stone

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Haunted Grave

There’s a little cemetery in the Old Swedes’ Churchyard complex near my house in South Philly. It’s an odd little graveyard, one of the oldest in Philadelphia. Some of the slate stones dating from the 1700s are oldest standing headstones of any cemetery in the city. In fact one of the pair below, dated 1708, was placed just seven years after the city was founded in 1701. (The stones, by the way, are toward the rear of the church, and mark the graves of Church minister Andreas Sandel’s two infant sons.)

This place is a sea captains’ burial ground, first and foremost. The part of the city in which it is located (near Penn’s Landing) was one of the region’s original waterfront settlements way before William Penn arrived on these shores − 1637 to be exact. Among the early European settlers, many sea captains are buried here – from Captain George Ord the Revolutionary War gunrunner to Captain Peter Cruse, who in 1918 first brought rubber from South America (galoshes were the first product made from it, by the way!). In fact, the area surrounding Old Swedes' (including my little neighborhood, Pennsport), was known as a sea captains’ village. Many seafaring gentlemen lived here and were members of the Old Swede’s congregation, which is also known as Gloria Dei.

Daughter Olivia at gunrunner Captain George Ord's grave
Although the cemetery is quite small, generations of local people are buried here. Over three hundred years worth of people! From sea captains to scientists, revolutionary and civil war soldiers, artists, ministers and common folk. There are even current burials taking place here in 2012! There's a staggering amount of American history condensed in this little graveyard. A bronze plaque set in a nearby stone that tells us that 27 cannon were erected here in 1748 by "Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Associators" during "King George's War." This refers to the voluntary militia started by Franklin in 1747 to defend Philadelphia against river attack by French privateers and pirates, the "Associators" being the origin of our "National Guard."

Though separated by generations, I’ve always had the strange feeling that many of the people buried in this churchyard actually knew each other when they were alive. I never get that feeling in a modern cemetery. The inhabitants remind me of the dead townspeople in Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology (1915).

Flea market outside the Old Swedes' gate
True to its neighborhood and community feeling, Old Swedes’ has one of the best flea markets in Philly (all parishioners, no retail vendors!), which I attended with my three-year-old daughter this past Saturday. Tables are set up outside the old brick wall surrounding the complex, most of the way around the block. You can see some vendors through the gate in the photo above. Strolling around the cemetery afterwards prompted me to write this blog, having recalled an incident that occurred here last spring.

Couple strolling amidst the old stones as well as the new
They have the flea market twice a year, spring and fall. Back in May, 2012, I went to the flea by myself, then walked around the cemetery afterwards, shooting pictures of the old stones and monuments. There were a few visitors here and there, touring the old church, checking out the graves, buying food in the church hall. A young boy, maybe seven years old, came up to me as I was photographing some headstones alongside the church. I had never seen him before. He just walked right up to me and said, “Do you want to see the haunted grave?”

My young ghost guide
Do I want to see a haunted grave? I always want to see a haunted grave! So I followed him toward the back of the building. I really didn’t know there were headstones back there by the church's basement entrance. He stood there proudly pointing to the grave of  Catherine and Anthony Duche. I asked him, “Why do you think it’s haunted?” He replied, “It just is.” Can’t argue with that logic, now can you? He trotted away.

Fast forward to last weekend when I was back at Old Swedes’ with my  three-year-old daughter. Olivia actually went to summer camp here this past summer, so she’s used to running around the cemetery. We went to the back of the church so I could photograph the Duche grave in better light than was available last time I was here. Olivia climbed up the old brick battlement that separates the complex from the Delaware River as I kicked through the leaves and made some photographs. Turns out that Anthony Duche arrived in the region with William Penn, so he really is one of the city’s founding fathers.

So, as I’m writing this a few nights later, I have my daughter on my lap, with my laptop alongside me on the sofa. We’re watching “educational” cartoons on television. She often asks what I’m doing as I type away, and I tell her “I’m writing.” So just now, totally out of the blue, she says, “Are you writing about Captain Wiccan?” Where did THAT come from? To my knowledge, she’s never heard the word “wiccan.” I swear, kids can sense things.

Further Reading and Reference:
Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church website

The church's history: Gloria Dei (Old Swedes' Church) National Historic Site

Read more about the WPA poster shown at the top of this blog:
“This poster depicting the Old Swedes Church in Philadelphia was made for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Art Program in Pennsylvania. One of the New Deal programs launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat Depression-era unemployment, in 1936–43 the WPA supported the creation of more than 2,000 posters by well-known artists. These posters were used to promote local tourism and to publicize a variety of programs from art to safety.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stained Glass Woman

Learned a few interesting things about stained glass recently when I posted this image on Facebook. My initial caption under the photos was this:

 "Likeness of the Deceased?" - I've always wondered about the stained glass widow in this mausoleum. Does anyone know if it is supposed to be an anonymous face? Looks too realistic to me."

The replies that were posted by various people surprised me. Most importantly was the request to please remove the location information for security purposes. Security to the stained glass window, that is. I promptly removed any identifying  location information from the post. It’s very possible that the window (created in 1909) was made by the Tiffany Studios. And therefore, the window could easily fetch half a million dollars on the art black market. Doubt that? Don’t think people would rip a stained glass window out of a mausoleum and sell it?

According to a (year) 2000 article in the Maine Antique Digest entitled, “Alastair Duncan Gets 27 Months, Must Pay $220,000 Restitution, ”Tiffany expert, author, and dealer Alastair Duncan was sentenced in Manhattan federal court to 27 months in prison for two schemes to deal in Tiffany stained-glass windows stolen from cemeteries and mausoleums in the New York metropolitan area and to export them abroad." Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia (not the location of the window I photographed) had all seven of its Tiffany windows stolen from their respective mausoleums in the 1970s, shortly after a news article appeared mentioning their existence! (The cemetery was in a sad state of disrepair at that time.)

So back to the female likeness in my photograph, which is a bit too realistic and doesn’t really “fit” on the less-detailed body. Several stained glass artisans responded to my post. One person states that the Tiffany studio, like many others, would sometimes include a family member as the model for a window.” (I assume this to mean a member of the glass artist's family.) So this was accepted practice. A verified example can be seen here.

Interestingly, I also received this comment:
If the painting staff at Tiffany was anything like those of Beyer Studio [a contemporary stained glass studio, referenced below], the reference for the portrait was that of a co-worker. If you paint the other staff members of the studio you don't have to shell out for a model and the subject can look as if they are helping you when really all they are doing is standing still and complaining about the coffee or the mess in the break room."

I thought that was hysterical! Now, if your only exposure to Tiffany stained glass is the Tiffany lamp, you would never think that their artisans actually painted people’s faces on glass. The Tiffany glass studios were quite diverse, even responsible for creating (with artist Maxfield Parrish), the immense stained glass mural (15 feet high, 49 feet wide!) "The Dream Garden" in 1915 that was installed in the lobby of the Curtis Publishing Building in Philadelphia (Sixth and Walnut Streets). As I didn't have any photos of this masterpiece, I just took a walk at lunch time today and shot the photos you see here (the Curtis Building is a few blocks from where I work).

"The Dream Garden" glass mosaic by Parrish and Tiffany

From the plaque in the lobby:
The mosaic’s images [of an original Maxfield Parrish painting] are rendered in “favrile” glass following a complex hand-firing process developed by Tiffany to produce over 100,000 pieces of glass in 260 color tones. Most of the glass was set in 24 panels in Tiffany’s New York studios. Installing the panels in this location took six months. The finished work was hailed by art critics as “a veritable wonderpiece at the official unveiling in 1916. The amazing variety of opaque, translucent, and transparent glass entirely lighted from the lobby, achieves perspective effects that have never been duplicated.

References and Further Reading:

For a fascinating look at a contemporary stained glass studio, please visit

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Magnolias of Pinewood Cemetery

I awoke to a cold rain this early October morning. Looking out the window at the dark wet streets reminded me of being caught in a warm rain at Pinewood Cemetery back in the springtime. Pinewood is in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte is pretty far south, bordering South Carolina, where the weather is hot and there is ample pulled pork and hummingbird pie to eat no matter where you go.

Pinewood and Elmwood cemeteries coexist in the same complex. If not for my map, I would have thought the whole place was Elmwood. I never did see any sign indicating that the back portion of the cemetery - the less elaborate section - was Pinewood.  

The cemeteries opened together in 1853, Elmwood as a final resting place for city leaders and the well-to-do, Pinewood as a segregated African American cemetery and Potter’s Field (pauper’s cemetery) (ref). According to a report by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "the complex was the center of a civil rights controversy in the late 1960s, when city councilman Fred Alexander spearheaded a successful campaign to bring down the chain link fence separating all-white Elmwood from all-black Pinewood." The fence had been erected in the 1930s under the Jim Crow laws of the early twentieth century, which "dictated not only where African Americans could work, eat, shop, and socialize, but also where they could bury their dead."
As I was driving around Elmwood, stopping here and there to walk around and check out the statues and monuments, the cloudy sky began to sprinkle a bit. I had just spent about an hour in this lovely cemetery complex and there was still much to see. So I jumped in the car to drive around the perimeter of the cemetery until the rain stopped. Hopefully, it would stop. I figured it wouldn’t last long since it was about ninety degrees.

I passed the groundskeeper on his riding mower, who appeared oblivious to the raindrops. I had to, however, stop to grab a few shots of the angel you see above. It was standing at the side of the road just peering at me! I drove along the road into Pinewood, where the tombstones were a bit more sparse and the grass patchy. A homeless guy was sitting on the stone perimeter wall. 

W.W. Smith mausoleum
Pinewood has two mausoleums made of colored brick, which are quite unique. My photos of them are nothing more than snapshots as it was raining pretty hard as I approached them. The structures were designed by W.W. Smith, the City of Charlotte's first black architect. One of the two is his own mausoleum. 

I saw the riding mower guy zipping across the lawn heading for a cluster of tall trees – seeking cover. As I sat in my car, AC blasting, shooting out the window, the rain was belting down. Rivers of red mud washed away from the side of the paved road and rushed down the hill. Oddly, the soil here is actually red. With all the grass, you don’t really notice this.

Groundskeeper on riding mower scurrying for cover in the rain

About ten minutes after the storm began, the sun was out and the heavy rain had slowed back to a sprinkle. The mower guy was still under the patch of trees as I nosed my rental car further down the road. I came upon a grove of enormous magnolia trees, laden with floral blooms as big as my head. The headstones and small monuments beneath the trees were dry as a bone. I figured I could duck under them and do some shooting from under the boughs.

Though I can’t smell (might have been dropped on the head as a small child), I imagine these wonderful white blossoms had quite a heavenly scent. It was so quiet and dry under the magnolias, the feeling was almost magical. As the sun came out and the humidity rose, the rain glistened on some fallen headstones nearby. I quite enjoyed these few minutes under the trees - the weather in my soul stirred by stronger winds, as writer James Thurber might say. I close the curtains on this essay with one of the photographs I made in the shade here, though curtains of marble never close.

Further Reading and Reference:

Survey and Research Report On Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery  by the the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission