Friday, April 6, 2012

Passover and Gladwyne's Abandoned Jewish Cemetery

Where flesh is doomed to rot to naught
And worms feast on their limbs,
I find myself amidst the graves
forgotten in Gladwyne

(I took liberties with the poem Where Flew His Soul? by Charles Sudbury, 1826)

Cemetery Entrance
Over the past five years, I’d heard about an abandoned Jewish graveyard somewhere in the woods of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. Gladwyne itself is mostly woods, with million-dollar homes sprinkled throughout for good measure. It’s a suburban community in Montgomery County on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Your chances of finding this cemetery without someone showing you are completely nil.

Near entrance, tennis court in background
A friend of mine located it several years ago, and was going to show it to me, but we never got around to it. Then last week, Frank, my fellow cemetery traveler, was shown the cemetery by a friend. Frank, in turn, graciously gave me directions. It turns out that if you drive up the private driveway of #135 Conshohocken State Road, and veer to the left instead of driving up to the house, you drive right to the crumbling stone pillars flanking the entrance to the cemetery. In fact, from the driveway you can see old marble tombstones through the fence of an old tennis court. If you go, do show respect for the neighbors. 

Near entrance, home in back
Having no public access and without being visible from the road, this creepy old cemetery has only been seen by its immediate neighbors and occasional volunteer clean-up groups over the years (the years that span the 1920s to the present, i.e., since it appears that the last burials were in the 1920s).

Walking through this place is a MUST for any cemetery explorer – you may be appalled, afraid, amazed, or desire to use the location for your next zombie movie. You walk into the place and it starts off quaint - the tilted headstones, the  lone cradle graves. As you walk further through the weeds, you begin to see small clusters of graves, surrounded by rusty decorative fencing. Most of the fencing has fallen to the ground and is waiting for you to trip over.

About a hundred feet past the entrance you see where the main cemetery begins in earnest. Hebrew writing all over the stones (most of which are upright thanks to volunteer preservationists through the years) coexists with English words – “Our Dear Father,” “Wife,” etc. Dates range from the mid−1800s to about the 1920s. The cemetery was established in 1860 and became inactive around 1930. Apparently, it was forgotten until the late 1980s.

Pickers and rusty fence, protecting headstones
The ground slopes gently away as you get further into the woods. Family plots can be seen scattered about, slowly being taken over by picker patches. In a few weeks this place will be a forest again, impassable and unrecognizable as a formal burial ground (fall and winter are the best times to explore abandoned cemeteries, due to foliage growth). The odd thing here – well, let me stop myself – there are many odd things here, but very strangely, there are expensive houses and private land surrounding this old cemetery. As I’ve said, there is no public access!

Looking downhill into the vast wooded cemetery
So you need to trespass to get here, sort of. State laws vary on the matter but in some states, you are well within your legal rights to walk or drive across private property to visit an isolated cemetery! Um, I hadn’t actually checked the law in Pennsylvania before I visited, having gotten a bit carried away by my sense of adventure! Anyway, all nineteen acres (or so I’ve read) of this place are bordered by private property, VERY private, and VERY expensive property! Driving through this area reminded me of those gated estates in the Hollywood Hills. 

Sometime in the early 1990s I was in LA, and took the car tour of the movie stars’ homes. My Mom had always been a fan of Elizabeth Taylor, so I went in search of her home. Liz Taylor’s estate in the Mount Olympus section of Beverly Hills was surrounded by a hedgerow of small violet flowers. I parked my rental car, got out, and picked one of them for my Mom. Almost the instant I popped it into a film canister, helicopters appeared overhead, stationary in the sky, postured in a very threatening formation! Gladwyne doesn’t have such tight security, but then Liz Taylor never lived here.

Spiral vines and rusty fencing
As you continue walking further into the graveyard, the clusters of white marble headstones become more frequent, peeking out from behind termite-eaten fallen trees. Unimaginably thick vines curl up the live trees, strangling them and eventually pulling them to the ground. There are some crumbling stone burial crypts about five feet high, which are situated near the peak of a hill. As you look down the hill, the vastness of this decrepit cemetery stuns you! Nineteen acres! Through the trees, you can see rows upon rows of closely set cradle graves (not children's graves, just a style of stonework that looks like a cradle), separated in sections by rusty fencing.

"Cradle" style graves
The tangles of pickers and weeds were already advancing in this early Spring - live things coming out of the ground to hide all the dead things. The rows of graves disappear into the distance, an estimated 1200 of them. The woods are gray and misty, affording an occasional glimpse of a pump house or an old log cabin (circa 1698) on the facing hillside. Not a place you want to be on Halloween night, or even on a bright spring day, for that matter. The way the rows of graves go on and on, ever downhill, reminded me of something much more Eastern European than American. Many of the deceased must have been original immigrants to America.

Toward bottom of hill, looking across at log cabin

Note angel and Hebrew script on stone
Stubs of rusted iron posts delineate what once were distinct sections of the cemetery. Several family plots are marked with tubular cast iron fencing with the decorative cherub centerpiece commonly seem in cemeteries around Philadelphia. The odd thing is that you seldom see angels in Jewish cemeteries. (This is not because Jews don’t believe in angels – angels appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. it’s just that throughout Jewish history there’s been an avoidance to depict the human form in funerary ornamentation.)

The history of this place is not well-documented. The fragments of supposed fact come from letters and oral recollections. "Har Ha Zetim Cemetery", aka Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery and "Mount of Olives," was supposedly established in 1860, and served the poor Jewish population of Philadelphia and Norristown until the 1920s. No doubt some of the the people interred here emigrated from Russia during the pogrom in 1881. The fact that this exodus occurred on Passover of that year oddly coincides with my writing this blog on the eve of Passover, 2012.

How Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery came to be abandoned is anyone’s guess. Mine happens to be that the congregation that established it eventually dissolved, leaving the cemetery to molder. This happened to the B’nai Israel Cemetery in West Philadelphia. No reason for the town to condemn Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery as a public nuisance or force anyone to clean it up as it isn’t, well, public. In 1999 Judge Stanely Ott of the Court of Common Pleas, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Orphans' Court Division, settled litigation over the disposition of this cemetery. Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne became the official owner. So Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery is no longer formerly abandoned, just officially inactive.

In his book Old Weird America, writer Greil Marcus proposes a metaphorical version of America, contained inside the contemporary United States. “This alternative America at once inspires and explains the strangeness of our daily lives.” Marcus refers to a land of myth, violence and transcendence (Gibson, 2009). Abandoned cemeteries in general provide us with a metaphorical version of America – back then something happened. We’ve lost track of what it was, but without a doubt it has influenced who we are today. We may want to forget about it, or we may be embarrassed by it, but these old graveyards are a metaphor for our all-too-disposable history, a history we seem to have traded for technological advance.

Walking through Gladwyne's Abandoned Jewish Cemetery is not like finding a lonely outcropping of headstones in a farmer’s field somewhere – this was a COMMUNITY! A community of ancestors, now lost to the ages. But as you walk through the lanes of graves, the presence of all these people is alive in the air, they were REAL. They lived. They had rites, manners, and customs that were as real to them as ours are to us.

When I had emerged from my latest rabbit hole dive into yet another abandoned cemetery, I inadvertently left my camera tripod behind. What can I say – the place was a photographer’s paradise, so distractions were legion. A few days later I was doing a photo shoot in another abandoned cemetery, and someone needed a tripod. I went back to my car and realized at that point I had left the tripod in Gladwyne. So one afternoon a few days later, I made the trip back. This time, it was sunny, so I got better pictures. The tripod was right where I had left it. I’m sure the place gets very little traffic. Besides, Gladwyne's crime rate is probably as close to zero as you can get. Unlike the neighborhoods in which most abandoned graveyards are found, this is one where you can leave your car doors unlocked.

If You Go:
135 Conshohocken State Road (Route 23), Gladwyne, PA. The driveway is on the left as you drive down the hill. Head up the driveway as it takes a sharp swing to the left away from the house. Cemetery entrance is just ahead on the right, past the tennis court. There is an enormous body of state law governing access to burial grounds surrounded by private property. Pennsylvania allows access if you have relatives buried there.While there is nothing really stopping you from saying you are visiting relatives, please show respect for the nearby property owners, as well as the dead.

References and Further Reading:

Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries “ blog by Ed Snyder
Old Weird America, by Greil Marcus
Hubert’s Freaks, by Gregory Gibson