Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cemetery Traveler Celebrates 3rd Anniversary!

I find myself this month on the precipice of a fourth year writing the Cemetery Traveler blog. Yes, its been three solid years of my dark tourism adventures. By my count, 132 articles have been published since I began in May of 2010. Have I run out of things to say? No, but my laptop gave up the ghost last week. Had to go out and get a new one. All that lives is born to die, sigh (except sourdough yeast, I suppose). Hopefully, I won’t upset this one as much as I abuse it verbally while I am forced to learn Windows 8.

I have over 100 followers now, a fact that humbles me and of which I am deeply honored. Thank you all for reading and I dare say, you are now prepared for your next step in the indoctrination.

At the beginning of April, 2013, I had an exhibit of my work in Philadelphia that I called “Symptoms of Cemetery Photography" (click link to go to that blog posting). I meant it as a nod toward the way cemetery photography has influenced my art and techniques in the photographic medium. That in itself is a later blog. For now, I just want to acknowledge how making cemetery photography has opened up tangential doors for me. I also want to acknowledge the people who have made these opportunities possible for me.

So, here are a few highlights from last season, places I’ve gone both literally and figuratively, through The Cemetery Traveler – symptoms, as it were, of my cemetery photography:

•Grandma's New Headstone

I wrote a blog “My Grandmother’s Grave,” in June of 2012 about how my grandmother (who died in 1964 when I was six) never had a headstone on her grave. I felt pretty strongly that she should have one to mark her history for future generations. We should all have some anchor to the past, as became evident to me last year when so many people contacted me about the headstones dumped under the Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia (see "Resting in Pieces Along the Delaware River"). My Mom and I got together and she had a stone made for Anna Jones, her mother. It was placed on her grave this past fall.

•The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery

Ed (L) with "Find-a-Grave" administrator, Russ Dodge (photo by A. Selletti)
After my years of adventures at the (formerly abandoned) Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia, I was I’ve evolved from an awed bystander to an involved conservator. This past year I applied for a position on the Board of Directors of The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery (a nonprofit organization). I was voted in as the Communications and Technology Committee Chair. I’m glad I can put my writing and photographic skills to good use, honoring the memory of those interred in the cemetery through restoration, historic research, education and community engagement. I’ve been writing and posting photographs about the cleanup events on the Friends’ website, which you can see here (an odd sub-specialty of “event photography” which you don’t normally think about!).


Book cover – I had given permission to the British Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research organization to use one of my photographs for the cover of its February 2013 Journal (JCFAR)  issue “On Love.” Cupid and Psyche never looked so fine!

•Imaging Technology

Diana (top) and Holga cameras
This past year, my DSLR forgot how to autofocus, so I had to replace it. This was a mere week after I made the momentous decision to plunk down $400 on a high quality digital point-and-shoot camera (or, as I call these little miracles in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, DPS cameras). That was a load of money, but the Canon G9 DPS and the Canon XTi DSLR are working out just fine. Oh, and I bought another Holga at the Philly Punk Rock Flea Market around Xmas time for six dollars (!), so I plan to do more lo-fi work with that. Speaking of new gear, we bought our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Olivia an iPad, since all her nannies have had one. She’d been clamoring for her own and we didn’t want her to get too far behind the technology curve. I plan to take cemetery photos with it.


B'nai Israel/Hebrew Mutual Burial Ground in West Philadelphia
Genealogy never was my strong suit (it still isn’t), but I’ve gotten myself involved in a few related situations which I wrote about last year. After posting a blog about the (formerly abandoned) B’nai Israel Cemetery in West Philadelphia (see "Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries"), I was contacted by a descendant who asked for help photographing the inscriptions on the stones so he could enter the information onto the JewishGen Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), so I did this. There were about a hundred headstones.

Monument cemetery stone
Recently, a graduate History student asked me if she could use my photos and information about Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery in a presentation on the effect of urban renewal on rural cemeteries in Philadelphia, using Monument Cemetery as one case study. This Victorian cemetery was condemned by the City of Philadelphia in 1956 and the tombstones and monuments were all dumped into the Delaware River. So many people responded to my two 2011 blog postings (see "How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed") about this atrocity that I decided to make a third visit (read about this in "Beachcombing in Hell") in 2012 to document as many names and dates from the discarded headstones as I could. In addition to writing about this visit back to the Delaware Riverfront under the Betsey Ross Bridge, I subsequently uploaded twenty-five separate names, with photos of the headstones, to the Find-a-Grave website.

Finding lost graves
I’d like to add that my postings about Monument Cemetery have generated considerable public interest and media coverage, which will hopefully result in a more respectful final resting place for these stones. As I said in my blog at the end of April, 2013, "Finding Lost Graves", people need a tangible link to their past. These discarded memorial stones may be the only tie some of the descendants have to their ancestors.

The aforementioned experiences are after the fact, retrospective studies. Finding graves in the here and now is a new experience for me, and one which I wrote about in the aforementioned blog, “Finding Lost Graves.” I have been afforded this opportunity through my involvement with the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, and I must say that it is a truly rewarding experience.

In Summary

So, these are just a few things I’ve covered this past year in the Cemetery Traveler blog. If you missed any postings, I invite you to go back into the archives and look them up (you can type in a keyword or phrase in the “Search” box at the top left corner of the page).

 “The world is a lot more complicated than most people believe,” wrote Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in their novel, Good Omens (1990). Cemetery photography, for me, has been a good omen, which has resulted in a variety of complications, or symptoms, about some of which you have just read. (By the way, since I had to create a password for my new laptop, I incorporated the words “Good Omen” into it.)

What, There’s More?

Yes. I intend to continue to draw aside the veil and explore the mysteries of dark tourism for as long as I possibly can. I’ll continue to ask the hard questions and point out the ironies in our attitudes toward death and mourning, calling it the way I see it. Occasionally this gets me into hot water with the irascible types, but the investigative reporter side of me steps in and tries to point out both sides of the argument (if there are any). 

Happy to say that my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Olivia seems to be following in my footsteps. I took her gallery-hopping this past First Friday in Philadelphia and as we walked into a particular moodily-lit place, she spoke her mind. The gallery was showing photographic “scenes from the Chelsea Hotel” (in New York) and a sign outside said they were going to be showing Warhol’s movie “Chelsea Girls.” The gallery was crowded with serious-minded bohemian-looking mods, talking art as only artists of that type can. As we walked into their midst, Olivia said in a loud voice, “Do they have snacks?” Man, did THAT cut through the affectation!


Purchase Ed's book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, from Amazon.com.