Sunday, July 7, 2013

Manahawkin Baptist Graveyard - Stronger Than The Storm

As I wrote about the west coast of the U.S. last week, it’s only fair to maintain a sense of balance with an east coast story. Last week I was at the Jersey Shore (Long Beach Island) with my wife and daughter, and so I made a trip to one of the local cemeteries (isn’t that what you would expect the Cemetery Traveler to do while on vacation?). Manahawkin, New Jersey is the last town on the mainland before you enter the causeway over to the island.

Last year I wrote about Greenwood Cemetery, a largish seaside cemetery on Route 9 south of Manahawkin. This time, I opted to head north. My map showed a Baptist Cemetery about a mile up the road (north on Route 9, past the Route 72 intersection, as shown on map).

Long Beach Island, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy ( image)
Woke up at 6:00 a.m., got dressed and made it out the door without waking anyone. Walked over to what is left of the beach as the sun had just risen and grabbed a couple shots of the show. As I drove the seven miles up the island to the causeway, the view was indeed depressing. In the year since I had last visited, Hurricane Sandy had wreaked massive destruction on the island. Here, a scant eight months later, homes were still up on blocks after being shifted off their foundations. Many businesses were boarded up, many areas of the ocean beach was gouged so that instead of smooth sand declining from the dunes to the water, there were canyon-like drop-offs of epic proportions.

One of many homes washed off its foundation ( image)
Still, the locals have done a great job putting this place back together - they certainly live up to their slogan, "Stronger than the Storm." That said, I couldn’t help wonder if the cemeteries suffered any damage. (Which reminds me – someone contacted me recently with a request to use my blog post "Washed Out Graves" - about flooded graveyards - as part of a presentation on Disaster Preparedness for Cemeteries.) Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States on October 29, 2012, with New York City and New Jersey suffering the worst damage. It was the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history, surpassed only by 2005's Hurricane Katrina

Baptist Cemetery was easy to find, what with its little white clapboard church situated at the front of the old graveyard. Talk about shelter from the storm – there are some eighteenth and even seventeenth century headstones here that are in such well-preserved condition, you’d think they’d been under glass for a hundred years! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Johnette Napolitano – the gravely-voiced singer from the rock band Concrete Blonde – was playing a concert in San Francisco on this particular Sunday evening in San Francisco when I visited the Baptist cemetery. I bring this up mainly to convince myself that it was not her I saw roaming around the graveyard at seven a.m. accompanied by a guy carrying a guitar case. Might not have been the most unusual thing I’ve ever seen in a cemetery, but given the time of day, it qualifies for the top ten. Besides, Johnette is kind of spooky herself (just watch this video). I said, “Hi. Didn’t expect to see anyone else here this early.” The guy sort of smiled and they walked around to the other side of the old wooden church, then disappeared.

Baptist Church and Cemetery, Manahawkin, New Jersey
If you’re a legacy reader of this blog, you may recall that in my early days of cemetery photography, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this. Not while I was alive and toting a camera, anyway. Why? No statues. Nary an angel. But after you’ve exhausted the possibilities of statuary photography (or rather, you've hit your own limits), you begin looking elsewhere. I’ve hence begun to appreciate other nuances of cemeteries (and there are thousands of such things, mind you). So the small country cemetery with nothing but stone slabs for gravemarkers does not escape my attention these days. And my photography and writing are all the better for it, I believe. So with that in mind, I began looking at the inscriptions and carvings on the stones.

Although there are a few newer (early twentieth century) granite monuments here, most of the head stones were of the large marble variety with the traditional images, poetry, and epitaphs. However, as I said, many were clearly readable and apparently not worn down by acid rain (is there less of this in coastal areas?). They were really quite beautiful, especially this pair of white marble nineteenth century markers with the clasped hands design. 

White marble headstones, about four feet high
To the left and behind the peeling white church building, I was somewhat shocked to find a small cluster of about five red sandstone grave markers, all but one standing upright. Obviously the oldest in the cemetery (eighteenth century), covered with some sort of lichen or mold that gave them the appearance of being old and worn. Red sandstone was quarried in North Jersey back in the 1700s and is commonly seen in cemeteries around Monmouth County (a bit north of here). Upon closer inspection, these stones were actually wonderfully preserved! I was amazed to see that the lettering and design carvings were not eroded at all, but simply camouflaged by the lichens. The text was clearly readable with border designs still quite crisp. This particular one (below) was dated 1794. A bit of proper cleaning and these stones would be the showpieces of the cemetery.

North Jersey red sandstone grave marker
Freshly-cut area where shrubs must have obscured headstones
Although the church (which I’m not sure was still “Baptist” as the maps indicated) was a bit ramshackle, it was obvious that the cemetery is being tended by someone. There was evidence that trees and bushes had been cut back and removed, to keep them from obscuring the gravestones. I thought this image (below) interesting – the marble stone on the left was still lichen-tinted from being in the tree’s shade for what must have been years, while its counterpart in the sun was lichen-free.

Though I could see no obvious hurricane damage in the cemetery, there was a very obvious reminder of nature’s powerful forces - a large granite monument to “The Unknown From the Sea” (a photo of which you can see at the beginning of this blog). This monument marks the graves of those unknown souls who have left the corporal realm by way of drowning, I suppose. It was in the center of a decoratively-fenced area of about 250 square feet toward the back of the grounds - plenty of room for folks who had tested their mettle against the mighty Atlantic Ocean, and lost.

Further reading:

Learn more about red sandstone and New Jersey gravemarkers in general in Adam R. Heinrich’s paper: 

Read about Manahawkin's Greenwood Cemetery in the "Jersey Shore Cemetery," blog by Ed Snyder