Thursday, June 25, 2020

Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags after the Flood

Now there’s a catchy title, don’t you think? Read on and you will learn all. This week is the anniversary of an incident that poisoned the well for me - the week in 1972 when I explored the cemetery in Forty-Fort, PA, after Hurricane Agnes destroyed it. If you'd like to read this chilling account of what (I believe) led to my lifelong interest in dead things, the full account serves (I think appropriately) as the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” It is available on Amazon. Not for the faint of heart, I might add. Graveyards are not always fun. Sometimes they're a true horror story.

When I was fourteen (1972), Hurricane Agnes caused major flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania. After sandbagging the Susquehanna River dike all day in front of my grandmother’s house, the rising river water blew out of the street storm drains like geysers. This caused some minor flooding, but it wasn't enough to equalize the water pressure--the dike at the cemetery in the town of Forty-Fort blew out. Not only was the Wyoming Valley under sixteen feet of water for days, but the cemetery was gutted.

Forty-Fort Cemetery after the 1972 flood (ref.)

When the flood waters receded, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made some major repairs, facilitated a massive cleanup, and boarded up the cemetery. Rumors had it there were coffins everywhere! As a teenage boy, this is exactly the cool stuff you want to hear. Later, there were photos published in newspapers showing coffins lodged on the front porches of homes in my neighborhood. 

Street cleaning, post-flood 1972 (ref.)

Most of this memento mori was removed before people were allowed back to their homes (after about ten days, I think). Until recently, I never knew exactly where they reinterred the human remains and coffins that were collected. You can read a grim account of the collection of caskets and bodies here.

So after a couple weeks, when residents were allowed back to their homes to facilitate their own massive cleanup, my cousin Albert and I wandered down to the cemetery, only to find 8-foot sheets of plywood attached to the existing wrought iron fencing. Hardly a deterrent, we went exploring. In not much time, we found a washed out space under one of the plywood sheets that was big enough for a boy to crawl under. Needless to say, that's what we did. 

Nothing … could have prepared me for the … stench! Was it the bodies? The dead fish? The river mud baking in the hot summer sun? Probably a combination of both.

As we walked around the grounds that day in the late June heat, who would have thought the experience would affect me for a lifetime? You had to mouth-breathe just to keep from passing out from the assault on the nasal passages. The fetid aroma was no doubt accentuated by the heat, but oddly, you couldn't smell it from outside the plywood fencing.

I’d visited Forty-Fort Cemetery 
in 2016 - the first time since 1972. I’ve been there a few times since then. The tree in this photo is the very same tree I mention in the story – the one the object was propped up against. (You have to read the intro chapter of my book for further details.)

As a memorial to the 2700 bodies that were unearthed, a large monument was erected in the Forty-Fort Cemetery (shown above). The bodies that were found (one has to assume that many were washed away down river) were reburied elsewhere. The news and published accounts have always been scarce on details. Enter my friend Dorothy Loney! 

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Back in May 2020, Dorothy sent me some photos she took in Carverton, PA, a town in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. It was a cemetery called Memorial Shrine Cemetery, about ten miles north of Forty-Fort. Apparently, this monument marks the mass grave where the collected remains for the Forty-Fort Cemetery were reburied. Back around 2010, I spoke with the caretaker of the Forty-Fort Cemetery, who I believe is the son of the gentleman who was the caretaker in 1972. He told me that he can remember his dad running from the office meeting house to his car, carrying armloads of burial records, as the river approached flood stage. As the water rose in the streets, but before the dike gave way, he said he remembered his Dad in knee-deep water carrying as many of the records as he could out of the office in an attempt to save them. I’m guessing some records were lost.

Memorial Shrine Cemetery monument (photo by Dorothy Loney)

So the end of June will always bring to mind visions of my parents’ home with water up to the second floor, living with dried flood mud for the next year, the dust, the smell of dead fish, living in trailers, and the widespread devastation from which many of the flooded towns never recovered. The Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area where I live is one of those. As the National Weather Service states: “The widespread flooding from this storm caused Agnes to be called the most destructive hurricane in United States history, claiming 117 lives and causing damage estimated at $3.1 billion in 12 States. Damage was particularly high in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia." (Ref. https://www.weather.gov/bgm/pastFloodJune1972)

And as I look back on my years of cemetery traveling, photography, and writing, I suppose Hurricane Agnes was a muse, of sorts. If I hadn’t had that traumatic experience in the Forty-Forty Cemetery, you would not be reading this blog.

I leave you with a marvelous photograph, one Dorothy Loney made of the chapel at the Memorial Shrine Cemetery. Deliciously creepy, is it not?

Memorial Shrine Cemetery chapel (photo by Dorothy Loney)

Further reading:

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Life and Death - the Event


Tania Kirkman organized a three-day conference called “Life and Death” in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, that was held June 19-21, 2020. I was to attend, physically, as a presenter, and make the presentation you see above, 
Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery. Then coronavirus hit town, and life as we knew it was either cancelled or virtualized. Tania chose the latter, and worked with all the presenters over the past month to create Zoom versions of their presentations. This in turn benefitted not only the expected attendees (who faced cancellation of the event), but also the wider masses who would not have been able to physically attend the event. Over a thousand people were following her social media posts (https://www.facebook.com/groups/LifeAndDeathEvent2020/).

There were many virtual presentations given over the three days – I caught two. Extremely well done by extremely knowledgeable people, and thoroughly enjoyable! Hayden Peters (https://www.patreon.com/artofmourning) discussed Mourning Art jewelry in his talk, “In Memory of” and Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girls (https://www.gravestonegirls.com/#/) gave a wonderful presentation entitled “Welcome to the Graveyard – Cemetery Art, History, and Symbolism.” She covered American cemetery evolution from the 1600s to the present day. 

In addition to the virtualized sessions, there were some physical gatherings in Shepherdstown – a cemetery tour, a night movie, and some physical vending by artists and craftspeople. Hopefully, next year we can all get mortal again. Virtualization can allow more people to participate, for sure, but there is a tangible aspect of our interactions that is irreplaceable. 

So I did my presentation on June 20, at 10 a.m. on a sunny summer day, actually the first day of summer. Not exactly the witching hour. Still, there was information I presented that would make your skin crawl, no matter what time, day, or weather. It was about the gravestones on the shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, under the Betsy Ross Bridge. If you’ve read my Cemetery Traveler blog or read the posts reproduced in my book of the same name (link to purchase), you know that this is about how the City of Philadelphia destroyed Monument Cemetery in 1956 – obliterated it in order that Temple University could acquire that land to build a parking lot. Progress. 

Thank you to my 34 attendees and I do apologize to the several who I could not admit after the presentation began. I had figured I would admit people manually – wrong! Always never do this! Set your controls to admit latecomers automatically! Each of the three times I admitted latecomers, my slides froze and would not advance! To make matters worse, my in-house IT consultant (a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia) was not yet awake!

But, I powered through. As did all the other presenters. For most, this was their first rodeo. It was only my second. Here, for your enjoyment, ad infinitum, is my presentation, stored somewhere in the cloud. It’s free to access, so you can watch it anew or relive the moment if you were there with me in my living room last Saturday morning. 

(Recorded presentation) “Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery”



Donations appreciated!

 

    mourningarts@yahoo.com

                   

         

@Edward-Snyde




Sunday, June 14, 2020

Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.



My guest author this week is David Gurmai, a friend who is Weekend Coordinator and unofficial historian at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Enjoy!
                                                                ********************************************
“Wash your hands!” is a common refrain of mothers everywhere, and one that’s become even more important with a global pandemic on our hands (pun intended). It has long been forgotten that hand washing is a relatively recent habit with contentious beginnings. Before it became widely accepted among the general population, it had to first be accepted by the medical community.

Dr. Charles D. Meigs (1792-1869) was an obstetrician caught in the middle of a paradigm shift in medicine. He went to medical school at a time when miasma theory—the idea that diseases are a product of one’s environment—was the accepted belief. Germ theory was in its infancy, though making demonstrably provable claims, particularly with Louis Pasteur advancing vaccination science and inventing pasteurization in the mid-1800s. Dr. Meigs thought germ theory was hogwash. He insisted on having treatment rooms cleaned thoroughly, removing any traces of miasma and effluvia, but hand washing was absurd to him. As a gentleman, a God-fearing and educated man of high standing, contagion couldn’t possibly be spread by his touch.



That’s the stance that Dr. Meigs obstinately took, despite otherwise excelling in his field. There was no regimen of thorough hand washing as he moved between patients. He didn’t merely ignore the idea, but was actively outspoken and hostile toward it. He would invoke reductio ad absurdum-style arguments against it: suggesting that believers of germ theory shouldn’t touch anyone lest they infect everyone, while pointing out that physicians can’t practice in such a manner. He wasn’t the only doctor opposed to hand washing, but he was among the most prominent. 

By the time of Dr. Meigs’ death, germ theory was prevailing over miasma theory. One has to wonder how many infections he passed among the mothers and newborns who were his patients. As the 19th century closed, germ theory was fully accepted by the medical establishment. Another few decades and society at large had caught on; by 1940 everyone was washing their hands before meals and performing surgery.

So, listen to your mother…and the CDC: Wash your hands.

Epilogue by Ed Snyder

Meigs’ professional embarrassment and widely publicized rebuke by the AMA (1850s) is well-documented in the book, Dr. Mutter’s Marvels (2014, Aptowicz). Dr. Thomas Mutter (of the famed Mutter Museum in Philadelphia), a surgeon and professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, was one of medicine’s earliest proponents of aseptic technique. Although he could not prove that infections were transmitted by pathogens and non-sterile technique, he did realize early on in his surgical career that if he washed his hands and instruments before conducting a surgical procedure, there were fewer infectious complications. He and Meigs taught at Jefferson at the same time and were at odds in their opinions and teachings.

David’s statement above, “One has to wonder how many infections he passed among the mothers and newborns who were his patients,” is frighteningly addressed in Apotowicz’ book. She states that “Meigs was unable or unwilling to understand the concept that diseases could even be contagious,” and that as an obstetrician he transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of patients. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., MD, a renowned Harvard anatomy professor in 1855, published a scathing article on infectious disease, calling out Meigs by name as “the pestilence-carrier of the lying-in chamber,” who “must look to God for pardon, for man will never forgive him.”

Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that the best way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene. As David says above, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!

I thank David Gurmai for directions to Meigs’ grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery. I had just finished reading “Dr. Mutter’s Marvels” and was fascinated that the science being discovered during the time of Mutter and Meigs (1840s – 1860s) has such a direct relation to the pandemic we are now experiencing. I went to Meigs’ grave and taunted him with germicidal wipes, gloves, and a mask – items he would have scoffed at, yet items we realize are instrumental in saving lives.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Artistry Above Ground


As opposed to artistry below ground? Hmm. Maybe that would refer to gemstones, gold and silver, etc. The artistry above ground we are talking about are gems of a sort - the creative arts produced by the people who were expected to participate in the tent-and-table, physical outdoor art exhibition, “Artistry Above Ground,” sponsored by West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA (a Philadelphia suburb). This was to be the inaugural spring arts and artisans event held by the cemetery, similar in concept to the wildly popular “Market of the Macabre,” which has been a regular fall event for the past several years at West Laurel’s sister cemetery, Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

I’ve participated in the Market of the Macabre and it has been a wonderful outing. Death-centric folks selling everything from serial killer T-shirts to dead things in jars. Of course, my graveyard photographs, cards, and books fit right in. My friend Sarah Amendola and I have consistently set up next to each other, she of Mockingbird Lane Artistries with her jewelry, glass coffins (not full size), and crazy crystal vending machine! Alas, a physical outing is not to be, as the COVID Hounds of Hell are nipping at all of our heels.

This being the case, West Laurel Hill decided to go ahead with the event, only as a “virtual market.” For many of us artists and organizers, this is, in fact, our first rodeo. Wish us luck! The idea is that West Laurel Hill will host on its website (“Artistry Above Ground”) links to as many vendors as have an on-line store, so that the public can visit and potentially buy such things as steampunk clothing, coffin-nail necklaces, and dead things in jars. (Not joking about the coffin-nail necklaces, Mockingbird Lane Artistries has them!)

Link to "Artistry Above Ground:"

When the page is updated on May 28, 2020, links will be available for all the vendors, including me. You'll see a link to my “Stone Angels” ETSY shop. Or, if you'd like, you can click here to be teleported directly to my shop.

I’ve put up some new items just for the “Artistry Above Ground Virtual Market” (like the masked and dangerous statuary image above, made in Laurel Hill Cemetery last week). You’ll see some surprises there. Typically, my two books, “Stone Angels” (Blurb) and “The Cemetery Traveler” (Amazon) are only available (unsigned) from the publisher or (signed) at shows. For this 3-day-event, I am offering signed copies of the books if you purchase them from the ETSY shop. 

Also, my photographic prints are typically unsigned, but I will sign those as well, and include an extra special surprise photo with your purchase. There are some gruesome things lurking in there, so be prepared – death is not always pretty.

“Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater”

In addition, “Artistry Above Ground” will feature a ticketed event for Saturday, May 30, 2020, at 5 p.m. – an on-line presentation by me, entitled “Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater.” Hmmm. Now what could THAT be about? If you’ve read my blog or purchased a copy of my book by the same name, “The Cemetery Traveler,” you might guess it will be about the 1956 destruction of the Victorian-era Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia. And you would be correct.


In the 1950s, Temple University wanted the land across Broad Street to build a parking lot for its commuter students. Unfortunately, the land was occupied by Monument Cemetery, the second Victorian Garden Cemetery established in Philadelphia (in 1837, right after Laurel Hill). As the owners wouldn’t sell, Temple managed to have the city of Philadelphia condemn the property, remove the graves, and sell the land to Temple. In 1956, many of the 28,000 graves were removed and the headstones and monuments dumped into the Delaware River – where they remain to this day. Hence the title, “Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater.”

I do hope you will join me for the this Zoom presentation (my in-house IT consultant, a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia, taught me how to use Zoom). There will be a Q&A session afterword (chat your questions and I’ll answer them live for all to hear). 


Links to Sarah Amendola’s Mockingbird Lane Artistries:

Ed Snyder’s Stone Angels ETSY Shop:

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Cemetery Photography of Vince Payavis



"I take photos, it's what I love to do. I will photograph anything, but cemeteries are one of my favorites. It's like having a beautiful art museum all to myself. It may be cliche' to say it, but I love the serenity. I feel I'm passing on unseen and unknown art to anyone who cares enough about these photos to take a look." - Vince Payavis
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Vince Payavis has quite the photo album on Flicker – his photographs of people, vehicles, landscapes, and abandoned sites are all very interesting. Crisp quality, wonderful composition. He does, in addition, have an album of cemetery photography. I thought you might be interested in seeing his work. Vince and I knew each other in high school – the last time we’d seen or spoken to each other was 1976!

In April of 2020, I was on Facebook and noticed that a friend of mine who I attended high school with, happened to be friends with Vince. That, as they say, was a blast from the past. So I dropped him a line. It was good to see he was still alive. Once he vetted me and realized that I had all this cemetery photography stuff on my page, he invited me to view his Flickr album of same.


I was quite taken by his images, and decided to share some with you - with Vince’s approval, of course. I always find it interesting to see other photographers’ visions of the same scenes that I’ve photographed. While I’m not sure that I know the locations of all his cemetery scenes, I did recognize two in particular – Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, PA and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.


Hollenback I’ve been to many times, as Wilkes-Barre is the general vicinity in which I grew up. I think Vince lives in the area now; I’m in Philadelphia, about a hundred miles south. I still have relatives around Wilkes-Barre so I visit often. Maybe when COVID-19 allows for social interaction, we’ll actually meet up sometime.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – near Tarrytown, New York, is a place I only visited once, about a year ago, so Vince’s images are as vivid to me as a freshly dug grave. Especially this one of Washington Irving’s headstone. It's kind of a spooky place. You really expect the Headless Horseman to come galloping over its hills!

I rather like the effects Vince uses to create his unique visions of what he sees. The images are masterful, and not overpowering. When I try to do this sort of thing with photo-editing software, the result looks like I banged on the image with a hammer. So I can appreciate his subtle use of the ghostly swirls in the sky. Nicely done.

Vince and I shared quite a few common interests in high school – friends, avant garde music, etc. So, forty-five years later, it was a bit startling to find that we'd both developed this additional common interest. An odd interest, as you'll aggree. He and I have not communicated a great deal about his photography. I don’t know what kind of camera he uses or his photo editing software. Maybe I don’t want to know, they're just tools, right? It’s sometimes enough to just look at and enjoy the art, without knowing how it was created. The art and architecture in Victorian-era graveyards has its own singular beauty. What makes it even more enjoyable is when someone uses it as a springboard to realize a new artistic vision.

Click here to see Vince Payavis' Flickr album.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Cemetery Photography and the “Stay at Home” Order


I have a post-Coronavirus graveyard bucket list (what, don’t you?). My friend Loren Rhodes published a wonderful book in 2017 called, “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die” which has been on my mind recently. I have been reading and writing more since the “Stay-at-Home” order was issued across the United States in March of 2020. Here it is, the beginning of May, and we’re still at home. Things are s-l-o-w-l-y starting to reopen, albeit very tentatively. Other than explore your local cemetery (hopefully you have one) by walking or biking to it, there’s not much else to do outside your domicile. Everything is closed. Cemeteries are open - just not for funerals (see my previous blog post on that).

“The future is no more uncertain than the present.” – Walt Whitman

Photo by Olivia Snyder
My bucket list right now is not so much comprised of specific cemeteries as it is of specific people. I miss you guys. While its true that cemetery photography is typically a solo sport (like skiing, surfing, or skateboarding), I do miss the interaction with other photographers. There are people I’ve become closer to, virtually, during Corona-times, and I look forward to meeting up with them in person. Also, there are many others to whom I’ve said in the past, “Let’s go do a shoot together!” – and it never happened. I want to hang out with those people too, once this is over. I miss you all.

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” – Walt Whitman

I have been tentatively invited to give a few virtual cemetery lectures in place of my cancelled events, and I don’t know if those will happen. Not really sure how my sparkling personality and natural prolixity will come across in a Zoom session (although I have figured out how to use the “mute” feature better than most). We’re all coping the best we can. “OODA” loops, however, don’t necessarily come to your aid when you have zero control over a situation. OODA, by the way, stands for “Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.

“Be curious, not judgmental.” – Walt Whitman

As Derek Thompson explains in his book, Hit Makers (2017, a wonderfully insightful treatise on marketing given to me by my son, Chris Snyder), OODA is “a strategic approach in which information was constantly funneled back to the decision maker to construct a new theory of attack.” This was devised by air force pilot John Boyd, to provide fighter pilots with “a facility for learning and changing strategy quickly … the speed of adaptation was the key factor in whether you could win or lose in a dogfight.” As of this writing, 76,000 U.S. citizens have died in this COVID dogfight (and 265,000 worldwide).

Rainy spring day at the Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

While instant feedback has helped me navigate the “mute” feature on Skype, I’m not sure its that helpful in combating Coronavirus. Think about how difficult it is trying to correct a skateboard position error in mid-air just as you drop into the bowl. At least in that case, you may KNOW how to correct it, but you just don’t have the ability or the time. With the pandemic, we don’t have any IDEA what we need to do to correct our course – but we know enough now that we must avoid dropping into the bowl until we know more about our situation. This is a dogfight in slow motion – after two months in the “Observation” stage, we’re now just trying to attempt “Orientation.” Years from now, maybe we'll be able to put this all in perspective, but it will probably end up like Calvin says below in Bill Watterson's comic strip. (This is why its important to document what's REALLY happening now.)


“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.” – Walt Whitman

But more to the subject of death and dying - Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of grieving and loss may be more useful in our current situation than OODA loops. COVID-19 is all about loss, isn’t it? Some have lost more than others. Some have lost a paycheck, some have lost a loved one. Beginning with denial, we proceed through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’ll hazard a guess that we’re between anger and bargaining right now, as the world contemplates reopening businesses and relaxing the social distance rules. So keep calm, and explore a cemetery, as my Facebook friend Mark Morton suggests.


Springtime in a graveyard near my house, Old Swedes' Church, Philadelphia

“Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?” – Walt Whitman

So is the Cemetery Traveler traveling to cemeteries during the Coronavirus global pandemic? Well, yes, he says sheepishly. Local ones. I have traveled a good deal around Philly, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau.

There is a stay-at-home order and while my wife and ten-year-old daughter are in fact staying home, I have been deemed an essential healthcare worker (my car is placarded a South Jersey “ESF - #8 Healthcare Worker/Essential Employee Vehicle”). So what this allows me to do every few days, is stop on the way home (to Philadelphia) from work (in New Jersey) to visit a cemetery or two. A far cry from my original spring plan, which was to visit the magnificent cemeteries of New Orleans while there for a conference (which has been cancelled). I am luckier than most cemetery photographers, who don’t even have the option of using public transit (which has been scaled back to bare bones scheduling). On the road, I even get to eat free greasy McDonald's healthcare worker meals - just kidding - I drink the coffee that comes with it and discard the food (do they really expect healthcare workers to eat that food? LOL!)

Turns out you don't have to travel far to find beauty and wonder - its everywhere (though maybe not in homeschooling – now that’s gotten to be downright ugly). On my way home from work last week I stopped in Harleigh Cemetery, in Camden, New Jersey. Harleigh is home to America’s greatest poet – Walt Whitman. Its a quiet, serene place, and it can be very contemplative to be standing in front of Walt’s family mausoleum, peering at his burial vault. A lot of his writing came back to me as I walked under the nearby blooming pink dogwood trees. I’ve sprinkled some Whitman quotes throughout this essay. This one I think is especially apropos of our Corona-times:

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.” – Walt Whitman

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Cemeteries and Funerals in the Time of Coronavirus

While it is true the dead cannot get coronavirus, their world is not spared the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re lucky, you haven’t experienced anything related to death in these dark times. But you’ve probably heard bits and pieces related to things like pickup truckloads of bodies unceremoniously removed from nursing homes (click link to read), relatives mortally passing the virus on to their kin, or bodies being cremated along with all their identifying information (wallets, insurance cards, etc.). Graveyards and cemeteries have not been closed to visitors as most other public spaces have, but the kind of activity present in them has radically changed in the spring of 2020.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY
On a positive note, many more people are enjoying these green spaces in ways for which they were intended. They were designed in the Victorian era as serene getaways from the noisy cities, arboreal sculpture gardens to be strolled and picnicked in. The purpose was to help people accept death in a kinder, gentler fashion – enter all the angel statues. And people are strolling through cemeteries once again, being one of the few spaces open at this time when parks and museums, galleries and playgrounds are all closed.

Springtime in the Cemetery
As much beauty as I find in such places, I do sometimes lose sight of the grief inherent in their midst. Some years ago I was in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA (outside Philadelphia), and saw to my amazement, a wonderful black Victorian funeral carriage – complete with a pair of harnessed white horses! It was parked alongside the funeral home. I asked the gentleman who was tending the horses if I could photograph him and he graciously said yes. We chatted as I made photographs and I must have assumed the setup was there for show. Finally he said something that stopped me in my tracks – “The parents will be arriving shortly for the funeral.” (You can read more about this in my original blog post.)

Victorian funeral carriage, West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA

I was similarly stopped in my tracks this past week when I read my friend Alexandra Mosca’s article, “A Funeral Home Director’s View of the Pandemic." Alexandra is a funeral director in New York City and writes of the current difficulties faced by families of the recently deceased, where the funeral director must turn the grieving away from the grave. Imagine watching your mother’s casket being lowered into her grave, while your family watches from their car windows. Worse yet, imagine all the funeral homes in your vicinity so busy with the dead that they cannot accommodate your family’s needs.  Read the article here for a part of life that is being tremendously affected by the health crisis.

So while I explore cemeteries as much as I can, I never lose sight of the fact that others may be there for altogether more serious reasons. Please be respectful.

For further reading (links thanks to my friend Bill McDowell):
https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia-ivy-hill-cemetery-crematory-20200505.html?fbclid=IwAR3pYRLa7niPHH5GaIBVkN59QwcWJwr08Ckxlfy9mVuMLa2mLrgHkVKBoks

https://www.inquirer.com/news/coronavirus-black-deaths-philadelphia-terry-funeral-home-covid19-race-disparity-homegoing-burials-20200504.html?fbclid=IwAR2czFQ2p6xb34xkCXJCOA1YLZwc7VFXnnwQk7Yk9GyyO3cww7Iw_NRVzHg


Monday, April 27, 2020

Cemetery Socializing

Allyson, Ed, and Owen outside Mt. Vernon Cemetery, Phila.
Back in the late fall of 2017, my friend Owen let me know that he’d be visiting the U.S. in February, and invited me to do some graveyard photography. Owen lives in France, not far from Pere Lachaise, so I always found it ironic that he could find any cemetery outside of Paris very interesting. But he does. And he has photographed and explored them the world over, with stunning results. The previous year he and I hiked through the infamous, massive, formerly-abandoned Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Owen and I met as Facebook friends some years ago, and appreciate each other’s photography. Toward the end of 2017, I made the acquaintance of another cemetery photographer, Allyson Pettigrew, this time through Instagram. She is, in my opinion, a rising star in the cemetery photography genre. I introduced Allyson to Owen via Instagram, and we started following each other’s work.

Allyson photographing zinc memorial
I suggested to Owen that we ask Allyson to join us when the time came for his visit to the states. He agreed. Such an easy thing to, back in the pre-Coronavirus days. Just plan to get together and then do it. Not so easy today. With the world locked down here in April 2020, social-distancing is the norm and we’re all sheltering in place (unless you need food). No one knows how or when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. We wax nostalgic for the good old days when we could carry a social media virtual “friendship” forward into the realm of ACTUAL friendship – then follow those actual friends as they consider climbing over a fence into an abandoned graveyard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mount Peace Cemetery angel
When February 2018 rolled around, Owen hit town. The three of us agreed to meet at Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia, check out Mount Vernon (through its bars, as it has been subject to its own form of lockdown for many years, i.e., off limits to the public), and then head over to Laurel Hill Cemetery, just across Ridge Avenue. All three cemeteries are just about next to each other. Quite convenient for us cemetery travelers.

Mount Peace Cemetery monument
After introductions and handshaking (gee, how many years will it be until people do THAT anymore?), we spent some time exploring Mount Peace and gazing longingly through the bars of a rhyme – as the Dire Straits song goes – actually, through the bars into the unkempt Mount Vernon Cemetery. (That's my selfie of us at the top of this article, looking through the bars into Mount Vernon.) Owen had a monster lens, so he was able to some great shots. We chatted about our work, strolled Mount Peace’s grounds, and photographed some monuments. We appreciated each others’ company based on a mutual respect for each others’ work.

Mount Vernon Cemetery from the locked entrance gate
When I first noticed Allyson’s work on Instagram, I would linger on the images as they seemed so familiar. I realized she was from Philly, as I am, and so it was not surprising that she photographed many of the same monuments in the same cemeteries as I had over the years. The disturbing fact, however, was that her images were BETTER than mine, lol! Do check out her Instagram feed @allyson_underland.

Mount Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia

It really is useful to me, as a photographer, to see the same scene from another photographer’s perspective. Years ago, I used to photograph with a friend who was considerably shorter than me. She would complain that I was able to get a high vantage point (being 6’2”) for my compositions while she was not able. Truth is, I enjoyed her images immensely because they were made from angles I naturally did not utilize.

Owen with his ultrazoom lens!

On the other hand, I greatly admire Owen’s work, primarily because he travels to such far-flung exotic places that I will never see. His Instagram images of the graveyards in the Atacama Desert in Chile, for instance, are nothing short of spine-chilling. Do check out his Instagram feed @owenphil333.

Ed and Allyson, with friends at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Owen, Allyson, and I headed over to Laurel Hill Cemetery afterward – did I mention that it was c-c-c-COLD that day?! I don’t recall the temperature but I’m pretty sure it was below freezing. This image of the Schuylkill River (at left) from Laurel Hill Cemetery (above Kelly Drive) epitomizes the weather that day. We walked around, photographed monuments, and generally compared notes on the art of photography.


Owen at Laurel Hill (above and below)

Owen spirited off the next day for further adventures in New Orleans, and I was glad he stopped by to spend some time with Allyson and I. His parting words were, “What kind of people would be out photographing cemeteries in the dead of winter? – the best kind!”


Photography is about sharing - sharing a bit of yourself, some of your work, and hopefully learning something in the process. In Coronavirus times, the best we can do is share online. Many galleries are putting up ad hoc galleries to share art via the internet, since we physically can’t hang things on walls for groups of people to see. Yes, I know, the internet has been moving us in this direction for some time – maybe I’m just late for the bus. Still, with all this isolation, don’t you miss just a little human interaction? Maybe COVID-19 is giving us an idea what virtual reality would REALLY be like if we all just sat in front of our computers. Man cannot live by the internet alone.