Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Death's Head and Soul Effigies in the Graveyard, West Orange, NJ


I mapped out my pre-meeting destination a few days before my trip to north Jersey – the West Orange Presbyterian Church. Why? If I got to the Newark area a couple hours before our group meetup time (11 a.m.), I can fit in a visit to this place and photograph some of the death’s head and angel head gravestones not commonly found in the Philadelphia area.

The morning of my trip from Philadelphia to the Oranges (near Newark, NJ) was rather busy. This was a Sunday morning at the beginning of April, 2023. I drove my wife and daughter to the airport at 3:30 am, as they needed to catch a 6:30 am flight to Miami. The airline demanded a three-hour arrival time because of the near-tornado situation that occurred the night before. After dropping them off, I came home and packed my photo gear for the trip north (about a 2-hour drive). I figured if I got there early, I would just explore one or two other nearby cemeteries.

After I packed the SUV and started to drive out of my neighborhood, the “Low Air in Tire” light came on my dashboard. A nuisance that crops up once every six months or so. In BMW’s wisdom, they don’t actually tell you which tire is low, so you have to check them all. Sigh. So I drove a mile to my local air pump station at the car wash in South Philly, checked the tires, found out the driver’s side rear tire was low. Filled it up and hit the highway. 

Our meetup group of cemetery photographers planned to begin the day in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, in East Orange, then close the day down the road at Fairmount Cemetery. My early solo trip would be a prequel. On the way up the Jersey turnpike, I decided on which of two nearby cemeteries I’d visit first – the 18th century churchyard of the Presbyterian Church in West Orange, and then, if time permitted, Mount Pleasant Cemetery in East Orange.


I found the church and graveyard without much difficulty, arriving about 8 a.m. Sunny, but chilly – maybe 40 degrees. My friend Phil told me this burial ground had a lot of “soul effigy” headstones, which I was eager to see. He believes it has the largest number of existing stones carved in this style by Newark’s Uzal Ward and his several imitators.

Soul effigy stones

Although there are some marble grave markers scattered along the front and sides of the church, the vast majority (literally hundreds) of markers here are of the brownish-red sandstone variety, commonly found from central New Jersey north throughout New England. Most are adorned with either the winged death’s head skull, or the angel head with wings. Inscribed death dates range from the early 1700s to the early 1800s. 

According to the Atlas Preservation article (ref.), Gravestone Evolution in America From the First Settlers to the Early Victorian Era, this locally quarried sandstone has “a very fine grain, and was relatively high in silicates. It tends to weather minimally and … concise lettering on stones dating back to as early as the middle to late 1600s can be easily read today…. “

This material is commonly known as “brownstone,” the slang term for sandstone that is brown in color. In the Atlas Preservation article, the author states that the reason sandstone was used was because “Stones needed to be soft enough to split and carved with hand tools, but durable enough to resist erosion.” It seems odd that it is so durable – you would think the “sands of time” would wear it down easily. The author accurately states, “A historical graveyard, and all that goes into it, is a kind of ancient puzzle, that I hope will intrigue you as it does me.”https://atlaspreservation.com/pages/american-gravestone-evolution-part-1

I’m no aesthete, but what I find most fascinating about these stones is the soul effigy carvings, as my friend Phil refers to them. He been sort of a death’s head divining rod for me lately – I really had no idea where to find them. Phil has explained to our Cemetery photography meetup group that such imagery is quite common in the old church graveyards of central and northern Jersey. 

Side door of First Shiloh Baptist Church, West Orange

This particular church, formerly Presbyterian, established in 1718, is now operated as the First Shiloh Baptist Church. The gargantuan brick and wooden structure has seen better days. It appears to be abandoned, but it is hard to say. Partially eaten food and canned goods rest near the entrances, trash surrounds the front grounds of the church, the woodwork is cracked and peeling. Although I saw no homeless people or vagrants in the area, it did appear to be a rest stop of sorts. 

Food at the front door.


Why such an equal mix of death’s head and angel head grave markers? Perhaps a hundred of each? I should have paid more attention to the death dates to see if they validated the following statement from Archeology.org:

“…the death's-head motif accompanied the harsh beliefs of orthodox Puritanism. Its replacement by the cherub reflected eighteenth century religious liberalization during the "Great Awakening," a period when some scholars believe orthodox Puritan views were being replaced by a more liberal perspective.” - https://archive.archaeology.org/8309/etc/gravestones.html


It would be interesting to see if the death’s head stones were generally older than the angel head ones. Maybe on my next trip - I guess that’s why they make tomorrows. 

My Next Adventure

Statue at First Shiloh
My next adventure turned out not to be Mount Pleasant Cemetery. After walking the grounds and photographing the headstones at First Shiloh for an hour, I jumped into the car to warm up, find a coffee shop, then zoom off to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery (about five miles away). As soon as I started my car, that pesky “Low Air in Tire” light came on my dashboard again. Rats! Obviously, I’ve got a slow leak. Where to find a tire repair place?!


Luckily, it was only 9 a.m. and I was scheduled to meet up with my friends at 11 a.m. So I had two hours. With my usual sangfroid, I typed “Tire Repair Near Me” into Google Maps on my cellphone instead of my typical message, “Cemetery Near Me.” Most places were closed, Firestone, gas stations, etc. However, there was a Mavis Discount Tire that opened at 9 am about five miles in the direction opposite my preferred direction. Beggars can’t be choosers, so off I went, tout de suite.

Took about half hour to get there, through lots of congested traffic areas, but I arrived about 9:30, and pulled into a large suburban retail resort. Drove past a Whole Foods in a strip mall to the Mavis at the bottom of the parking lot. Many cars in the parking lot. Ouch. Docked the Pequod and went into the customer area. At the counter I asked the fellow if they could fix a slow leak quickly. 

The guy started filling out the work order and asked me how far away I was visiting from, as he took the info from my Pennsylvania auto registration card. I told him a hundred miles away, and I need to get to a cemetery in an hour. He quickly looked up and a bit startled, said, “We’ll get you on the road as quickly as possible, sir.” I didn’t think I needed to explain that I was not heading for a funeral.

First Shiloh (Presbyterian) Church
I left my keys with him and told him I would walk up to the Whole Foods and be back soon. Feeling way more comfortable with the situation, I walked over to the Food Hole for coffee and a breakfast sammie. When I walked in I noticed they had potted gardenias on sale. I like having one in front of my house, so I figured I would buy one before I left. So after downing some breakfast, I bought a gardenia and headed down the parking lot toward Mavis Tire.

When I was about a hundred yards away, my cell phone rang. My car was ready. Thirty-two dollars to fix the nail hole in my tire and off I headed toward Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. For anyone’s reference, I give a five-star rating to the Mavis Tire Supply, LLC, at 235 Prospect Avenue in West Orange, New Jersey!

I ended up putting in a full day with my meetup friends at Holy Sepulchre and Fairmount Cemeteries, experiencing zero lassitude given the fact that I was running on about three hours’ sleep from the night before! But more on that excursion another time. The preprandial at Dunkin Donuts across from Holy Sepulchre helped me begin my day a third time - like a new angel getting its wings.




Sunday, February 19, 2023

"Lincoln in the Bardo" - Oak Hill Cemetery


As I sit here in my living room typing this passage, my thirteen-year-old daughter is practicing Bach’s Prelude in C minor on our piano. I can’t help but think it would be the perfect soundtrack to George Saunders’ recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.  The music is somber, as is the book. 

You may be wondering what a “bardo” is. I didn’t know before I read the book. I actually didn’t know until AFTER I read the book and started writing this essay. Saunders does not actually mention the word, or define it, in his book. According to Wikipedia:

'' ...bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena."

The bardo, then. And you might also assume “Lincoln” refers to Abraham. But it does not, It refers to his son Willie, who died at age twelve.

Oak Hill Cemetery gatehouse, Georgetown

The image you see at the beginning of this article is my photograph of the sculpture from the entrance to a mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. It is near the Carroll mausoleum, where Lincoln’s son was temporarily laid to rest when he died in 1862. As the story goes, Lincoln visited the mausoleum in the days following his son’s death, opening the casket and holding him in his arms.

I’ll let you digest that for a few moments. Maybe a few more moments if you are a parent.

Library of Congress

I made the "There Shall Be No Night There" photograph as well as many other images when I explored Oak Hill Cemetery back around 2005. I was unaware of the Willie Lincoln story at the time. In the fall of 2022, I learned of it through George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). A librarian friend of mine told me about the book when I gave a lecture on abandoned cemeteries at her library. Sounded intriguing, so I bought and read the novel.

Densely wooded Oak Hill Cemetery

The book brought back vivid memories of how eerie Oak Hill was. I was there after a spring rain, and everything was slick and dripping. The caretaker warned me to stay on the sidewalks so I didn’t slip or fall into a sunken grave. He could easily have been Jack Manders, Oak Hill’s night watchman at the time of Lincoln’s visits. Manders, lantern in hand, would guide the President from the entry gate (see photo below) where he tied his horse, to the Carroll mausoleum in the dark. Manders would unlock the mausoleum door, and leave the father alone with his grief. This is all documented in Manders’ actual logbook from 1862.

Entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery

I never saw the Carroll mausoleum – didn’t go looking for it when I was at Oak Hill. Didn’t know anything about Willie Lincoln at the time. So why was Willie “temporarily” laid to rest there? Well, the Lincolns expected to move the family back to Illinois after the President’s term had ended. They planned to take Willie back with them for a proper burial. A clerk of the Supreme Court, William Carroll, let the Lincolns use his family mausoleum as a temporary resting place until they returned to Illinois. Abe never made it back to Illinois alive.

Willie Lincoln’s death: A private agony for a president facing a nation of pain - The Washington Post

“The remains of Willie Lincoln lay in the marble vault, locked behind an iron gate, for more than three years. On numerous occasions, author James L. Swanson wrote, “his ever-mourning father returned to visit him, to remember, and to weep,” even as he tried to hold the country together.

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Willie’s casket was exhumed and placed aboard the presidential funeral train for the journey back to Illinois. Father and son headed home together.”

Again, I’ll pause and let you think about that for a bit.

The majority of Saunders’ book is about the experience of Willie’s “ghost,” after his body was delivered to the mausoleum in a funeral procession. Willie’s experience involves many other people – or, ghosts” - with which he interacts while in Oak Hill Cemetery. It is a rather riveting story, one that you want to end well. But the way it ends is quite unsettling. 

The chapel on the cemetery grounds where Willie’s funeral service was held is shown in the above photo - Saunders refers to it in his story. I remember getting a creepy feeling walking past it those many years ago. The entire cemetery was gloomy, dark from its tall trees. I had a distinct sense of being alone.

Were I to return, I would probably not be able to think of anything but the characters and scenes from Lincoln in the Bardo, and the “matterlightblooming” phenomenon where the ghosts, or souls, disappear in a snap from the bardo and head to some other, undefined, state of existence. They avoid all talk (yes, they can talk to each other) of death, how they got to the bardo, or life itself – referring to our mortal world as the place they were before. They cannot admit to themselves that they are dead. Hence, the deep denial evinced by the sculpted phrase, "There Shall Be No Night There." Were I to return to Oak Hill Cemetery at this point, I think I would feel anything but alone. 

Further Reading: 

A review of Lincoln in the Bardo 

https://sevencircumstances.com/2018/01/10/a-triumph-of-imagination-lincoln-in-the-bardo-by-george-saunders/


Sunday, January 29, 2023

Clutching


Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

Look closely at the hand above, see how it is pulling on the bed covers? It appears to have a death grip on the sheets. This is a fairly common sculptural element in cemetery art. It’s impact was rather lost on me until I made this photograph. Well, not exactly when I MADE it, more so when I reviewed the images on my phone the next day. Why? Mainly because it reminded me of a Cemetery Traveler blog I had written some years ago. 

As I described in my June 17, 2020 post, “Johnny Thunders Dead in New Orleans,” (link below) I described how the guitarist formerly of the New York Dolls had a death grip on his bed covers when the hotel caretaker found his lifeless body. This was at the St. Peter Guest House – a rooming house - in New Orleans, in 1991. Thunders’ death grip may have looked just like what you see carved in this statue.

http://thecemeterytraveler.blogspot.com/2010/06/johnny-thunders-dead-in-new-orleans.html

So, what exactly is a “death grip?”

 “Death grip: A cadaveric spasm described as an instantaneous tightening of the hand or other body part at the time of death, the mechanism of which is unexplained.”

https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

At some point back in 1999, I spent a couple days photographing New Orleans cemeteries. As I described in the blog post mentioned above, I also visited the St. Peter Guest House, being a New York Dolls fan. Johnny Thunders died here. The Dolls were a flamboyant glam rock punk band that came into being in 1973, the mechanism of their popularity being also largely unexplained. Back then, you would rarely admit in public that you listened to glam or punk. Now, of course, their music is almost considered “classic rock.” I doubt the Dolls would have expected that their music would be listened to FIFTY years later!

By the same token, I certainly did not expect to be talking to the man who found Johnny’s body when I visited the St. Peter Guest House. As I have previously written, “Royce found Johnny on the floor next to his bed with the bedsheets crunched in a deathgrip by his stiff hands.” I invite you to read my account of this adventure here.

It is odd how things you see, smell, hear, and taste can remind you of a past experience. Often, the memory jumps to the forefront of our consciousness without warning. This is actually a good description of the New York Dolls themselves. In 1973, they jumped to the forefront of the music world’s consciousness without warning. 

In the same way as the death grip adds a stark, mortal detail to the serene form of these statues, we can be reminded of how Johnny Thunders and the Dolls added a stark, mortal detail to music’s serene form in 1973. The Dolls were scraping, clutching their way toward stardom, in the midst of the serene popular music hits of 1973. Take a look at the list below to see what they were up against. We always need someone to continually claw at the sheets of complacency.

Top Songs of 1973  (https://top40weekly.com/top-100-songs-of-1973/)

1 Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree - Tony Orlando & Dawn

2 Bad, Bad Leroy Brown - Jim Croce

3 Killing Me Softly with His Song - Roberta Flack

4 Let’s Get It On - Marvin Gaye

5 My Love - Paul McCartney & Wings

6 Why Me - Kris Kristofferson

7 Crocodile Rock - Elton John

8 Will It Go Round in Circles - Billy Preston

9 You’re So Vain - Carly Simon

10 Touch Me in the Morning - Diana Ross


Saturday, December 10, 2022

Cold Spring Church Graveyard, Cape May



During a wedding my wife and I attended in Cape May, New Jersey in June, 2022, I made a side trip to a local cemetery and a graveyard. Well, not DURING the wedding, the day after. One was St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, and the other was the graveyard of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church. Why the distinction, cemetery versus graveyard? Graveyards are technically the burial place surrounding a church, while a cemetery is not. Technically.

I had received a heads up about Cold Spring Presbyterian, that it was an interesting old Victorian church and graveyard. I had no idea how absolutely fascinating it was! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On Saturday morning, I got up around 7 a.m. and left my wife sleeping at the beachfront motel. The hotel was conveniently situated on Broadway, at the east end of the cape, where the commercial, touristy bustle winds down. Broadway becomes Seashore Road, and heads directly north to both locations I wanted to visit. It was a bit cool outside, so I grabbed a light jacket and headed out to the car. 

When I arrived at St. Mary’s, maybe two miles north, I drove in to a long, narrow cemetery with a center road. The place was maybe two city blocks long, with a separate cemetery to the left towards the end – Mt. Zion Cemetery. Both were rather nondescript, St. Mary’s had a few statues and one mausoleum. I got out of the car to check out the lovely headstone at the beginning of this essay and was surprised at how hot the air had gotten in the fifteen minutes since I left the hotel. Sunny Saturday at the beach, and here I am in a cemetery!

I didn’t spend much time here as it was not terribly interesting, and headed north another two miles. A quick drive made quicker as I listened to Black Sabbath’s song “Snowblind” on the car stereo. Cold Spring Presbyterian Cemetery is also known as the Old Red Brick Church Cemetery, which is what the sign says - “cemetery,” even though it’s a technically a graveyard. Go figure. But I don’t stand on ceremony. Saturday morning is preferable to Sunday when visiting a church graveyard, by the way. Why, you may ask? No services going on. When I arrived, there was not a car in the lot, not a soul around – well, not a living one anyway. 

Cold Spring Church, North Cape May, New Jersey

But oh were there the gravemarkers! All styles, all eras. And the ornamentation! I’ve not been this fascinated with Victorian ironwork since I visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. Everywhere and in all directions, family plots with all the original Victorian fencing, decorative gates, and other design elements. The graveyard was immense, covering many acres on all sides of the church. Given the established date on the church itself – 1766 – I assume the graveyard is as old. There were modern graves on the south side of the property, with the oldest nearest to the church. 

Victorian-era ironwork

There was a fascinating bronze art deco style family plot with just one headstone. The green patina of the posts and other decorative elements were breathtaking. The date of the stone – 1922 – coincides with the art deco era. Decorative. Personalized gates were plentiful – on some plots, the fencing was gone, leaving only the gates. Such metal work is usually absent from cemeteries for a variety of reasons. Scrap metal was of great value during WWII, so much of the cast iron was scrapped to build more weapons.


Also, the decorative ironwork prevalent in Victorian cemeteries fell into disfavor among the fashionistas of the 1920s – it was viewed as being too gaudy, elaborate, and dated. In essence, an embarrassment to the family owners, descendants! GOMI, or trash, as the Japanese would have called it. People forget that the avant garde of the 1920s was Art Deco. Families would remove and discard such beautiful Victorian Gothic ironwork as this harp-shaped gate, along with all the associated fencing surrounding a dynasty plot. 


Whatever ironwork remained in U.S. cemeteries after the 1920s was probably removed in the 1940s to help with the war effort. World War II ushered in a massive recycling era for scrap metal, as this was needed to build battleships. Americans were instructed to collect even the smallest hoard of scrap material so as to help the war effort. If you check the photos in this article, you can easily surmise how cemetery fencing may have disappeared (https://www.bygonely.com/scrap-metal-drives-world-war-ii/). 

Yet so much of it remains here around the graves of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church. I wish I knew why. Winters here in North Cape May (right on the Delaware Bay) are brutal, but the surrounding trees must protect the stones from the elements. The massive brick church is in fine shape. Many of the thousands of gravemarkers here are also in fine condition, marking the many more thousands buried here beneath the sand. 

Certainly makes one ponder the whole idea of solipsism. None of my surroundings here are open to doubt, as far as I can tell. Such a scene that is all so different to me and unexpected just cannot be a figment of my imagination. My imagination is not that creative. Around 9:30 a.m., my cell phone rang. It was not Rene Descartes, it was wife. “Where are you?” she asked. I responded, “Where else would I be?” Knowing the answer, she asked if I could bring coffee back for her.


Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Day of the Cemetery Flood – 50 Years Ago


Well, its been 50 years this year, 2022, since Hurricane Agnes caused a massive flood in my hometown near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The swollen Susquehanna River broke through the dike in Forty-Fort, PA, and gutted the Forty-Fort Cemetery on June 23, 1972. My parents, along with my younger brother and sister, lived a few miles from there. Our house was flooded to the second floor. The flood level was officially recorded as sixteen feet. Imagine that.

I always think of death in the summer – as well as during the other seasons of course – but especially in the summer, because of what I saw in this cemetery. 


Sometime in July, 1972, maybe during the second week, the National Guard allowed us, along with thousands of other residents, back to our homes, to begin the cleanup. This was after then President Richard Nixon famously choppered over the devastation, which resulted in millions of dollars of disaster relief aid. You can read all about those trying times in the links at the end. A cinematographer has created a new video documentary called “Agnes 50th Anniversary,” a 90-minute film, which premiered at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre on June 23, 2022 – the fiftieth anniversary of the day of the flood. (DVD can be purchased at this link: https://www.wbpreservation.org/store/p/agnes-50th-anniversary-documentary-dvd”)

At the time, the Hurricane Agnes flood was considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Though like the Hurricane Katrina flood of New Orleans in 2005, it was really a disaster exacerbated by poor engineering. Yes, the hurricanes started the process, but it was the flood control systems built by humans that failed. In 1972, Wilkes-Barre, in the Wyoming Valley of northeast Pennsylvania, was the hardest hit of all areas affected on the east coast. I’ve not seen the new documentary yet, but it no doubt avoids the cemetery carnage. That part of the story is not for the faint of heart. Books and photographs rarely depict any detail of it, but you can see some photos on the blog I posted in 2020, “Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags” (link at end).

It is true that the living were more concerned about their own plight, that of the living, than about the dead, during that disaster - at least at the time we all had to evacuate. But after it was made public that Forty-Fort Cemetery had been decimated, I would imagine that many people who had loved ones buried there were crushed. Did they go to the cemetery after the flood waters receded to see the devastation? Did they want to know – and see – that their family plot had been spared? What of then recent burials like the one below? They wouldn't know until the day break, and the shadows flee.

For many weeks – maybe months – after the waters went down, sheets of plywood blocked the view of the cemetery from the roadway. Behind that barricade, the Army Corps of Engineers filled in the chasm left by the raging Susquehanna River. Whatever grave markers were left in that area of 2,500 unearthed burials were likely buried. THOUSANDS of bodies and coffins that were torn out of Forty-Fort Cemetery and deposited in various locations throughout the region had to be collected. This was done, for the most part, before the public was allowed back into the many affected cities and towns – Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Forty-Fort, Plymouth, Nanticoke, Swoyersville, and so on. There were coffins lodged on peoples’ porches.

If any of my readers were involved in the cemetery cleanup and reinterment at Memorial Shrine Cemetery in Carverton, PA, please get in touch. I’d like to hear your story (I can be reached privately at mourningarts@yahoo.com). 

Forty-Fort Cemetery office, Forty-Fort, PA.

Four acres of land (including burials) were torn from the center of Forty-Fort Cemetery and washed away. The chasm was about ten feet deep. I doubt anyone was around at the time to see this occur. Supposedly before the dike broke apart, the caretaker was wading through knee-deep water carrying books of burial records from the office to somewhere safe. There were people sandbagging on the dike (myself and my father included), but we all ran when the flood waters started shooting out of the storm drains in the streets. As the river rose over the dike, the dike gave way. Think about the Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks” and think about what occurred in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (which occurred in August of that year).  

Cenotaph inscription
“Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good

No, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move …” 

- From the Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks

Sometime toward the end of July, I believe, my cousin Albert and I explored the gutted cemetery (we slithered under the plywood in a washed out area). You can read about what we saw in the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” I won’t go into those details here, but suffice it to say that you don’t want to read that right before bedtime. In the photo below, you can see the area of fence at the Wyoming Avenue side of the cemetery under which we gained access. (You may purchase the book from Amazon, if you are interested: https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Traveler-Selections-blog/dp/1717885950)


Fence we climbed under, on Wyoming Ave.
Albert died on November 15, 2021. He was 64. We grew up together and I do regret not discussing these events with him later in his life. Different people have different ways of looking at things and I should have asked his perspective on our experience. During and after the flood, my family stayed for several weeks with his family, on the high ground outside the flood zone. While this was all going on, my closest friend George, who lived a few blocks from us, was having his own adventures with his family. George wrote me recently suggesting that I ask him about what he went through the day the flood hit. Maybe I never knew this. It dawned on me, that of course each and every one of the thousands of people who were displaced and affected by the flood had their own unique story. I am looking forward to hearing his soon.

August was spent clearing out the house, trying to figure out how to move forward, and not really wanting to begin my freshman year in high school at a new school. It’s August now, fifty years later. Its surprising how one can remember details of events this long after.

I visited my Mom and brother a few weeks ago, they both still live in the area, Kingston, PA, in an apartment building that was built in the flood zone, after the flood. Yes, people rebuilt and moved right back into the previously flooded areas. How much prescience was involved in THOSE decisions is a mystery. My parents fixed their house up as best they could and then sold it. We moved to higher ground. 

Memorial to the displaced, in Forty-Fort Cemetery

In the photo above, you can see the rebuilt green grassy dike in the background, keeping the river out of the Forty-Fort Cemetery. You can see a faint blue horizontal line following the top of the dike – this line is the tops of vertical steel piles that were driven into the ground through the miles of dike to provide support and additional height. That process took years. I took a drive and a walk through the Forty-Fort Cemetery, retracing the steps my cousin Albert and I took as we walked through it after the waters had receded. At left you see the tree that I refer to in the introduction to my book - the tree that had that object propped against. A woman who introduced herself as the caretaker of the property was busy cutting back bushes around gravestones. She obviously took great pride in her work. She didn’t look quite old enough to have been alive in 1972, so I just told her that I lived in the area back then and stopped by to visit.

Fifty people died in that flood in Pennsylvania alone (neighboring states were also affected), and 220,000 PA homes were flooded, including those of my parents, grandmother, and school friends. As I write this at the beginning of August, 2022, I’m listening to a radio interview with a victim of current flooding in Tennessee, in which 25 people died. He said something that struck me: “When the flood comes, there’s no talkin’ to it.” Having lived through such a catastrophe, I know what he means. There’s no stopping it. Whenever I hear about a flood somewhere, I know firsthand what those people went through. 

Cenotaph with dike in background - the Susquehanna River flows beyond

Humans can pretend they’re in control, but nature knows better. The cenotaph monument on the circular platform in the center of Forty-Fort Cemetery is a stark reminder of nature’s force. It commemorates the rude disinterments of those 2,500 bodies in 1972. What is now an unadorned grassy field, was once acres of graves and grave markers of all types. Now they’re gone. I imagine the markers that had not been washed away were simply buried here. The bodies and other remains were moved to a mass grave, miles away on much higher ground.

Further Reading:

My last blog about Forty-Fort Cemetery: https://thecemeterytraveler.blogspot.com/2020/06/corpse-recovery-and-cadaver-bags-after.html

https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20220607/reflecting-hurricane-agnes-50-years-later 

Ed Snyder's book, "The Cemetery Traveler:" https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Traveler-Selections-blog/dp/1717885950

Agnes 50th Anniversary Documentary DVD — Wilkes-BarrĂ© Preservation Society (wbpreservation.org):

https://www.wvia.org/tv/agnes-50/

Tennessee Flooding, July 2022 https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2022/07/31/Drenching-downpours-renew-flood-threat/9821659287913/

https://www.nucorskyline.com/globalnav/applications/levees-storm-protection