Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Winter of Our Discontent (Shakespeare, not Steinbeck)

My artistic experiences this winter (it is still technically winter here in Philadelphia – Feb. 2021 as I write this) have not been one of discontent. Rather, reckless winter has allowed me the opportunity to photograph cemeteries and their statues under a blanket of snow. Standing in a blizzard with an umbrella and camera may seem ridiculous, but I assure you, it is anything but a fool’s errand. Numb fingers are simply a sign of weakness leaving the body.

Tintype Hipstamatic App image

The zeitgeist of a Victorian snowfall creates a mood of singular isolation. And freedom, of sorts - it takes one out of the literal social isolation forced on us by the current pandemic. And Paul Simon was wrong – everything does NOT look worse in black and white.

Why Shakespeare and not Steinbeck? Shakespeare’s lines from Richard III are lines of opportunity, versus Steinbeck’s, which are pure misery. Granted, the euphoria of photographing a snowfallen cemetery in below-freezing temperatures can be quickly replaced by misery if you mistakenly lock yourself out of your warm, running vehicle (which I have been known to do). However, Shakespeare is optimistic about the future. As am I. The playwright is saying that even though we may now be miserable (‘Now is the winter of our discontent’), better days are coming (’Made glorious summer by this sun …’).  (Cue the song, "Better Things" by the Kinks.)

But I digress (which is one of the qualities you find most endearing about me). My limerence with cemeteries is boosted when it snows. It just is. I have to get out there fast, while it is still snowing, if possible. Primae noctis, as it were. Not than anyone else is even considering doing the same thing, but it does give me the feeling of being first in, a unique time in a place where I can be ultimately alone with my passion. And in the middle of a pandemic, its rather liberating to not concern myself with social distancing or wearing a mask.

So would I recommend this nostrum of shooting angels in the snow? Well, it is certainly easier if you live in a polar climate zone. Its not something I can easily demonstrate to you, however. You just need to get out there in your gloves, boots, and hand warmers, and let the snow muses guide you. Helps to have an SUV, too, so you don’t get stuck. 


I photographed graveyards in the snow quite often this winter. The Snow Demons were appeased last year – they made no appearance. Apparently, COVID must have royally pissed them off, because they have been out in full force, whiting out my world since even BEFORE winter began (our first snowfall was on December 16, 2020)!

Please realize that cemeteries are places of respect - an obvious consideration when you are photographing in them. While there may be no one else around you there in the snowstorm, burial grounds and monuments mean many things to many people. Be respectful as you work. And be careful. Don’t climb on the monuments. Don’t lean on them. I’ve seen a person who had a large gravestone fall on her. She nearly lost her leg. It was crushed, but was later saved. Luckily there were several people around to lift the thousand-pound granite grave marker off her. So consider the possibility of a monument falling on you in a snowstorm. Think anyone would find you before you died of exposure or trauma?

Defunct crematorium in a snow squall

The Gear
So if I have not scared you off the topic at this point, let’s talk about the gear. Obviously, you want your equipment to be either waterproof or well-protected. I own neither. Which is why I typically carry only one camera with me, protected by a snow umbrella. I leave the rest of the photographic arsenal in the car, running back to swap them as needed. This way, I’m guaranteed to lose such things as lens caps and filters in the snow.

Cross-processed E6 image

Do I use real cameras or the camera in my cell phone? As time goes on, this distinction becomes less relevant. I do have an old iPhone 6 which I use quite a bit. Not bad images except the battery peters out in the cold. If I use it outdoors in winter, I have to keep it connected to an external battery. The apps are interesting as well, I use basic Hipstamatic and Hipstamatic Tintype in addition to straight shooting. I do drag conventional cameras out in the snow with me as well. Certainly, digitals are easiest to use. However, I’ve been shooting quite a bit lately with a 120mm (film) Holga and running outdated slide film through a Nikon F3 35mm film camera, then cross-processing the E-6 film as C-41 (which is kind of standard practice now, since E-6 chemistry is no longer widely available). I like to surprise myself. Digital can be too exacting. At right, you can see an example of a cross-processed image.

Hipstamatic Tintype App image 

It has not, historically, snowed often in the Philadelphia area (at least during the current geological epoch). So when it does, I attempt to make the most of it. It helps to have a plan. Which cemeteries are easiest to access? Are the roads plowed? Luckily for me, the graveyard at left is within walking distance of my house! I have some go-to locations and some go-to statues that I like to check in with during a snowfall – some take on the white cloak better than others...

You can see the same cemetery angel dozens of times, but there might be this one time, as you approach it in the hush of a snowfall, bootfalls crunching, that you seem to be seeing it as it had looked long ago. The more modern mass-produced gravestones mostly hidden, the bespoke, Victorian statuary gently “shrouded in white, allowing the outlines of something older to emerge.” The quote is from science fiction writer William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition. A strange book to be reading during a pandemic, when old patterns are nowhere to be found, new ones emerging all around us.

Actual lychgate shot with Hipstamatic Tintype App

So if this seems to be a winter of discontent for you because of the new patterns that life has assumed, consider COVID-19 as a sort of lychgate, a gateway to another world. I wrote a blog for the website of New York’s Absynthe Gallery recently, entitled "Artist in Residence," which is about creating art during lockdown in a pandemic. Challenging, to make art in the Time of COVID. But as Gibson says in Pattern Recognition, "There are times when you can only take the next step. And then another.” If you’re interested in seeing how other artists are adapting, the gallery is hosting an online “Drink and Draw” Zoom meeting with many of its artists on March 6, 2021 (5 to 7 pm). I am in their corral of artists, but I don’t draw (I do drink, however, so I meet half the criteria). Demonstrating how I make photographs or how I write blogs would be about as entertaining as watching gesso dry; therefore, I will be in attendance solely drinking and learning. Here’s the link to register: https://absynthegallery.com/drink-draw/



Learning, you ask? Well yes. One of the best ways for an artist to progress and improve is by expanding boundaries - watching other artists create in mediums other than your own. I leave you with an old image (all that you’ve seen so far in this blog, I created in the past ten months), the Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse. This is in Philadelphia. I was truly honored to have it chosen to represent February in the 2021 fund-raising calendar published by The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Being on the Board of Directors of this volunteer organization and helping to save a formerly abandoned cemetery from total ruin has also been a learning experience. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

"I Returned Your Skulls."

Image by Michael Kauffman
 
“What the world needs right now is another endless musing on staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic; the C.D.C. has declared these pieces to be a symptom of COVID-19 that can be treated only by gentle snoring.” -  Libby Gelman-Waxner in her New Yorker article “If You Ask Me: The Last Quarantine Think Piece” (May 18, 2020)

While I agree with the above statement, I’m still going to write this blog. As my friend Mike Spak would say, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

This past summer I was walking up the street toward my house, end of the day, coming home from work. A few neighbors were outside their homes chatting (from an appropriate COVID social distance) – I live on a tiny street of row homes in an old nineteenth-century Philadelphia neighborhood. My neighbor Michael, who lives around the block, addressed me in a relatively loud voice, “Hey Ed, I returned your skulls … left them with your wife.” Ok, that’s a wee bit embarrassing – but in a good way, lol.

I am very selective when it comes to my choice of friends – they have to be anything but normal and boring. And they say the darndest things. One time a few years back I got together after work with a friend to have a beer. We were walking down the street on a Friday evening, lots of people on the sidewalks, summer. I asked him how his day went, as he appeared to be tired out. He sighed and said, “Well, we got all six bodies out of the ground.”  Couldn’t help notice the startled looks we got from those around us! Frank worked in a graveyard, and I knew he was working on a project to move some graves.

Michael, my neighbor, is an artist. He appreciates Caravaggio, a Baroque era painter who seemed to rather enjoy painting people getting their heads chopped off. Some of his art evokes Caravaggio. Over the course of the last few years, Michael and I have each learned a bit about each others’ art. As an aside, I shared with him the fact that I pick up skulls in abandoned graveyards – everyone needs a hobby, right? 

Just to be clear, my skulls are not human skulls. You just don’t run across those as often as you do skulls of other animals - even in abandoned graveyards! 

During the spring/summer 2020 coronavirus lockdown, Michael had been stuck in the house, so he’d spent some of that time creating art. Either he asked to borrow some of my skulls, or I offered them to him, I don’t remember exactly how that went, but he created some startlingly gorgeous photographs with them, which he planned to use as components of larger digitally collaged art work. Michael has a glorious light tent in his garage in which he does digital macrophotography. I was jealous so I had Amazon send me one. Not a garage, a light tent. An inexpensive version of his (mine is shown below).


It was probably in May that I lent Michael my skulls. May was an absurd month, full of fear and coronavirus. Lockdowns and masking. A lot of artists spent this time holed up, creating. In November, Michael shared some of the final results with me, one of which you can see at the top of this blog.

My skulls formerly belonged to an assortment of animals – fox, pitbull, deer, cat, bird, groundhog, etc. They were all found in abandoned cemeteries. I never spent much time photographing them, but after I got my skulls back and saw some of Michael’s preliminary results, I decided to take a stab at it myself. 

Here you see one of my first experiments. This one at left is based on the rainbows everyone had hanging from their homes during the Summer of COVID. Finding and counting rainbows seemed apropos of the time – a way to pretend that you again had some control over your life, and that there was eventually going to be a positive outcome. This image represents both possible outcomes. 



During the lockdown, I was one of the few people allowed on the roads, being a healthcare worker. Every once in a while, I’d stop by a local graveyard to do some photography. Graveyards were one of the only public areas people could visit during lockdown - you were lucky if there was one within walking distance of your home. I wasn’t confined to my house, like most people, but when I was home, I decided to use the time wisely and creatively. Actually, more experimentally and experientially. 

I’m writing this at the tail end of December, 2020. Since March, artists have been lamenting their situation. No galleries or public spaces to display or sell their work. For those who depend on this for income, for a livelihood, this has been devastating. But wait – we all create art in private anyway, right? During lockdown (when was that, mid-March to June?), we were FORCED to work in private, and forced to use whatever we had on hand to create. Hopefully, artists had supplies (yet another advantage of digital over film photography, huh? Otherwise we’d all be stuck with bags of undeveloped film).

COVID is like an entropy puzzle, a puzzle we have to assemble without the benefit of having a picture on the box showing the end result. And just when some of the pieces seem to fit together, they magically change, so they no longer fit. Who knew the pandemic would continue into August, when I began writing this blog? That was two weeks before virtual school began for the world’s children. Distance learning, two words that I am now convinced are mutually exclusive. Now it’s the end of December, 2020, and we don’t even have the border of the puzzle completed. The new normal, life in a pandemic.


As artists, we sometimes need to get out of our old wheelhouse – we need a kick in the ass to get those creative juices flowing. For some artists, COVID is that KITA. It seemed to influence Michael Kauffman’s work – see his gorgeous tombstone image below!


I intended to close this piece by bookending the opening New Yorker quote with these lyrics from the band Cracker’s song, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now):”

“…what the world needs now

Is a new kind of tension, …

'Cause the old one just bores me to death…”

So that’s good for artists (and maybe others) who needed the COVID KITA to move their art (or their lives) to the next level. However, I watched musician Devin Townsend’s Christmas Concert performance the other day, and this quote from his song “My Life,” is a kinder, gentler way to say goodbye to 2020:

“How long can this life go on? Who we are, what we are. See you on the other side."
- (Devin Townsend - Acoustic Christmas Special (Live 12-23-2020) - YouTube


Further Adventures:

See Michael Kauffman’s artwork on Flickr: Michael Kauffman | Flickr


Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Nanny

Mount Moriah gatehouse, by Frank Rausch

Here’s a creepy little story for your Halloween/Day of the Dead enjoyment. Back around 2014, I was leading a photo tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia (that's me in the green hat). Around the time these photographs were taken (by my friend Frank Rausch), a woman around my age (in her fifties) came up to me and shared a fascinating piece of her personal history. I’ll paraphrase:

“When I was growing up, I used to live in that house across the street,” she said, pointing to a house on the corner of Kingsessing Avenue and Cemetery Road. “We had a nanny who used to bring us over to the cemetery. A few days after my First Holy Communion, our nanny had my brother and I dress in our church clothes and she brought us over here to take our pictures. I was maybe eight, and my brother five. I had on a white dress and he had on a little dark suit. She had us lie down in the grass on our backs, right here on the graves in front of the gatehouse. We were holding flowers in our folded hands and she had us close our eyes while she photographed us.”

I was speechless. Especially as I had recently seen the 2013 film documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=er8-Vq__cRE&feature=youtu.be). It’s a glimpse into the life of Vivian Maier, a loner who worked as a nanny decades ago; she was also an amateur street photographer.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

I quickly researched Maier’s history, thinking that she may have left Chicago and came to Philadelphia! Having the children play dead seemed like something she might have done. 

Maier was a nanny who cared for children for about 4 decades from the late 1950s through the 1990s. She was an odd loner who photographed urban life - a street photographer. She often photographed her charges, while she took them on outings and for walks through the not-so-nice parts of Chicago. She traveled a bit, so I was rather curious if the woman on my tour had come into contact with her. The woman at Mount Moriah did not remember her nanny’s name. However - she told me she still has the photos! The nanny gave her copies! (If you're out there reading this, I would SO love to see them!)

Vivian Maier’s story was far from normal. Maier was an avid amateur photographer, shooting three rolls of film most days with her Rolleiflex camera. She did this for decades while walking around the cities of first New York, then Chicago. She rarely printed her images, and seemed to have had a compulsive need to document the people around her, doing their everyday things. She caught people in candid, somewhat unflattering poses. She processed her film and hoarded the negatives that she made. At the time of her death in 2009, her life’s work, and most of her belongings, was sold at auction for unpaid rent of a storage facility. 

In 2007, a real estate agent named John Maloof bought the trunk of her film and negatives at auction for $380.  He was intrigued at the vast amount of work, and thought it might prove interesting. Turned out to be a treasure trove of 100,000 negatives and 700 rolls of undeveloped film! As Maloof pored over the work, he quickly realized it was the work of a master photographer. A great artist whom no one would ever have known existed, if not for Maloof’s research, archiving, printing, and documenting Maier’s work in the aforementioned film documentary. Maier was a master of her art, a street photographer extraordinaire with very few equals. Her work is easily on par with that of famous professional street photographers such as Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark. Her posed portraiture (including self-portraits) reminds one of Diane Arbus’ work.

The film Maloof made, “Finding Vivian Maier,” is rather amazing. I highly recommend it. This compelling, haunting, and captivating story shows Maier as a sort of memory hoarder, documenting urban American streetlife as no one else had in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent notoriety of Maier’s work sparked a renaissance in street photography. 

Photograph by Frank Rausch

Maloof never found Maier, who died around the time he attempted to locate her. Chances are she never would have approved of the world making such a fuss over her work. Like the glimpse of life revealed to me by the woman on my photo tour, Maier gives us a glimpse of how life appeared to her. Turns out Vivian Maier never came to Philadelphia, so the nanny in the Mount Moriah story was some other … person. I almost wrote “oddball,” because, as my dearly departed father used to say, “Edward, we’re all a little bit crazy.”

REFERENCES:

http://www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMD3YupiuU4&fbclid=IwAR3Gb7-YjRxgkjCfUBhz82vLMeH4Elxbrphj6EpPQ8ijQUGmFKATJ52aQiM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81B6p1xEpTg

https://thecemeterytraveler.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-nannys-photographs.html



Saturday, August 8, 2020

New Devils Require New Gods

During the Corona spring and summer of 2020, I felt compelled to mask cemetery statues. A flaw in my personality, I suppose. I didn’t leave the masks on and I did no damage in the act. Initially, I don’t know why I did it. I published a few images and received a handful of comments from upset people. 

Comments like “I was saddened by our beautiful Angels with paper masks covering their exquisite faces - the angels should not be weighted down by human error.”

Exquisite faces, indeed. After months of people wearing masks, I miss all your exquisite faces. I meant no disrespect by masking angels. We created them in our own image, after all. Or more accurately, we created them in our idealized, Western world Christian image. Angels – both male and female, are the supermodels, the Barbie and Ken perfect versions of our white selves. Since we must now mask ourselves and hide our beautiful faces, I wanted to see what these icons looked like, masked. If we must mask, why shouldn’t they? But you know, if we all end up wearing masks for the next year, maybe we NEED unmasked, beautiful statues to remind us of the way things were? Of the goal, the way things should be? Are they a sign of hope? Optimism? Maybe I’m taking this away from people by masking them. 

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”― Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

I suppose I need to be careful, though - blasphemy and heresy are no laughing matter. In past centuries, such an act could get you killed, defacing statues or paintings of the gods, or public figures. But as Louise Erdrich says in her novel, Tracks, (1989, Harper & Row), “new devils require new gods.” I’m not going to define this statement for you right now. Take from it what you will. Perhaps its about our response to the coronavirus pandemic. When I create art, I want the viewer to take what they can from it. Most likely it speaks to them differently than it speaks to me. I have always defined my art as minimally as possible – I want the viewer to find their own meaning in it. I don’t even like to title my photographic images. Even that narrows things down too much.

Erdrich’s novel, Tracks, is about Indian (yes, she uses that proper name) tribes “struggling to keep what remained of their lands” in last century America. Native American land and all other freedoms were slowly taken from them very much like our present freedoms are slowly being taken from us by coronavirus. We are struggling to keep what remains of our world. Big difference, however, is that while the white settlers of this “new” land benefitted greatly from the indigenous peoples’ loss, no one benefits from the loss due to COVID-19. Unless, of course, it is some evil plot hatched by the spotted lanternfly.

Would George Washington Wear a Face Mask in 2020? No!

People thought I would have more respect for angels and other works of art - I might just as well have “purchased a can of spray paint & had [my] way with these historic & immortal figures!” (“Immortal,” let’s come back to that thought later.) One could say the same of the person who doctored up this painting of George Washington, I suppose. But its all about having the freedom to express oneself, to make a point. Here’s an image below that should really rile up the masses. Old folks need to protect them selves from their kids, who may be asymptomatic COVID-carriers. 

One of the problems with freedom is that people are free to believe anything they like. For months, there was no consistent, insistent decree from our nation’s leaders that we should wear face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. Should we or shouldn’t we? We were free to believe whatever suited us. Now, of course, it is becoming quite clear that face masks should have been worn all this time. (Wait – shouldn’t our guardian angels have appeared in masks to carry us to salvation? Sorry, getting a bit sarky there.) 


Tensions Mount 

The raw emotion that has surfaced over my masked statuary is a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Make you think? Make you emote? Maybe you love it, hate it, or are indifferent. Maybe that’s how you also view the whole face mask thing in general. 

The issues people have with wearing masks are multitudinous. George Hofmann in his Psych Central article, The Fight Over Facemasks, mentions a few of these. “The science behind wearing a mask seems pretty simple, and among scientists and doctors there’s near universal agreement that wearing masks will prevent transmission and greatly reduce the number of people who contract the virus.” If you don’t believe this, go watch movies about hospitals and research labs.

Hofmann adds, “That’s why I think there’s a lot more to the anger over masks than respect for the health of others or individual liberties.” People’s anger and rage is evident by the almost daily reports like this, an incident that occurred on July 31, 2020. A customer of a cigar store in Bethlehem, PA, shot at the clerk with a handgun when the customer got upset over the store’s masking policy (link to story).

In this chaotic time - new devils require new gods. New problems require new solutions (one interpretation of this statement). The masking quarrel reminds me of the story of Dr. Charles Meigs, a nationally recognized Philadelphia obstetrician, who in the 1850s singlehandedly transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of his patients. Why? He didn’t believe in washing his hands! He didn’t believe he needed to clean his surgical instruments. He didn’t believe there were such things as infectious diseases. He felt that God was on his side, and he could do no wrong! God, can you believe that? 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 a basic way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene.  (Read the whole Meigs story in my blog post, “Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.”)

Dr. Charles Meigs's grave, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

As I write this in August 2020, we are really still in the discovery phase of this disease, coronavirus. We don’t know how to control it yet, so why argue about face masks? Why not just err on the side of caution? How many of our politicians remind you of Dr. Meigs? How much of our general population reminds you of Dr. Meigs?

George Hofmann offers that the real source of anger is usually hidden behind what we’re fighting over. He opines that “people have felt disaffected and forgotten by the society they see portrayed in the media for a long time.” Sound familiar? As average citizens, we just don’t measure up to the media ideal of ourselves. We are not, nor ever will be, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Hofmann feels that people generally feel ignored, mere background noise. Proles. He says that putting a mask over their faces, “making them anonymous and unheard [literally], can be a source of great anger.”

We created angels in our ideal image – maybe that’s one reason its so hard to see them masked. The goals of purity, perfection, and escape (perhaps only attainable in the afterlife?) all of a sudden may not seem possible. “Immortality,” as mentioned earlier, may now seem impossible. By masking angels, am I symbolically closing the Heavenly Gates on the viewer? Am I suggesting, as John Cale does in his song, Fear, that “we’re already dead, just not yet in the ground…?” 

But I want to end this missive on a high note, something optimistic. How about this: new devils require new gods. Think about that. 


Further Reading:

George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis (2020, Changemakers Books), is available here.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Irishman’s Grave – “I Heard You Paint Houses”

My wife and I watched the 2019 movie, “The Irishman,” a few months ago. We watched it during our local coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, when most Philadelphians were binge-watching television. Quite intriguing, this film. About Jimmy Hoffa’s mob bodyguard, Philadelphian Frank Sheeran (aka The Irishman) and his life of crime (he was mainly a hitman for the Bufalino organized crime Family in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s). Its historical fiction in that it suggests how Hoffa disappeared – a mystery that has never been solved. The movie is adapted from the book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. In Brandt’s book, Sheeran, interviewed in an old age home, supposedly confessed to killing Hoffa. Robert DeNiro does an astounding job in the lead role of the Irishman.

Friendly Lounge today in South Philly
I felt a closeness to this movie, for odd reasons. My Dad was a union man in the 1960s and 70s, when Hoffa was president of the Teamsters. My friend Ted tends bar at the Friendly Lounge, the South Philly bar where some of the movie was filmed, which is the actual bar where a lot of the real action took place when Sheeran was just getting his start in the 1960s. Ted told me about the movie before it was released. I live about six blocks from the bar. 

Another reason I felt some attraction for the film is because of crime family mob boss Russell Bufalino. As a kid growing up in the sixties, in northeast Pennsylvania, his name was always in the papers. He controlled northeast PA for the Mafia. I never paid much attention, but I remember my parents talking about him frequently. Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman,” seems to have been the mob boss who got the Irishman, whose name was actually Frank Sheeran, into Bufalino's crime “Family.” Up to that point,  Sheeran was just a small town crook. 

Robert DeNiro as "The Irishman" choosing a final resting place in the movie (ref.)

At the end of the movie, Sheeran goes coffin and crypt hunting. He’s living in an old age home and wants to choose his final resting place. As Brett McCracken says in The Gospel Coalition article, “How ‘The Irishman’ Prepares for Death,” (Nov. 20, 2019) “He wants to be buried above ground in a mausoleum because it feels “less final” than burial in the ground or cremation—like maybe his body could be resurrected more easily that way.” This article shows a photo of him, a still from the movie, in a simple community mausoleum choosing a spot.

At some point after seeing the film, it occurred to me that Frank Sheeran might in fact be buried for real somewhere near my home in Philadelphia. Fairly easy to find with the Internet at my disposal. Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA, is a suburb of Philadelphia on the southwest side. The website findagrave.com tells me he’s buried in a mausoleum there and someone even uploaded a photo of the crypt cover you see at the beginning of my essay, with Frank and wife Mary’s names engraved on it. Not tremendously helpful, this information, as I had no idea whether he was buried in a community mausoleum like in the movie or in one of the many private mausoleums at Holy Cross. 

“Are you family?”

So one spring afternoon in April I drove out to Holy Cross in search of The Irishman. The cemetery is only about ten miles from where I live so in the early weeks of the pandemic, I donned my mask and took a Saturday drive.
 
Holy Cross is a cemetery I’ve written about a number of times. One of my blog posts, “Graves of the Mob Bosses,” details several underworld characters who are buried here. They’ve all got elegant headstones or mausoleums, surrounded by Christian statuary – Jesus, angels, saints. Some Catholic cemeteries have a problem burying criminals within their gates. Holy Cross apparently does not. Gangsters like Philip Testa and Angelo Bruno, serial killers like H.H. Holmes, are but a few who reside on or in these consecrated grounds.

Masked myself, I asked the masked office worker if he could tell me where Frank Sheeran is buried. He seemed a little nervous and a bit hurried. He told me specifically which community mausoleum Sheeran was in (he pointed out the window to the large modern structure up on the hill), and he described to me on which side Sheeran’s crypt was. I thanked him and as I turned to leave, he asked, “Are you family?” I took this to mean a blood relative, so I simply responded, “No.” It wasn’t until much later that I thought, maybe he meant “Family…..” That was a bit sobering.


I had little trouble finding The Irishman’s crypt in the mausoleum. It was all rather peaceful and quiet. So unlike his life, as it is depicted in the movie. According to Charles Brandt’s book, Sheeran supposedly admitted that he painted between twenty-five and thirty houses. That is, he killed that many people, many of whom were Hoffa’s enemies and rivals. Many secrets are buried with Frank Sheeran. His mausoleum is not the one shown in the movie; they filmed that scene with DeNiro elsewhere. 


Community mausoleum where Sheeran is buried (rear at right)

References and Further Reading:
Link to Ed Snyder's blog post  “Graves of the Mob Bosses” 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Cemetery Restoration at the Jersey Shore

Summer 2020. COVID-19 summer. Vacation with the fam. Brigantine, New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City. Cemetery visitation plans: Atlantic City Cemetery and maybe another. Maybe Winslow Junction – train graveyard, or Fleming’s Junkyard, last resting place of all other modes of transportation. Except the rental condo was infested with bugs that bored into my skin and drew blood. The pool was also closed for the season, which was not mentioned on their website. Sweet. 

I’m a high-functioning individual with good insight and a positive outlook. Therefore, we packed up the plantation and moved further north. On to the Coral Seas Motel in Beach Haven, New Jersey, on LBI, i.e., Long Beach Island - my go-to Jersey Shore vacation spot for about 35 years. Coral Seas tells us their pool is open and they have no bugs. Ambrosia. No wait, that’s food, isn’t it? No matter, the custard is better on LBI anyway. Beach Haven is only about fourteen miles north as the crow flies from Brigantine. As the car drives, however, it is a sixty-mile inland journey up the coast. 

Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Once we were settled, pooled, and availed ourselves of a bug-free night, I planned a new cemetery jaunt. About ten miles north toward Barnegat Bay, there are a few cemeteries on Route 9 shown on the Internet.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and headed north. (“Up, Sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1741.) Passed my favorite church graveyard, Manahawkin Baptist Church in Manahawkin, NJ (where I swear I saw Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde a few years ago, walking around with a guy who was carrying a guitar case). Even though the sunrise light was AWESOME, I figured I’d catch it on the way back (always NEVER do this! You can never set foot in the same river twice). 

I hit the Barnegat Masonic Cemetery after passing an amazing looking outdoor nautical antique dealer which I didn’t stop at. Drove around the cemetery for a few minutes and realized I’d been there before. Locale wasn’t familiar, but the headstones and monuments were. I’m kind of freewheeling this blog while I’m drinking “Spirits of the Apocalypse” bourbon, trying to drain the bottle so I don’t have to use valuable storage space in the Saab on tomorrow’s trip home (my ten-year-old daughter won all kinds of arcade toys that will take up precious cargo space). 

So I sped off up Route 9 to the next graveyard on the eMap, something called Old Waretown Cemetery. Had a heck of a time finding this. The eMap on my iPhone showed the cemetery plain as eDay, but all I actually saw was a patch of woods with a vacant lot next door. I drove around the lot thinking the cemetery was forgotten in the woods, when it occurred to me that it might be accessible from the other side of the patch of woods, the road less traveled. That’s when I saw the green sign you see at the beginning of this essay.

"Olde" Waretown Cemetery on Barnegat Bay, New Jersey

The cemetery, penned in on three sides by pine forest, was at the end of a short street. Houses lined one side of the street and an industrial garage on the other. A garage worker was starting his day and paid me no mind. I docked the Pequod at the end of the street and got out. The pine-sheltered graveyard was only about a quarter of a city block in size, and had many old headstones, Revolutionary War Veteran medallions, and U.S. flags on some graves. The only thing that really stood out was the restoration setup in the middle of the graveyard – and the moss. The property was so shaded by the tall trees that moss grew thick on the sandy ground. It was like walking on a thick soft carpet.

Repair and restoration of headstones

Revolutionary War veteran's grave marker

Soldiers, sailors, and early settlers of the area are buried here. Some stones date to the early 1800s. Many were just moss-covered nubs of stone, they were so weatherbeaten. The snow, rain, wind, and sandblasting caused by the latter, all work to erode these marble, slate, and brownstone gravemarkers. 

Many were broken, but someone, or perhaps a group of people are trying to save them from being buried like the people whose graves they mark. The restoration of two of the stones here is being conducted in a highly professional manner. Clamps, epoxy, supporting structure, binding straps, etc. A laborious enterprise, to be sure, and without a doubt, a labor of love.



Headstone with matching footstone
Another repaired stone, this one recently reattached to its base, was accompanied by a matching footstone! This may be old news to many of my readers, but I just learned of this custom in June, 2020 at the Life and Death Event created by Tania Kirkman. This was a mostly online three-day event with dozens of lectures (with this one given by me) related to death and all its trappings. 


At Life and Death, a friend of mine, Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girlsgave a presentation entiltled, “Welcome to the Graveyard: A Tour of Cemetery Art and History.” She covered American burial practices and cemeteries from the 1600s to the present day. Brenda explained that for a certain period of time, it was popular practice to mark both the head as well as the foot of one’s grave, with both stones facing east. The thought being that on Judgement Day, when Christians emerge from their graves they emerge headfirst in the proper direction to face their maker! Also, the two stones effectively mark the boundary of the grave, to prevent accidental excavation. 

The head and footstone in above photo are about six feet apart. On a nearby child’s grave, the stones were about three feet apart. Footstones typically have the initials of the deceased engraved on them. As you can see in the photo above of William N. Smith’s headstone, his footstone bears the initials, “WNS.” I had seen these small stones many times over the years and naively thought they were simply inexpensive grave markers. The obvious has a way of eluding me at times!

Broken headstone epoxied back onto its base

It was getting to be about 8:30 a.m. and I needed to be back in Beach Haven to pick up pancakes for my daughter from Uncle Will’s Restaurant, so I headed back to my car. As I drove out to the main street to leave, I stopped to photograph “The Olde Cemetery” sign. Two men were standing in the adjoining yard. I said hi and asked them if they knew who has been repairing the grave markers. With facemasks on (this being the Summer of COVID-19), I could barely make out what they said. Sounded like “Bill Watt, and he had volunteers helping from the local VFW.” So Bill, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your story. Great work.

Sheetrock grave markers at Manahawkin Baptist Church graveyard 

On the way back, I did stop at the Manahawkin Baptist Church to do some photography, but as they say about the past, it had passed. The early sun was no longer early enough. I walked around a bit, spooking rabbits at silflay that tore across the open spaces. Something new to my eyes was this family plot with five of what appeared to be gravemarkers made of sheetrock! Obviously, someone went to a lot of trouble to make them – and to attach wooden letters spelling out the names of the deceased. However, I cannot imagine they will weather very well.

Many of the graves in these Jersey shore cemeteries could be anywhere - Missouri, Montana, Minnesota. However, there are some occasional concrete, or maybe granite, reminders that they are close to the ocean. As I left, I walked by the maritime version of Potter’s Field, a square area roughly 150 feet on a side, with a large granite central monument to the "Unknown From The Sea.”

Read more about the history of Old Waretown Cemetery here.