Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stranded in the Cemetery -- Another Saab Story

In the early 2000s, it occurred to me that I should revisit certain local cemeteries during different seasons. Wind and rain wear down the statues, moss and lichens grow on the marble, and snow tends to create a whole new mood. So over a year's time, the statues have worn. Seasonal changes tend to affect the character of the statues--for example, autumn leaves surrounding the architecture or wet granite during a rain.

One snowy and frigid day I took my car to the local cemetery to shoot for a while. It was so cold that I would keep the car's engine on and the heater blasting, run out into the cemetery with an umbrella to keep the falling snow off the camera lens and shoot for a few minutes until my fingers went numb. Then I'd plod back through the drifts to the car, jump in and hold my aching fingers over the hot air vents.

I did this a few times until finally, on returning to the running car, I realized I'd locked myself out!

Panic builds character, but survival has a greater payoff. This was in the days before cell phones, so I trudged my way through the cemetery and down the street to a laundromat, where I called AAA from a pay phone. Ever call AAA for roadside assistance? They want to know where to find you. It was a little embarassing --"Well, I'm near the intersection of Azalea Path and Orchis Lane, near the Halcyon Lake." Long story short, I'd maxed out the annual towing rider on my Saab, but they did allow me this one "lock out" visit as part of my plan.

The image you see above is from this cemetery, Holy Cross in Yeadon, PA. I really like the snow falling on the statues. This cemetery bordering Southwest Philadelphia is most resplendent with angelic stone figures, more so than any cemetery in the entire city. You'd have to go to Baltimore to find one that was better stocked.

A celebration of t...
By Ed Snyder

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Freddie Krueger

Somewhere in the past , back when wishing was still of some use (possibly 2004), I found a rundown cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia and ventured inside with my camera. Groundskeepers were busily whacking weeds and mowing grass. It was a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon, not at all the conditions under which one might have the wits scared out of one.

I roamed around a bit, photographing the busted up statues, when I came upon a grand old stone building half built into the earth, half out. The outer half said "Receiving Vault 1870," over its long-sealed doorway.

Receiving vaults were used in the olden days to store bodies of people who died in the winter months before motorized hydraulic excavating equipment like the backhoe became available. Sometimes it was just impossible to manually dig a grave in the frozen ground. Come spring, the bodies would be buried.

Infrared Image of Receiving Vault
So there I am setting up my camera on its tripod to shoot the grand entrance to the receiving vault amidst all the noise of the mowing equipment, weed whackers, etc. Bright sunny day, I'm not thinking at all about the corpses fading in the cemetery all around me (as Baudelaire would say). Suddenly, Freddie Krueger is standing next to me dressed in jean overalls, a plaid shirt, and straw hat -- holding a pitchfork! I was rather startled by his size more than his clothes and accoutrements. I'm six-foot-two, so he must have been six-six -- an imposing figure covered in bits of grass and hay. He says something to me, but I can't hear him clearly over the sound of mowing equipment. With all the noise, he could kill me and no one would hear my screams. I ask him, "What did you say?"

He repeats, "Are you with us or against us?" Um, well, hmmm....not much opportunity to run unless I want to leave my camera and tripod behind. So I say, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean." He repeats in a steady tone, "Are you with us or against us?" Ok, so now thoughts of Marathon Man are flooding my brain, specifically the part where the Nazi dentist is torturing Dustin Hoffman while repeatedly asking, "Is it safe?" (If you've never seen this movie, and have a strong stomach, feel free to watch the scene here.)

I have a strong urge to reply,  "Oh, I'm totally with you on this," and beat a hasty retreat, but I bite my tongue. He repeats the question a couple more times until Freddie finally drops the intimidation act and realizes that I'm not his enemy. He explains to me that his company just bought the cemetery and is restoring it. As part of the renovation, they're planning to build a crematorium on the grounds and the neighbors are up in arms about it. Hence the question "Are you with us or against us?"

Whew. I make some small talk with him (as much as I comfortably can after peeing my pants), and then say goodbye, good luck, or something ridiculous like that. I left and I've never been back to that cemetery. I wonder if they ever built the crematorium? If anyone reading this knows, please add it as a comment! I can only manufacture so much history, you know.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Johnny Thunders Dead in New Orleans

Back in 1999, I was speaking at a medical conference in New Orleans, and I hit a few cemeteries to photograph while there. In addition, one of my stops was the "St. Peter Guest House," destination death spot of one of my guitar heroes, Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls.

Back in 1977, after the Dolls crashed and burned, Thunders left the band to eke out a living as a solo artist as well as fronting various other bands. Toward the end of his life, he took up permanent residence at the St. Peter Guest House on St. Peter Street, near the French Quarter of New Orleans. In 1991, he was found dead of a heroin overdose in his room. Rock and Roll lost a minor deity that day.

So anyway, I was walking to the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to see Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau's tomb, and decided to stop in the Guest House, just because I could. I walked into the tiny lobby and was face to face with a woman at a desk. I explained that I didn't really want anything, that I was just a New York Dolls fan and...she cut me off and said, "Oh, that Johnny Thunders." I nodded and she said, "Wait here, I'll go get Royce. He found the body."

Imagine my surprise...I said thanks, and waited tentatively a few minutes until Royce, the maintenance man, came in. He was about 60, tall and lanky, and just started talking to me about Johnny. He said rock and roll fans check into his room all the time. Royce explained to me that he felt it was murder, not suicide, because when he went in and found the body, all Johnny's guitars and clothes were gone. He felt that one or more of his "friends" (not meaning members of the Dolls) most likely shot him up with a lethal dose and made off with his belongings. Truly, the man was "Born to Lose," as he sang in one of his best solo pieces. (You can hear this on Thunders' best of album "Born to Loose: B.O..")

Royce found Johnny on the floor next to his bed with the bedsheets crunched in a deathgrip by his stiff hands. By his solemn tone, I could tell he was affected by this experience, and was quite mistrutful of the media's and law enforcement's handling of the incident. Warm and friendly, Royce invited me to stay at his home in the French Quarter next time I came to town. Unfortunately I've never been back, but my next trip happened to be to NYC, where Manhattan's Hard Rock Cafe had one of Johnny's Les Paul Jr.s hanging on the wall. Strumming the strings as I walked by made me think of his song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," a song the Dolls would sing in homage to him after the band regrouped in 2004.

For a good read on the Dolls and demise of Johnny Thunders, check out Nina Antonia's book, "The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon (Omnibus Press)."

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia is probably the largest (somewhat) abandoned cemetery in this area.  Although the grass does get cut on a regular basis, there appears to be no trust fund money to keep the majority of damage at bay, e.g. the mausoleum graffiti you see here.

I'd visited the cemetery (which is bisected by the Cobbs Creek Parkway) many times over the past decade. It's one of the first experiences I had seeing black urban cowboys. I was playing my guitar sitting on the steps of a blocked-up mausoleum and I heard the clip-clop of hooves! Imagine my surprise when five guys on horseback, decked out in cowboy outfits, trotted past me! Its one of those things you experience that you, um, don't tell anyone about until you've verified that it wasn't a hallucination or otherworldly experience. Click here for proof of their existence: Urban Cowboys!

Mt. Moriah is one of the few cemeteries in the Philadelphia area that is not gated and locked at night. Therefore, certain things may happen there that don't happen in a guarded, locked cemetery. One such thing, my friend Krista and I discovered back around 2002. At that time, the cemetery was much more overgrown than it is now (volunteers have cut down a lot of the trees growing out of tombstones and continue to cut back the high weeds--by the way, if you get benefit from visiting cemeteries for any reason, consider stopping by the office and donating some money to help with their upkeep!).

Krista and I were making our way through the five-foot high weeds to the back of the cemetery to see if there were any monuments worth photographing, when we came upon a perfectly manicured clearing about 12x12 feet in size. This was the home of rows and rows of well-kept and cultivated marijuana plants! People can be so creative....

Monday, June 7, 2010

Death and Burger King Fries

Back in 2006, I was photographing in some Baltimore cemeteries with my good friend John. John has been involved with cemeteries long before he began photographing them. In fact, I have him to thank for telling me about this statue of the little girl in the rocker that I subsequently photographed in a Washington D.C. cemetery. Creepy, huh? Anyway, John worked his summers as a grave mover while in high school and college.  We used to call him "Deadman" at Penn State.

John had great cemetery stories like the one about him and another guy carrying an old wooden coffin across the cemetery to be reinterred elsewhere--and the bottom fell out! I'll save that one for another time. As I was walking around with John this one summer day in Baltimore, he told me one I'd never heard.

Once he and a work crew were tasked to dig a new grave for a burial to occur later that day. The guy operating the backhoe misjudged the location of the concrete vault to one side of the new hole and cracked the lower corner off it. This was only 5 feet below ground, the vault belonging to the spouse of the person they were going to bury that afternoon!). Fluid poured out of the vault into the freshly dug hole. Not a good thing. Here's why:

This is a photo of what vaults look like--each is a big rectangular concrete box that holds a casket . Why use a vault? Several reasons. The main one being to "preserve" the fancy casket and remains. Why would you want to do this? I'm sure funeral directors make it a big selling point, but the only practical reason for having one is to prevent the ground from collapsing as the coffin disintegrates (forming a "sunken" grave, or a depression in the ground). Another reason is to keep the casket from exploding from the gases released by the decomposing body (see Mitford's book above if you don't believe this can happen!).

Now think about this--the body rots and turns to juice, or noxious effluvia as it was referred to in the Victorian era. It seeps out of the casket (usually not waterproof) into the concrete vault, where anerobic bacteria thrive in it. Nowhere for this liquid to go until...the corner is broken off the vault!

So, John tells me the crew goes to get the boss who is furious because the burial is planned for that afternoon. He tells the guys they have to get down in the unbearably putrid "mud" with hydrostatic cement and patch up the broken vault. Then they have to dig further down and backfill the hole to cover the mud. John and a veteran gravedigger draw the short straws--they get down in the hole.

Hours pass and they get the job done in time. John and his co-worker are across the street about to eat lunch at Burger King. Sitting across from each other, John takes a ravenous bite out of his Whopper, then realizes his fingers smell like the goo from the grave. He says, "Omigod! I didn't wash my hands!" The veteran gravedigger across from him says without batting an eye, "I never wash mine. Makes the fries taste better." They both went on eating.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bessie Smith's Grave

The 1920's blues singer Bessie Smith's famous song, "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," (Available on The Essential Bessie Smith)  is most appropriate for this posting as pork products have become increasingly popular in Philadelphia and this week marks the beginning of Philly Beer Week 2010.

Smith is buried along the outer edge of woodsy suburban Mount Lawn Cemetery in Darby, PA (on the southwest border of Philadelphia). Smith, known as the "Empress of the Blues," was a hero of Janis Joplin. After Smith's death in 1937 (the result of a high-speed automobile accident), her grave remained unmarked for a variety of reasons. In 1970, Janis Joplin had the tombstone you see here carved and placed on Smith's grave.

In 2002, my brother wanted to see the grave, which was near my house. We drove into the cemetery one day and circled around to the left where he thought the grave was. I parked my car and we both got out to begin our search. Immediately, four armed police helicopters appeared in circular formation above us, locked in the most threatening nose-down position you can imagine! I said to my brother, "You go look for the grave, I'll wait under the car."

The last time such a thing happened to me was when I was nipping a few flowers off Elizabeth Taylor's hedges outside her Beverly Hills home as a souvenir for my mom. But then that was only one helicopter. Bessie Smith warrants four? I realize that Smith was so popular in her heyday that 10,000 people came to her funeral, but why so much security now, 50 years later?

After bravely jumping in my car and speeding off, my brother and I found out that neither we nor Bessie Smith were the reason for the helicopters. The police were conducting a manhunt for two kidnappers who'd escaped into the woods bordering the cemetery. I guess they realized we were not those two guys and just let us drive off.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cemetery Flood

My obcession with graveyards may have begun with a teenage dare. When I was fourteen (1972), Hurricane Agnes caused major flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania (or NEPA as they say). After sandbagging the Susquehanna River dike all day, 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.

When the flood waters receeded, 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.

So after a couple weeks, 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. Needles to say, that's what we did. Nothing could have prepared me for the stench!

As we walked around the grounds that day in the late June heat, who would've thought the experience would affect me for a lifetime? You had to mouth-breathe just to keep from passing out from the asault 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.

There were giant holes in the ground, with coffins and vaults sticking out of them every which way. These were either caskets that were not washed away or ones the Army had returned to the cemetery. Later, the disinterred coffins would be buried in a mass grave with a memorial marker. The dike was still non-existent, but the water level was back to normal, so the cemetery was an expanse of dry, baked mud. As we climbed through the mess toward the dike to see how high the river was, we passed a big oak tree with a casket propped up against it. The lid was open. I assumed it was empty and walked on by.

Moments later, Albert turned back around, let out a shriek, and threw up! I whipped around and saw that the casket was not empty! Inside was the partially decomposed body of a woman in a black gown, arms crossed over her heart, with two hunting arrows sticking out of her chest! Obviously some freakish archer had been there before us and used the corpse for target practice. Kind of wonder in retrospect, if the arrows were silver-tipped...

Did I photograph this atrocity? Of course not! But not because I'm above that sort of thing. At fourteen, I didn't carry my little Kodak 110 film camera everywhere I went but the experience certainly planted the seed for my interest in cemetery photography.