Friday, November 26, 2010

Abandoned Cemetery ... or Just Repurposed?

People tell me I’m nuts for banging around abandoned cemeteries in Camden, New Jersey. “It’s dangerous!” they say. Well, for the record, Camden no longer tops the FBI’s list of “Most dangerous cities in the U.S.” In a report issued this week, the Associated Press tells us that for violent crime, St. Louis, in fact, holds the No.1 spot. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Camden only drops to No.2! So off I went.

Prior to visiting Camden’s Johnson Cemetery, I knew nothing about it apart from what a filmmaker told me a few weeks ago. I met him (of course) in an abandoned Camden Cemetery (see "Scary Cemeteries" link at end) where he was getting background footage for a proposed documentary on the restoration of the abandoned Johnson Cemetery, which he referred to as, “’Needle Park’ …on the other side of town.” While pretty much ANY part of Camden is ‘the other side of town,’ the maps show it to be literally that--bordering Pennsauken, at 38th and Federal Streets. It’s in a mixed commercial/residential district, replete with Dominican grocers, Mexican Taquerias, and rescue missions—all tied together by a seemingly endless line of chrome wheel-intensive vehicles. This is all just up the road from Petty’s Island, the notorious pirate hangout in the Delaware River (Ahrrr, from the times before yer slots parlors existed, matey).

I was surprised to find that Johnson Cemetery isn’t so much abandoned, as repurposed! It’s a city park, for God’s sake! -- a park with benches, trees, and paved walkways. Lest I paint too pristine a picture,  there were empty liquor bottles all over, general scattered trash, and flattened cardboard beer boxes on the benches where the homeless sleep. You would never know it was a cemetery if you didn’t set foot inside (though you’d really have no reason to do so unless you needed to score some drugs). The park is about the size of a football field and the grass seems to be kept mowed. There’s a quirky weatherbeaten sign behind some trees that says “Johnson Cemetery Park.” I called the phone number, and it was disconnected.

I had actually driven around the cemetery twice, while scrutinizing the map to see how I could possibly be missing it—but all I saw was this field sandwiched between Federal Street and the projects. I ended up ditching my car a block away near “Modern Liquors” to get a better lay of the land. As I walked down the block, I asked a guy whose house bordered the park if he knew of a cemetery nearby. With a snaggletoothed smile he looked up from his old Buick’s head gasket repair and said, “Not many people know that park used to be a cemetery.” I thanked him and walked on.

If you’ve been around old graveyards, you know the telltale signs—marble pedestal bases sticking out of the grass on the perimeter, fragments of rusty fence embedded in old trees. This is about all I saw at Johnson, except for a couple guys in hoodies sitting on a bench close to the main road. Periodically, someone would wander up to the pair, and after some light conversation a trip would be made to the blue conversion van parked on the street nearby. An interaction of some sort would occur between the visitor and a woman in the passenger seat. The visitor/customer would then walk away. At one point I walked up to one of the dealers and asked if he knew of any gravestones in the place. He was a bit put off (I had a camera, remember), but pointed off in a direction away from the action, at what appeared to be paving stones in the grass. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be HEADSTONES! Flush with the ground, these randomly scattered stones were the only definite evidence of Johnson Park having been an actual cemetery.

Kicking my way through the empty liquor bottles and beer cans, I found about 24 flat stones in all, mostly in the northeast section of the park. This being a windy day, the fallen autumn leaves were blowing around. Oddly, none would accumulate on any of the headstones. It was almost as if they were continually being swept away, or the stones themselves proudly did not want to be covered and forgotten. Who would even know these graves were here, if they didn’t actually go looking for them? Shouldn’t there be a little more reverence? A little less squalor?

I wondered about the history of the place, and if the stones had originally been upright then laid to rest when they built the “park.” Did they just landscape over the interred bodies as they did with Capitolo playground (formerly Lafayette Cemetery) in South Philly (near Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak emporiums)? Or did they do what Philadelphia’s Temple University did in the 1950’s—dig up Monument Cemetery (the city’s second rural cemetery) and build a parking lot. According to writer and historian Thomas H. Keels, “Thousands of those interred there were transferred to a mass grave in the suburbs. Their monuments were dumped into the Delaware River, where they are still visible today.”  Keels says we seem to have as many ways of dishonoring our ancestors as we do of honoring them.

Beneath the newspapers and empty gin bottles, the Johnson Cemetery headstones provide glimpses of life in the past lane, specifically the American Civil War. On some of the stones, you can just make out the engraved words “U.S. COLRD TROOPS” and “COLORD VOLS,” along with names of U.S. Navy warships on which at least two of the deceased served—the U.S.S. Ticonderoga and the U.S.S. Princeton. From what little I could find out about Johnson Cemetery, most of its hundred or so inhabitants are African-American Civil War veterans--people who made our history what it is. At one point, I noticed the only standing stone in the cemetery (above, with laundromat in background), what I initially took to be a bollard. It’s an unusual piece about 2 feet high and a foot square, engraved with the name of Jacob Johnson, who, along with Anthony Collings and Luke Derrockson were the original owners of the cemetery (according to a deed dated 1854).

Walking back to my car, I passed the guy working on his Buick. After I thanked him for his help, he offered,”They said they moved all the graves to [one of the cemeteries in the nearby town of] Mount Ephraim. I don’t believe it. I was digging in my back yard some years ago to put up a fence and I dug up grave markers and wooden coffin parts.” As I drove away, the musician Chuck Prophet was singing on the stereo, “When you barely exist….who’s gonna miss you when you’re gone?”


Scary Cemeteries of Camden 

Rest in Pieces: Philadelphia's Lost Cemeteries

Camden Crime 2009

AP Report on 2010 Crime Statistics

Thomas H. Keels' Books:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cemetery Trees

No one would argue that the gnarly old cemetery tree adds a creepy ambiance to any graveyard photograph. I’ve used this to great effect myself, but never actually paid much attention to the tree, other than as a compositional element. I'd simply been using the tree for my own purposes! What I don’t know about plants and trees could fill volumes. Having lived all my life in the Northeast part of the U.S., I can tell the difference between pine trees and roses, but that’s about it.

Due to my photographic cemetery excursions, however, I've  learned a bit more about trees and plants. I believe it all began when I came home from a cemetery after tramping through a patch of fallen ginkgo berries (which are actually seeds, and look like large grapes, right). Ginkgo biloba (its scientific species) extract is reputedly a memory-enhancer. I can vouch for this--my family vividly remembers the day I came home with the berries on my shoes -- they smell like dog doo. 

What actually prompted me to write this blog was seeing the current crop of dropped fruit from an osage orange tree in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in Philadelphia. The monstrous citrus-y fruits litter the cemetery in the Fall, like so many chestnuts! Inedible to humans, these “hedge apples” as they’re sometimes called, inspire a manic nut orgy among the local squirrels. The two-pound (!) fruits drop and smash on the tombstones and litter the cemetery during the months of October and November. This type tree is not native to Pennsylvania, but Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. 

Nineteenth century landscapers and architects who designed America’s rural “garden” cemeteries wanted them to be fabulous arboretums as well as sculpture gardens (these cemeteries are no longer rural, as their cities have grown around them). The first two in the U.S., Mount Auburn in Cambridge Massachusetts and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, have more than their fair share of exotic plants and trees.

When I say exotic, I don’t mean the cultivated marijuana crop I stumbled upon in an abandoned cemetery, but rather LEGAL botanical curiosities that are not native to the geographic region in which the cemetery resides. The cemetery designers wanted these new memorial parks to be pleasant and interesting places that would help dispel the gloom of death. Exit the skull and crossbones, enter the pretty angel statues. Ornamental plants and trees that could be expected to thrive in the cemetery were imported from distant lands—geographic regions of the world with similar climate.

Places of splendid horticulture and statuary were wildly popular with the Victorian public, so much so that cemeteries like Laurel Hill in Philadelphia had to issue admission tickets and install a turnstile for horse-drawn carriages to regulate the amount of traffic through the cemetery! Laurel Hill has its share of unusual (to this area) plants, e.g. wild yuccas (at left), gigantic holly trees with bright red berries, and the most enormous ginkgo tree I’ve ever seen (below right). Native to China, ginkgos were brought to Europe in 1690. You would think this hearty tree would grow just about anywhere, as ginkgos were about the only living thing to survive the 1945 atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan. However, people might be selective about where they plant them because of their odiferous fruits.

The American garden cemeteries were of course copied from the original designs by the English and French, who created Kensal Green, Highgate, and Pere Lachaise in Victorian Times. This was the era, in fact, when “botanical science” was quite popular and fashionable--a pastime in which male cemetery planners saw fit to partake. Prior to that, botany was viewed as mainly a female activity (as it didn't involve such manly endeavors as killing animals or people). To this end, early landscapers of garden cemeteries were apt to intend a cemetery’s botanical garden to be as much an educational attraction as a picturesque design element. Labeling plants and trees with their common and scientific names, for instance, was common in such early garden cemeteries as Mt. Auburn. 

The Victorian cemetery was the precursor to the public park as well as the art museum, as such things did not exist at the time. The intent was a getaway from the noisy city, where people could stroll, picnic, and enjoy the fresh air in an idyllic sculpture garden. I was reminded of this yesterday while I was photographing the colorful Fall foliage at The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia. A couple and their little girl were frolicking on the grounds playing hide-and-seek among the monuments! 

"For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green." -- G. K. Chesterton, 1914

Monday, November 15, 2010

Out of Body in the Cemetery

If I were to guess, this might have happened around 2005. No matter, as Mark Twain said, my memory’s so good I can remember things whether they happened or not.

Anyway, I was photographing in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore, which is a mile or so north of that infernal “Inner Harbor” tourist trap area (all the best things are north of there, except maybe Loudon Park Cemetery). My friend John and I spent a summer Saturday in Greenmount, walking the grounds, photographing the monuments (like the one you see here at left), and reminiscing (we went to engineering school together at Penn State).

At one point we noticed a tall thin man dressed in a suit walking around. He may have been in his late 60’s; the suit was a bit ragged and out-of-date. Besides us, he appeared to be the only visitor there. We saw him now and again, and paid him no mind until at one point he strolled over and asked us a question. He said, “You gentlemen seem to be familiar with this place. I’m trying to find this monument--have you seen it?” He held out a small 1940’s-type (crinkle-edged) black and white Instamatic photo of some tombstones and monuments surrounded by small trees.

We both said no, and I added, “You know, those trees must be so large by now that I’m sure the area you’re looking for looks nothing like this photograph.” He nodded and just sort of drifted off. We went about our business and about a half hour later he rejoined us. This time he asked us if we were aware that some famous artists were buried here. He insisted on showing us, so we followed.

Although there are many famous people buried at Greenmount (John Wilkes Booth, Sidney Lanier, Johns Hopkins), the only famous artist I was aware of was William Henry Rinehart. The photograph you see at top is a rendition of Rinehart's sculpture "Sleeping Children," which rests atop a grave in Greenmount. The thin man walked us to a hilly area in the northwest section of the cemetery and showed us two monuments, neither of which was Rinehart's. He told us the artist’s names and what they famously accomplished. Anxious to continue our photographing, John and I thanked him and excused ourselves.To tell the truth, I remember thinking that I never heard of the people he mentioned so his comments made little impact on me. Being a true guy, sometimes my profound inner shallowness just takes over.

The image you see at right is a detail of the bronze cast of Rinehart's sculpture "Endymion," which is mounted on his own tomb near the main entrance of the cemetery. The subject, a shepherd boy holding a flute, was taken from classical mythology. The youth had been so beautiful that Selene, the moon goddess, fell in love with him and bore fifty daughters. Subsequently, the supreme god Zeus granted the shepherd both eternal youth and eternal sleep.

So about an hour later, as we walked through the cemetery toward the gatehouse to leave, we passed a small car parked at the side of the road. There was no one in the driver’s seat, but the thin man was sitting in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead. I though this odd and mentioned it to John. He had no reaction, but then, John sees dead people. Maybe I did too.

Statue and Chapel, Greenmount Cemetery
As I thought back on this experience, I decided to do a bit of research for this article, and attempted to find out who those artists were that the thin man went on about. I really don’t remember any of what he said. Strangely, as I search the Web now for artists buried at Greenmount, I only come up with one, William Henry Rinehart—unless you want to count this entry from Wikipedia: “Johnny Eck (1911–1991), American freak show performer born without legs.”  So who was the thin man? And why did he go on so about the "artists?" Why was he later sitting in the car? Did Zeus just not grant him eternal sleep?

I’ve wondered about John’s perspective on our encounter with the thin man, but never asked him. Maybe I’m afraid of his answer. At the time, John participated in psychic sessions at the Edgar Cayce institute, the “Association for Research and Enlightenment” in Virginia Beach. He said he was able to help stranded souls get to “the next level.” John also had out-of-body experiences. If you’ve never had a paranormal experience yourself and people you trust tell you such things, aren’t you more apt to believe them?  Situations like this make one wonder what’s "real" and what’s not. Or is it all real, and we just label things differently in an effort to make sense of them? ...Or to make ourselves feel more comfortable?

Some Related Links:

"Sleeping Children" sculpture by William Henry Rinehart

Greenmount Cemetery Website (one of those few that have creepy music on them!)

Greenmount monuments

Edgar Cayce Books
Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Human Hearts Found in Jars in Cemetery

No one ever accused me of being a man of few words. I mean, given a topic, I can empty the dictionary at it. So the point of this blog is that I recently saw a news story about human hearts being found in jars buried in a cemetery in California. Having been to this particular cemetery two years ago, the story brought to mind a few anxieties and musings I thought I’d share with you. We all kind of assume it’s just bodies that are buried in graveyards, you know? Somehow the idea of body parts down there skeeves me out.

The jar story gave me the weird feeling that maybe I walked right over them, which is different from finding voodoo dolls or sacrificed chickens, which I have stumbled across in various graveyards. These objects are just evidence of nocturnal rituals, not body parts. The parts found recently were human hearts in jars--with photographs of young couples pinned to them! What’s up THAT? The specific location was Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, CA (see news video link below for story). A cemetery maintenance worker noticed the jars sticking half way out of the ground. Homicide was ruled out, but not necessarily religious ritual.

"Police opened up one jar and found a human heart with the photo of a young man and woman pinned to it. Nearby was a second jar with the same contents, but bearing a photo of a different young man and woman. Officers also found partially burned cigars and candles…"

-The Oakland Tribune, 10/22/2010

I remember Holy Cross vividly—it was the final cemetery I hit at the end of a maddening two-day photographic frenzy through the cemeteries of Colma in 2009. The oldest (1887) and largest of the town's cemeteries, it was a fabulous place, with unusual mausoleums and an amazing columbarium. I made the photograph at left of the beautiful marble angel perched atop the gatehouse. If you’re a cemetery photographer, Colma shouldn’t be missed. A city just south of San Francisco where the dead inhabitants outnumber the live ones—1.5 million to 1600, the town's 17 cemeteries comprise approximately 73% of the town's land area! And they call New Orleans the "City of the Dead!"

So did I walk over the hearts in jars when I was there? It freaks me out to think I may have. While it was probably just some practical joke by misguided med students (the hearts had traces of formaldehyde in them), it does conjure up the notion of romantic parting. Romeo and Juliet, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, that sort of thing. Wait-- Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe? In case you didn’t know, baseball great Joe DiMaggio is buried here at Holy Cross. Although he and Marilyn divorced in 1954, his love for her didn’t die when she did. For 20 years, he had a roses placed daily in the vase alongside her crypt at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. It gave me chills to see one of the roses when I visited in the early 1990s. "Marilyn had asked him for roses – she wanted him to leave roses just as William Powell had for Jean Harlow after her untimely death in 1927. It’s funny the things people say, and the things people remember." (from Marilyn & Joe – The Longest Goodbye).

As for hearts entwined, the practice of removing the heart and burying it apart from the rest of the body was really not that unusual in Victorian times (1837 – 1901), a period when the romanticism of Valentine’s Day reached its peak. To officially have one’s body buried in the family plot and one’s heart buried with the spouse satisfied both allegiances with proper Victorian propriety.

I have a friend who used to work at a cemetery and one time he was asked to compare the burial records of a particular family crypt with the actual spaces available.  Apparently, there was a planned burial and the cemetery needed to make sure there was room. So he went down into the underground mausoleum, counted the used and unused crypts, noting the plaques on their covers. Next he went through that family’s interment records. As he read through the death certificates and compared them to the crypt numbers, he came upon something unusual (to him at the time). The notations read something like (and I’m making these names up):  “Crypt 1 - Jacob Smith, 1873,” “Crypt 2 - Lucretia Smith, 1889.” The next one said something like “Crypt 3 – Randolph P.  Smith, 1875; the heart of Marietta Smith, 1878.” The records indicated that Marietta's heart was buried with her husband’s body in his family tomb, while her body was buried in her family’s burial place.

So were the Holy Cross hearts actually a statement of romantic love? It will be interesting to see what the police turn up. Fascinating fact does sometimes make fiction unnecessary, you know?

News video link to original story
Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery website
Marilyn & Joe – The Longest Goodbye

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Gravediggers' Ball

Great name for a story, don't you think? And it's not made up! Left to my own devices, I might have instead titled this blog "Nightmare on Shark Mountain" or something stupid like that. The Gravediggers' Ball is the name given to the annual black-tie fundraiser organized by Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

This past month, Laurel Hill held its sixth annual Gravediggers' Ball, for which hundreds of guests each pay $175 for a night of dinner, dancing, entertainment, and a silent auction. Adding to the festivity, guests are encouraged to dress in Victorian costume, or as their ghoul of choice. As successful as the last five Balls have been, it’s the original (held in 2005) I hold near and dear. While subsequent Balls have been held in a splendid and fancy event hall called the Crystal Tearoom in downtown Philadelphia, the initial one was held in the cemetery itself, on a cold night near Halloween.

I volunteered as a worker at the original ball, where I donated my time and some framed photographs (the image you see at right is my 2010 donation—a winter scene at Laurel Hill). I helped to deliver and lay out the auction items, as well as prepare the space. At the time, holding the Ball in the actual cemetery, at night, near Halloween, seemed a great idea (but then, so did hopping trains when I was a kid). The idea had a certain cache, and drew a large crowd of attendees.

That First Annual Ball could easily have been the Last Annual Ball due to its expense! Being outdoors in a cemetery (where there is a decided shortage of running water, electricity, and other amenities), the event required that tents be set up for the hundreds of guests, the live band, food, drink, and auction items. In addition, sanitary facilities, generators for electricity, and furniture needed to be provided.

All that notwithstanding, what’s cooler than a Halloween party in a cemetery at night? Answer: Nothing! That is, unless you ask the facilities workers, who had to push partygoers’ cars out of the cemetery mud afterward. And therein lies the rub—the elements conspired against us. No one counted on a rainstorm!

There we were, outside on the cemetery grounds at night, dancing, eating, whooping it up, when the torrents of rain began. True, we were covered by massive circus tents, but since it was cold, there were electric heaters going and electric lights throughout. In case I need to draw you a picture, water and electricity don’t mix. Several times the power cut out, leaving the band’s lead singer without amplification. Now if that person had been Linda Perry from the rock band 4 Non Blondes, there wouldn’t have been an issue; however, things repeatedly went dark and quiet as a tomb. The facilities supervisor would fix the problem and the party would continue.

Between blackouts, I found myself chatting with the likes of early-eighteenth century American astronomer David Rittenhouse, who remained in character (and spoke in dialect) the entire evening. At one point I tried to strike up a conversation with some Civil War general, but he went on a rant about Robert E. Lee. Historical re-enactors laughed and danced with zombies and witches, and we all gorged ourselves on decadent deserts. At least I assumed at the time that they were reenactors. Oddly, the individuals I just mentioned (George Meade and David Rittenhouse, both buried at Laurel Hill) failed to appear at the subsequent Balls which were not held in the cemetery… go figure. All in all (for me, anyway), it was truly a magical time.

Laurel Hill’s been a favorite haunt for me since the late 1990s when I “discovered” it. This was about when it received its National Historic Landmark designation and people (in the U.S. anyway) began to pay attention to cemeteries once again, to restore and maintain them, to celebrate cemeteries instead of avoiding them. Since then, I’ve supported Laurel Hill any way I could, as a way of giving back to the cemetery for being (for me) a source of personal and professional growth. I’ve donated my time and art, written about Laurel Hill on my websites, handed out their brochures at art shows in which I’ve participated. Since 1997, I’ve seen considerably increased interest in cemeteries in general, and an astounding display of interest in Laurel Hill itself. Much credit goes to the people who work for Laurel Hill on marketing and promotion. Thanks to them, events like The Gravediggers' Ball, the various tours, theatrical productions, and the annual Champagne Toast to General George Meade are collectively a resounding success. The events help provide much needed income and publicity to maintain the cemetery’s place in our history.

People may wonder if such things are disrespectful to the dead. I believe they are anything but. Whatever we can do to keep our deceased in our memory is respectful. “Fun” events in these cemeteries honor the wishes of the Victorian planners who meant for them to be used for social gatherings, for art appreciation, and for dispelling the gloom of death. At least that’s my view—the disrespected spirits of Titanic survivors interred at Laurel Hill may have thought otherwise and put the water damper on that First Annual Gravediggers' Ball...

Related links of interest:

Laurel Hill Cemetery Website

Laurel Hill on Facebook

Champagne Toast to General George Meade