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.