Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery

Last weekend (August 28, 2010), my friend Frank and I explored Mt. Moriah Cemetery (est. 1855) in West Philadelphia. Though I’d been there innumerable times, it’s been years since I’d explored the central monument area, which is way overgrown with trees, cascading picker vines, and poison ivy. Essentially, it’s a forest, only with tombstones in it!

Frank had heard stories about the cemetery being wild and untamed. He asked me if he should bring a weapon. A weapon? Well maybe boots and long pants (even in this heat) because of the deer ticks. Truth be told, Mt. Moriah is in a run down, burned-out section of town (where all the best cemeteries usually are), and I agreed we should at least bring baseball bats. However, he was referring to the “family of wild pit bulls” he heard lived in the cemetery! I had my doubts.

I figured if there was a family of pit bulls, they’d be living in some shelter, e.g. the crumbling brownstone gatehouse. So we decided that should be our first stop! Upon arriving, we explored but only found sordid bedding littered with condom wrappers, and … piles of tombstones. Tombstones? Some from the late 1800s, some from 2006. Why? In looking at Mt. Moriah’s website (listed below), it appears that stones get moved and disappear. A genealogist’s nightmare. They also say if you’re planning to visit the cemetery, “It may be worth a trip, but be prepared for confusion, frustration and disappointment.” Hmmm. Now that’s enticing.

We actually found some interesting things in the open and trimmed newer section of the cemetery (on Kingsessing Ave.), like this marble monument to the General who commanded the Monitor, the Civil War submarine that engaged the Merrimac in the famous battle of the ironclads. Quite a find, certainly not disappointing! We also peeked into the chained-up mausoleum nearby and were surprised to see a shattered marble crypt door allowing a rare voyeuristic view of the 100-year-old wooden casket inside.

We decided to drive as far as we could into the main section of the cemetery, where the tops of very elaborate, expensive, and graffittied monuments peek out of the brush. Some of the original weed-covered roads are still used by people to deliver old sofas and tires to their final resting place, so they are somewhat drivable (a jeep would be your vehicle of choice here). The monument you see in the photo at left is in the center of the forest, and commemorates an 1862 Masonic “Grand Tyler.” Its column must be 40 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base, topped with the largest marble compass I’ve ever seen. After hacking our way to the base of it, Frank astutely pointed out that I was standing knee-deep in poison ivy! We made our way out of the thicket and back to the car. In one area thick with flesh-ripping thorned vines, I bent down to duck under and some critter darted away from me through the underbrush.

Back to the car--driving through this jungle, straddling washed-out craters in the road and avoiding being whipped in the face by tree branches was like being on one of those Disney rides or Universal Studios—you half expect a velociraptor to poke its head out of the thicket! Which is about when we saw the pit bulls…!

Two large brown puppies went scampering off down a path near the monument you see at left. We had stopped here earlier to photograph it, but hadn’t noticed the dogs—of course we were looking up at the time …. Gee, let’s get out now and see how protective the mother is…! No really, at that point, I wished the convertible top of my car went up a bit faster. We decided to bravely drive away.

My car in middle of the cemetery!

At one point on a side road, or path, really, we dead-ended at a pile of lumber and other rubbish (Here’s my car at that point). As I backed the car out for about ten minutes to get to a different side-road so we could turn around without getting lost, it became apparent to me that Saabs are just not good off-road vehicles. Well, their website did say to be prepared for confusion and frustration.... With a sigh of relief, we found our way out of the woods into a clearing, and then back to familiar territory-- the pile of unused concrete crypts near the gatehouse. We were certainly not disappointed that the mama pit bull decided to keep a low profile that day.

Is Mt. Moriah a sad commentary on our city or a wondrous attraction for the urban explorer of abandoned places? I can’t be judgmental as to the former and am sorry that the cemetery has been allowed to devolve to this sad state. However, it allows one to contemplate the detritus of human endeavor. We erect monuments to the deceased (often ourselves) for a purpose, but attempts to preserve memories can sometimes be undermined. Vandals, time, and weather erode efforts at immortality and the corruption of the cemetery seems to affirm, rather than deny the decay down below. Seeing it in this condition, you feel you are witnessing the final disappearance of the spirits of the interred.

Mount Moriah Website