Saturday, September 4, 2010

Trapped in a Cemetery!

Whenever I photograph in a cemetery, I pay attention to an important sign at the entrance--the one that tells me when "Closing Time" is. Minor detail, but neglecting this has gotten me into some tough scrapes. Not that I'm scared of being locked in a cemetery--walking by a dialysis clinic should be more frightening, you know? All those people on the other side of that wall will probably be dead in a month.

Ignoring the possibility of being attacked by the living dead, getting yourself locked in a cemetery poses a certain inconvenience--especially if you're locked in with your car. At least as a pedestrian, you can climb over the wall...before they release the dogs, that is. Who am I kidding? I don't want to be locked in a cemetery under any circumstances!

Back around 2005, I was photographing in the Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia. This is an oasis of 250 wooded acres surrounded by city, The University of Pennsylvania, mostly. Its a quietly creepy kind of place, with the sculpted hills blocking out  most of the city noise. In his book, "Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries," author Tom Keels quotes an early advertisement for the Woodlands:

"...the decaying bodies of the dead may securely moulder into kindred dust, with an abundant vegetation and free winds to absorb and dissipate all noxious effluvia."

Poetic, don't you think? Certainly not a place you want to get locked up in. Anyway, I vaguely glanced at the closing time sign on the entrance gate when I drove in--4:30 p.m. I spent a few hours shooting, when I noticed an old pickup truck drive by, heading toward the maintenance garage. I glanced at my watch. Hmmm. 4:20 p.m.. Best pack up my gear. I drove to the entrance and, to my horror, the gate was chained shut! My first inclination was to panic. Which I did, quite effortlessly, as I recall, but then remembered the pickup truck. I drove at amazing speed toward the maintenance garage and found a man sitting in the driver's seat of the idling truck. I drove up alongside him and asked as casually as I could if he could let me out. He looked at me and with the few teeth he had, laughed and said, "That's the only way to get you people out of here!" He did let me out.

As I quickly exited the cemetery, I noticed this decoration on the main gate--an hourglass with wings! Time flies, get it? What better symbol to remind one of closing time! Needless to say, I now pay closer attention to closing times.

Obviously its more than inconvenience that makes us prefer to not be locked in a cemetery. We're taught at a young age that there are no such thing as monsters. It can't simply be fear of mortality. What then strikes fear in our hearts? The possibilities are only limited by our imagination....

A friend of mine once worked in a cemetery and told me that she didn't believe there were any 'bad' spirits haunting cemeteries. If a person happened to die a horrible death, the person's ghost would hang around the place where the death occurred, not the body's final resting place. We laugh at comments like this with much bravado sometimes, either due to ignorance or because we're secretly afraid. Sometimes we think we're above all that "superstitious nonsense." I often recall something I heard a mother tell her 3-year-old daughter at a gallery opening in Manhattan for an exhibit of nineteenth century "spiritualist" photography. It was a telling comment on how our views and beliefs change over time. She gestured around the room at all the hanging photographs and said, "This was all before people knew any better."