Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Scary Cemeteries

It’s October, and with Halloween just a few weeks away, I thought I’d get in the mood by scaring myself. So I took a drive to Camden, New Jersey. I’ve made photographs in some of the city’s run down graveyards over the years and thought I’d check a few out. While looking for Old Camden Cemetery, I took a wrong turn (pretty much any turn is the wrong one in Camden…) and ended up at Evergreen Cemetery, a mile or so away. If there is a bad side of town, this is it. 

Evergreen has long been a favorite haunt of mine, just up the road from the “Liquorama” liquor supermarket. Prior to Evergreen being taken over by ‘new’ management, it had a brush-painted plywood sign attached to the front gate warning “No unauthorized burials allowed.” That’s class. A decade ago, not much groundskeeping was evident—grass and weeds ran rampant, trees had fallen over. The place lived up to its name, being ever green. Back then it was just forgotten; now it seemed defiled and desecrated. Much like the surrounding neighborhood, its condition had worsened. As the Greek proverb goes, you can’t step into the same river twice.

Apparently, someone now cuts the grass. But that’s about it. Graffiti is an immense eyesore and the fence along Mt. Ephriam Avenue is broken through in many places. Trash is everywhere and monuments have been knocked over. Some are protected by the same security wrought iron as the row homes across the street.

Seemingly without concern for the cemetery’s plight, a neighborhood festival was going on across the street while I was there, with BBQ, music, and crowds. There were two guys filming in the cemetery. They seemed to be concentrating on the graffiti and piles of broken bottles. I asked what they were up to and was told that they were getting background footage for a documentary on the need for restoring Camden’s cemeteries. Apparently, Evergreen is one of the better ones—the one most in need was across town, Johnson Cemetery, otherwise known as ‘Needle Park.’ People think there aren’t frontiers any more, but they are all around us.

I drove around looking for photo-worthy scenes, and came upon a guy walking around inside the cemetery, near the northwest corner of the grounds. He was just inside the torn down fence separating the cemetery from Mt. Ephraim Avenue, plainly in view of the crowd. There are some old and rather expensive-looking monuments in the area, along with the wolf table you see here, hidden by the bushes. Though the fellow was dressed well enough, you wouldn’t mistake him for Henry II doing penance at Beckett’s tomb. I imagine if you wanted to score some dope, he’d be your man. The wolf table had become his little den of iniquity. Don't even think about law enforcement in this area of town! With Camden having laid off half its police force due to budget cuts, the forty dispatched Guardian Angels are barely enough to patrol the city's higher crime areas. A while later I was propositioned by a hooker. In the cemetery.

 “Ya married? Faithful? Can ya let me earn $4?” I was getting a bit depressed about the whole scene, so I decided to leave and drive over to Harleigh Cemetery, where Walt Whitman is buried. The interaction also reminded me of the seamier side of Whitman’s poetry.

Harleigh is a bucolic spot in the midst of, well, Camden. About a mile from Evergreen, it is a beautiful and well-maintained garden cemetery, with rolling hills and large weeping willows in and around its ponds. These Victorian symbols of grief, mourning, and sorrow seem more attuned to the city’s urban blight that to the many souls at rest under its soil. Just inside the front gate, down to the left in a shady dell, is the Whitman family mausoleum. This leafy restful spot where people have for years carved their initials in the surrounding trees seems so at odds with the squalor of the city. 

Standing in front of Whitman’s crypt, I thought about how he addressed the human condition without ever seeming judgmental. Whitman was really much more prolific than "O Captain! My Captain!," the metaphorical poem (about Lincoln’s assassination) you were forced to read in high school. You may recall him as being the father of “free verse,” and maybe even that he was politically active. However, he was not averse to crafting poems about city life, modernity, and technological change, not to mention (hetero and homo) sexuality in his life-work of poetry, “Leaves of Grass.” 

Regarding the latter topic, consider the Leaves of Grass passage, “To a Common Prostitute.” If there ever was a poem that on its surface seems self-explanatory, it is this:
 To a Common Prostitute

BE composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature;

Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you;

Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.


My girl, I appoint with you an appointment—and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,

And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then, I salute you with a significant look, that you do not forget me.

Whitman seems to be compassionately stating that a prostitute is a human too, her work a craft. The woman he writes about, while on the bottom rung of the social ladder, is recognized as an equal in a deep sense. On thinking about his non-judgmental stance, it occurs to me that the entire Evergreen situation, if not the collective trashing of the city, could be seen in the same light. While I’d prefer things to be forgotten rather than destroyed, in the end, its simply survival of the fittest. Whitman wrote, “For what is my life, or any man’s life, but a conflict with foes.”

Some links you may find interesting:

Don't know what a "wolf table" is? Click here to go to my StoneAngels site and see what the wolf table in this blog looked like in 2006.