Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Cemetery, Only Half-Abandoned

Funny how life is simply a constant realignment of priorities. Time was, I wouldn’t go near a cemetery unless it had obvious and grandiose angel monuments. For ten years, I never read an epitaph. A few years ago I began to appreciate cemeteries for more than just their statues. I had no choice—with all the angels shot, I had to dig deeper into cemetery life, that is, if I wanted to continue spending ridiculous amounts of time in them.

I found myself in a weird state last week, New Jersey, to be exact. I was attending an opening reception for some photographer friends at a gallery in the lovely little town of Haddon Heights, NJ. I always carry a map to scout out cemeteries, and I noticed a small one in the area that I decided to check out on the way home.

Mt. Peace Cemetery in the town of Lawnside coexists with the Home Depot, just across White Horse Pike in South Jersey. I pulled onto its ungated grounds, got out of the car and began walking around the neat and tidy graveyard. Grass was cropped short and piles of old flower pots and cuttings lined the cemetery’s wooded perimeter. Lots of Civil War veterans’ graves with small flags waving, but that was about it—a small, sad little cemetery, as my Grandmother would’ve said. At first glance it seemed to have nothing to recommend it; at second glance I was sure it didn't-- until I noticed the tombstones in the woods.

The two sides of the cemetery not bordered by roads were bordered by a forest, essentially. It was densely wooded with vines encircling the trunks of gnarled trees. Bushes with red berries and wildflowers all but covered - scores of old tombstones! Were people buried in the woods, or did cemetery trees just thrive randomly in the fertile soil amidst these lonely graves?

As I walked back through the thicket over fallen trees and empty beer cans, I quickly realized the dates on the stones were not so old. Most stones were of a soft material which lost its detail to the elements over the past century, but some showed dates as recent as the 1930s. Old Mortality must have been on a bender when he was due to ride through Lawnside. It appeared as though somewhere along the line, the groundskeepers decided it really wasn’t worth maintaining the older section.

The cemetery is twice its apparent size—half in plain view from the street, half hidden under the dark foliage cover. Scores of graves litter the forest. Toppled and sunken headstones are easy to trip over, as many are not obvious poking through the wildflowers and vines. Treading among the stones I couldn’t help wonder why people would lose interest in a cemetery, in their own history. How do you just forget about all these people who died? The untended area was shadowy and packed with ghostly stillness, even as daylight filtered through the leaves above. Massive spider webs stretched from tree to tree and creepy shadows played on headstones. I got an unsettling feeling, something akin to that which Mark Twain described as “when one woke up by accident away in the night, and forgotten sins came flocking out of the secret chambers of the memory.

To add to the creepiness, there’s an old house in the woods, in a clearing beyond the trees. Imagine having a graveyard in your backyard—or rather, a graveyard as your backyard! Not even a fence to provide a psychological barrier between you and the scores of dead bodies mouldering in the ground. Forget wasting money on Halloween Fright Nights—walking through here at night would do it for me.

A good distance into the thicket I came upon a headstone with an old folding chair beside it. The deceased’s given name was “Anna;” the chair was tattered and rusty. Anna found peace in 1935, but obviously her mate did not. I immediately thought of the cinematic vehicle used in the movie “Rocky Balboa (2006),” where Rocky kept a chair at Adrian’s grave to sit on while he visited. Anna and Adrian were relatively young when they died (both in their forties), but whereas Adrian was fictionally romanticized, Anna was a true love lost. The pain suffered by her mate must have been the kind Baudelaire knew:

"When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid
Upon the spirit aching for the light
And all the wide horizon’s line is hid
By a black day sadder than any night"

He could not forget Anna, yet he is long forgotten himself, along with the scores of other people in these lonely graves. As I sit in my comfortable living room a few nights later typing this, its pouring outside. I can’t help but think of that chair in the dark, in the rain.

I knew nothing about Mt. Peace Cemetery prior to my visit—exploration is more personal that way. Afterwords, I did some research. Mount Peace was organized in 1890 by African Americans to provide a burial place for their dead—they were excluded from other cemeteries because of race. Bear in mind that until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans were not allowed to drink from "white" water fountains or use "white" bathrooms. Even in death, there was segregation. Mt. Peace was designated as a "black" cemetery, one of the few along the East Coast (GSGI, 2003). Aptly named, it may have been the only place these people finally found peace.

In 1952, the company that owned and maintained Mt. Peace went bankrupt, and the 18-acre site fell into disrepair. A fire in the cemetery office destroyed all of the records and maps of the plots. With the inscriptions worn away from the stones, the dead have effectively disappeared. However, their presence is certainly felt. By 1978, Mount Peace was overgrown with shrubbery and had become a virtual dumping ground. Cleaning it became a neighborhood volunteer project. Residents came out every Saturday during the spring and summer bringing their own tools and equipment to clean up and cut back the undergrowth. The dividing line I noted earlier is simply where the volunteer cleanup crews ran out of resources. The Lawnside, NJ Historical Society continues to expand its efforts to restore and protect the cemetery.

Links for more information:

Garden State Ghost Investigations (GSGI)
Lawnside Historical Society
Mt. Peace Video Documentary