Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cemetery Vandalism

Back around 1998, it wasn't as acceptable as it is in 2010 to walk around cemeteries taking pictures, at least in Philadelphia. Many cemeteries had been left to ruin and the rebuilding and re-branding of these Victorian era memorial parks as tourist destinations wasn't yet a national movement. In 1998, Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery (near Ridge Ave. and Roosevelt Blvd.) became a Certified National Historic Landmark--one of the few cemeteries in the United States to earn that designation.

But as I say, around 1998, these operations were still trying to figure out how to find the money to stem the vandalism and restore essentially a grand Victorian sculpture garden to its original splendor. The image you see above is a life-sized granite monument from Laurel Hill, depicting the Angel of Death opening a coffin lid and releasing the spirit of the newly departed to the heavens. It was sculpted by Alexander Calder, great grandfather of the famous mobile sculptor. The former Calder also sculpted the enormous William Penn statue that tops Philadelphia's City Hall (in 1893).

When I originally discovered this wonderful snow-covered statue in 1998 (known as the Warner Memorial), I was with my daughter. As we were photographing it, a park ranger came up to us and asked if we had signed in at the gatehouse. We had not. He asked for my drivers' license! As he copied down the information I nervously asked why. He told me people come into the cemetery, photograph what they want stolen, then give the photos to thieves. The thieves enter the cemetery at night and vandalize statues, ironwork, and mausoleums, breaking pieces off statues (note in the photo above that both of the statue's forearms are missing) and removing stained glass to be sold on the black market. Laurel Hill originally had seven Tiffany stained glass windows in various mausoleums, all of which were stolen in the 1970s. Such windows have been known to sell for over half a million dollars apiece in black market auctions! There are actually authorities that track such stolen artwork (e.g. Interpol, see link below).

With all this going on, it should become apparent that there really might be actual danger facing you if you venture into a cemetery at night. It's not uncommon (at least in Philadelphia) to see bullet holes in mausoleum windows. Recently a local mausoleum was broken into, with the iron door violently bent and broken.Thieves likely broke in to see what there was to steal. You always hear about people being buried with their jewelry, etc., and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that only the wealthy can afford elaborate mausoleums. What the thieves don't realize, however, is that the ironwork of the gates and doors that they break are probably more valuable than anything inside!

Why are such artifacts of value? Aside from the fact that funerary sculpture, ironwork, and stained glass have aesthetic and historical value, there just isn't that much of it around. Not because its been stolen or vandalized, but because much of it was removed by family plot owners in the 1920s! People forget that the avant garde of the 1920s was Art Deco. Ornate Victorian design was viewed as being too gaudy, elaborate, and dated.  In essence, an embarassment to the owners! Families would remove and discard such beautiful ironwork as this harp-shaped gate, along with all the associated fencing surrounding a dynasty plot.

For more information on theft of cemetery art, please see my interview with Ross Mitchell, then the Director of the Laurel Hill Cemetery, on my StoneAngels website.