Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery

Normally, I don’t find myself checking tide tables before going on a photographic excursion to a cemetery. But when my friend Leo and I decided to search for underwater tombstones from Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery, we needed to heed the table, as most of the stones are covered at high tide. No, these are not photographs of one of those offshore cemeteries in a coral reef − nothing quite so romantic. You’re looking at the remains of Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia’s largest vanished Victorian graveyard. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

        Tide       Height Sunrise  Moon  Time    
        Time       Feet    Sunset   

Low     12:13 AM   0.6   6:13 AM   Rise 12:11 AM   
High     5:43 AM   7.6   7:45 PM   Set   9:43 AM
Low     12:57 PM   0.4
High     6:21 PM   6.6

Offshore burial?
So my cemetery travels have taken me this time not to an actual cemetery, but to the Delaware River waterfront under the Betsy Ross Bridge (Philadelphia side), where the remains of this once grand cemetery lie. In this secluded, wooded, and posted (“No Trespassing”) area, scores of granite headstones, monuments, and ironwork lie on the shore, protrude from the embankment, and peek out of the murky river water.

How did tombstones get in the river?

I’d originally read about the demise of Monument Cemetery in Tom Keels’ book, Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, but I still thought it might be an urban legend.  When I read in his “Vanished Cemeteries” chapter  that the monuments and grave markers were dumped into the river and you can see them sticking out of the water at low tide, I knew I had to check this out personally. At my request, Tom graciously gave me quite specific directions to get there, adding:

 “… this is a fairly desolate, industrial area.  Please take all precautions − go with one or two people during the daytime, bring your cell phone, and be on the alert. ”

As with any attempt at urban exploration, you need to be prepared — hiking shoes, tough clothes, weapons. You never know what kind of nutters you’ll run into — members of the transient community, kids having beer parties, ne’er-do-wells. But success only comes to those who brass it out.

So after some months of planning and reading other people’s accounts of their treks to the riverfront (some successful, some not), I figured out when low tide would occur and enlisted my friend Leo to come along. As it turned out, access to the riverfront is made near the intersection of Delaware and Castor Avenues, in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia, right between an abandoned power plant and an active industrial complex. The power plant was actually the site of my first official urban exploration excursion with a group of experienced explorers. At the last minute, I chickened out. It just seemed too risky − I’d already been arrested once for trespassing. The aborted power plant experience paid off, however, in that the vicinity was now familiar to me - the dumped gravestones from Monument Cemetery were at the same riverfront area, only on the opposite side of a canal.

The Demise of Monument Cemetery

Eighty gravestones vandalized at Monument Cemetery in 1938.

Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia (located at North Broad and Berks streets), was the city’s second Victorian garden cemetery, established in 1839, just after Laurel Hill (1836). Originally called Pere-Lachaise, after the first ever rural garden cemetery in Paris, it was renamed Monument Cemetery.  The history of the cemetery is not well-publicized, but it grew to a fairly large size (28,000 graves despite its relatively small 7-acre spread). The last burial occurred in 1929, and by 1938, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. By the 1950s, the land became more desirable that the cemetery itself, and Temple University, across the street, wanted to buy it and build a parking lot.

Monument Cemetery found itself waning, but Temple helped it to hasten down the wind. According to Tom Keels:
 “Neighbors wanted to keep the cemetery, but Temple held public hearings and brought in local church people to convince the city to condemn it and let the school buy it. They claimed it was attracting teenagers who drank, then went out and robbed people. The tone was that not only was Monument Cemetery an eyesore, it was a moral blight. It was bringing down the entire North Philadelphia neighborhood [um, look at North Philly now − destroying that cemetery was supposed to prevent this?]. Of course, every single person I've spoken to who lived and worked in the Temple area at the time says it was a little rundown. The lawn needed mowing, but it was where they went to have lunch. It was the only quiet green place in the neighborhood."

How was this allowed to happen? To put things into historical perspective, at this point in American history, people were not keen on Victoriana (anything from the era 1837–1901). Many Victorian era cemeteries fell into disrepair because people thought they were old fashioned.  Lot owners in many cemeteries across the U.S. were actually embarrassed by the old-fashioned gaudiness of their own family plots and removed the decorative fencing and other ironwork to sell for scrap. So even though many of Monument Cemetery’s lot owners fought the eviction of their ancestors, there really was not much public outcry against plowing over the cemetery and building a parking lot and playground (as Temple and the City’s Board of Education wanted). The photo above shows the 1956 dismantling of a memorial dedicated to George Washington and General Lafayette. Keels says, "Today they probably wouldn't be able to get away with that, but in the 1950s it was, 'This is an old moldy Victorian cemetery. Who cares.'"

Photo showing Betsy Ross Bridge (NJ 90) from an industrial area in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia. (Photo by Steve Anderson.) from site:

So Temple got its wish in 1956. They removed the bodies (most of which were reburied in a mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, a northeastern suburb of Philadelphia) and took most of the headstones, monuments, and other decorative stonework and dumped it all into the Delaware River. The tombstones were used as the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. Today, they can still be seen at low tide. To get to them, you need to walk over the canal bridge on Hedley Street (map link), approach the industrial site (shown above), and cut into the woods on the right side of the road. Your access is a break in the fence almost under Betsy herself. Close to the road this area is a dumping ground for old mattresses and sofas, further in its partyland for transients. Walk the quarter mile path along the canal through the woods to the river.

So we found the stones. I expected to see a few broken ones here and there poking out of the water, but was quite unprepared for the sight that presented itself.  As we approached the river, we could plainly see gravestones scattered along the rocky shore. In fact, much of the rock that made up the shore itself were broken tombstones − some marble, but mostly elegantly carved and polished granite stones, coping from family plots, huge blocks of foundation granite used for large monuments. These apparently are the ones that tumbled off the dump trucks, rolling over the stones that had already been dumped. I realized this as we climbed down the ten-foot embankment, using tombstones for steps. They protruded out from the dirt, making you wonder just how many were there. Certainly more than were obvious.

Shoreline under the Betsy Ross Bridge, Philadelphia
River tides are a funny thing. I learned this from one of the fishermen I work with. I just assumed that all water bodies connected to an ocean had low tide in the morning and high tide at night. Turns out that most places have two high and two low tides each day, and the actual hour at which these occur depends upon the phases of the moon (so low tide times for a particular day, for instance, can be eight hours later on the same day a week later!). While tides are predictable, their timing was not very practical for my photographic purposes. Low tide was to occur at 1 p.m. on Good Friday during the month of April. Therefore, take a vacation day from work.

Leo on tombstones, facing north
Good Friday was a perfect overcast day − flat lighting is good if you’re not sure what the shooting  conditions will be. As you can see from the chart excerpt at the beginning of this article, low tide occurred at this point in the Delaware River (tide times also change with your location!) at 12:57 pm, a good time to make photographs. We arrived about 2 pm. The timing was fairly critical since (according to the chart above), by 6 pm the sea level would rise six feet above its lowest point (which was about where it was on our arrival), covering most of the stones we photographed. You’ll notice mud on many of the stones, indicating they were all underwater earlier that morning.

Leo and I walked along the shore maybe the length of a city block and counted about 50 whole stones, with an additional eight peeking out of the water. After 130 years, inscriptions are still clearly visible on them − granite doesn’t fade as fast as people’s memories.

Standing near the water, looking up at an embankment made primarily of tombstones, I felt like I was at the foot of Golgatha − this was Good Friday, after all.  Seeing piles of grave markers and monuments, shaded by trees hung with condoms and other trash, made me wonder how anyone could do this to a cemetery. Couldn’t they at least bury the monuments, or smash them up into gravel? At the foot of the rubble was this headstone, which originally marked the grave of Capt. Babel H. Irons’ wife, Mary. No sign of Irons’ own marker, but what a great name! Every stone here has a story. After his death, it seems that Captain Irons had a 223-ton Philadelphia-based merchant sailing vessel named after him, so he must have been well-respected at the time.

According to the New York Times, a Marine Intelligence telegraph was received on Nov. 27, 1874 from the brig Castilian, which mentions Babel H. Irons. “…on the night of the 23d inst., in a south-east gale, lost boat, split foresail and jib, stove bulwarks, and had deck swept of galley, &c.” The Irons stone here on the river shore stares at you like the final flare from a shipwreck.

Frequently, I'm asked me how a cemetery becomes ‘abandoned.’ Well, that’s a topic for another blog. Monument Cemetery was not abandoned, let's be clear on that − it was destroyed. After reading what little is available on the Web about Monument Cemetery and after seeing the dumped stones, I had so many questions. I made an appointment to do some research at the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia. Tune in next week to see what I dig up (pun intended).

Further Reading:
Nicole Clark's End of the road - Philadelphia's graveyards

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Egg Hunt in a Cemetery?

It's that time of year again! Join West Laurel Hill Cemetery for their most popular annual event. Search for over 3,000 prize-filled eggs, enter the raffle and have your picture taken with the Easter Bunny. A surprise guest (in addition to E. Bunny) awaits this year's attendees! For children 10 and under. Be sure to bring your own basket! The event is free and will take place at the Conservatory on the grounds of the Cemetery. −

When I told people that my wife and I were taking our 18-month-old daughter to an Easter Egg Hunt at a local cemetery they thought I was nuts. And those were our Christian friends and relatives. Who knows what my wife’s Jewish side of the family thought. Truth be told, I really wasn’t sure what to expect myself − kids tripping and smacking their heads on tombstones?

"SISTE VIATOR"  − The words are chiseled into the pillars that once served as the main gate leading into Philadelphia’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Centuries ago (as stated on the Bella Morte website), this Latin message was commonly seen on roadside tombs in ancient Rome. They beckon, "Stop, Traveler." West Laurel is a wonderful place for a cemetery traveler to stop, and I’ve been photographing there countless times over the years. I know cemeteries are doing everything they can to be destination spots for visitors and tourists, but, an Easter Egg Hunt? (“Put that down, Johnny! That’s NOT an Easter egg!”)

After we decided to go, I heard it might rain on the appointed day. I inquired about a rain date. I was told that indoor accommodations were planned in that event. “Indoor accommodations?” Where, in the viewing rooms? I imagined caskets full of Easter grass, brimming with colorful plastic eggs, another with the Easter Bunny hiding inside. Kids would be scarred for life! West Laurel, however, did a fabulous job! I was unprepared for how popular this second annual event would be.

Driving through the main entrance gate on Belmont Avenue, my wife, daughter, and I headed for the Bringhurst Funeral Home, where I assumed the festivities would be held. It’s a stately modern facility with a vintage horsedrawn hearse parked alongside, which you can rent for your funeral procession. Lots of grassy area around here, but not many cars. Hmmm. Was it over? Did I have the time wrong? The DAY?

As I slowly drove by the building's front entrance, my wife said it looked like a funeral was going on inside. Hmm, what the… ? Wait! The ad said it was being held at the conservatory. That must be the building on the other side of the cemetery! So we drove over the gently rolling hills past the stately mausoleums (West Laurel has over two hundred of them, clustered on its 187 acres). Truly an enchanting place. Here’s a description of our drive excerpted from the Bella Morte website; the writer truly captures the sense of wonderment that I get when driving through West Laurel Hill:
"Upon entering through the Belmont Avenue gates, visitors will notice one of the cemetery's most striking features...its proliferation of mausoleums. Here, there are veritable neighbourhoods where the dead vie with each other for bragging rights over the most opulent eternal homes. Marble walls ascend skyward or bask in the cool shade afforded by impeccable landscaping. Curving paths invite exploration as they wind through trees and sweetly-scented bushes interspersed by the omnipresent mausoleums. Be certain to step up to each and every building and peer inside. Many are bathed in the multi-coloured light cast by breathtaking stained-glass windows. Some are lined with brilliant mosaics. Others are simple but elegant.

Once you pass through Mausoleum Town you get to the older side of the cemetery, where you see some amazing statues and monuments. In the center of it all is a large meeting hall/office/greenhouse − the conservatory. When we arrived, scores of cars were parked along all the roadways. Cemetery workers were guiding traffic. I didn’t see many visitors, just thousands of brightly colored plastic eggs all over the grass. The eggs certainly cheered up the place, lying all about the monuments and surrounding the mausoleums in that general area. I asked a worker where all the people were. He said, “Inside. They’ll start the egg hunt in about ten minutes.”

E. Bunny, Olivia, and Jill
So I did have the time wrong. The event began an hour before we arrived, but all we missed was the messy build-up to the hunt itself. We went inside to find hundreds of kids of all ages with their parents, carrying on with balloon animals and two dressed-up human Easter Bunnies. In those remaining minutes, we got Olivia’s picture with one of the Bunnies (not sure if this was the One, True, Easter Bunny), after which we were all ushered outside.

Start of the race to find the Easter Eggs
The master of ceremonies made a speech to the throng (had to have been five hundred people there), told the crowd what areas were designated for what ages, and turned us loose. I grabbed a few pictures of the pandemonium as Jill put Olivia down in the grass. Poor child had no idea what was going on, but Jill helped her scoop up a few eggs to but in her bag!

I only took about three photos before it all came to an end. Three thousand Easter Eggs scooped up in less than a minute! It was quite a sight. Hats off to the cemetery workers and event planners, this was really fun! They even beat the rain. Everyone appeared to be having a great time, even though many of the kids were probably wondering what this place was. It was interesting seeing them peering down through glass crypts covers, wondering what was below. Not Easter Eggs, little girl, but you’ll find that out soon enough.

For many of them, it may have been their first visit to a cemetery. Not so with 18-month-old Olivia. Here’s a photo of her at 12 months of age at the Old Mortality re-dedication ceremony (post-restoration) at Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery (West Laurel's companion cemetery across the Schuylkill River) in the fall of 2010. I want her to have a healthy perspective on cemeteries in general, to appreciate the history and art, so we’ll spend time in them.

"Old Mortality" sculpture, c. 1836
I’d also like her to visit my grave after I’m gone. It’s one thing to have children when you’re in your twenties, it’s quite another when your fifty − you think more about mortality. You think about dying yourself, the danger of not seeing your child’s wedding day. But it makes you savor the beautiful moments available to you right now. I didn’t really do this with my older children, and I wish I had.

Writer Salman Rushdie echoed the same thought in his recently published children’s novel, Luka and the Fire of Life, which he wrote for his young son who was born when Rushdie was fifty. The book explores, in Rushdie’s words, “the relationships between the world of imagination and the "real" world, between authoritarianism and liberty, between what is true and what is phony, and between ourselves and the gods that we create.” To paraphrase Rushdie, happy endings are things in which I've become very interested.

Further Reading:

Bella Morte Website
West Laurel Hill Easter Egg Hunt announcement
West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Historic Laurel Hill Website
Building a City of the Dead - The Creation and Expansion of Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Colma Cemeteries and Points Beyond

California in the Spring of 2008, I spent some time shooting the cemeteries of Colma (a southern suburb of San Francisco). Yes, I know − normal people would visit Fisherman’s Wharf or the Golden Gate, but Colma is a wonderful place if you do cemetery photography. I made it a point to shoot at the edges of the day, since that’s when you get the best shadows, the best depth effect for black and white images. The first day I shot in the afternoon, the second in the morning.

Colma is a city of cemeteries − San Fran’s official cemetery, in fact − truly a city of the dead. Unlike New Orleans, Colma’s dead population outnumbers its living by a thousand to one! Within the town’s two square miles are 18 cemeteries  − 17 for humans and one for pets. The city’s live population consists of about 1500 people (2010 census) while its dead number 1.5 million.  Certain notables are buried here, including William Randolph Hearst, Wyatt Earp, Vince Guaraldi, and Joe DiMaggio. However, what really interested me in Colma was the Poole monument at Cypress Lawn Cemetery (Jennie Roosevelt Poole was a cousin of president Theodore Roosevelt.). This weeping angel (above) captured my interest ten years before when I first saw a photo of it in Doug Keister’s book, Going Out in Style. Its beauty enthralled me, and as I would be in the area, I had to see it in person.

Though I visited several cemeteries in Colma during my two-day stay, my sights were set primarily on the Poole monument. The statue itself did not disappoint, though it was difficult to photograph. This beautiful white marble sculpture is on a hill of sorts, and I could have used a stepladder to get a better angle. Also, the first day I was there, the weather was a bit dismal and there were sprinklers on near the statue! That’s a drawback with these lovely well-maintained garden cemeteries. The first day I also photographed in nearby Hoy Sun Ning Yung Cemetery and The Italian Cemetery. I planned my return the next morning in an attempt to photograph the Poole angel, sans sprinklers. (You don’t think Ansel Adams got that shot of Half Moon Dome on his first visit to Yosemite, do you?)

That first day, I found the Italian Cemetery to be a marvelous place, full of wonderfully detailed monuments. It’s really your best bet for close-up work, like this image at left. The following day, I spent many hours at Cypress Lawn and Holy Cross Cemeteries, Colma’s two largest. They’re essentially across the street from each other − or rather, across the El Camino Real. Everything around here is so steeped in history, it gives you a feeling of limitless creativity. As writer Christopher Buckley says about California, “You can be anything you want to there as long as you don’t mind being stuck in traffic.

Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Colma, CA
Holy Cross Angel
Now, you wouldn’t think two square miles of cemeteries is a lot of ground to cover. However, after two half-days, I was only able to visit the few I mentioned. In addition to the Poole monument, Cypress Lawn is as close as you’ll get to an east coast Victorian garden cemetery, with its grand sweeping vistas, large monuments, ornate mausoleums, and a columbarium that left me utterly speechless. Holy Cross, the first of Colma’s cemeteries (1887), was the initial recipient of the mass exodus of dead San Franciscans when that city decided to move all its cemeteries outside the city limits. Holy Cross features a Googie-inspired receiving chapel (which must be seen to be believed) and a community mausoleum that was featured in a the 1971 cult movie classic, Harold and Maude.  Surrounding these imposing structures are 300 acres of densely packed religious iconography − so many angels that, as Mark Twain would say, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one.

And speaking of Twain, back in 1850 when he worked as a reporter for Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, he levied this strong opinion about San Francisco cemeteries:

"A prominent firm of undertakers here own largely in Lone Mountain Cemetery and also in the toll-road leading to it. Now if you or I owned that toll-road we would be satisfied with the revenue from a long funeral procession and would "throw in" the corpse--we would let him pass free of toll − we would wink placidly at the gate-keeper and say, "Nevermind this gentleman in the hearse − this fellow's a dead-head." But the firm I am speaking of never do that--if a corpse starts to Paradise or perdition by their road he has got to pay his toll or else switch off and take some other route. And it is rare to see the pride this firm take in the popularity and respectability of their cemetery, and the interest and even enthusiasm which they display in their business." − Mark Twain (

As a result of the Gold Rush of 1849, many saw California as the land of opportunity and flocked to Sacramento and San Francisco. By the late 1800s, the latter was becoming so developed that its government leaders decided the land was too valuable to be wasted on the dead:

"...eviction notices were sent out to all cemeteries to remove their bodies and monuments. Colma then inherited hundreds of thousands of bodies. Many went into mass graves as there were no relatives to pay the $10.00 for removal."  (

San Fransisco's cemeteries were closed, with a parade of hundreds of thousands of bodies headed for Colma. Colma became San Fransisco’s official burial space and in 1900, the City and County of San Francisco passed an ordinance that there were to be no more burials allowed in San Francisco. Although the monuments and tombstones from the original cemeteries were dumped in San Francisco Bay, the angels did not totally disappear − I found this one painted on a wall in Haight-Ashbury.

Poole Angel (double exposure)
Back to my photographic travels. My second day plan was to do a morning shoot in Holy Cross and Cypress Lawn (hopefully capturing the Poole Angel without the sprinkler) then a departure for other photographic pursuits. I did mange to get some reasonable images of the Poole Angel that day, although Keister did it better. (In emulating the masters, we learn from them.) Afterward, I wanted to head south to Carmel and Point Lobos, near Big Sur, to shoot not stone angels, but another kind of stone on the rocky coast. Before I became interested in shooting cemetery statuary, I was a nature photographer. In this prior life, I loved shooting landscapes and such, but when I moved from upstate New York to Philadelphia, I found the latter to be totally devoid of nature! I was photographically stalled for years. All that said, it wasn’t necessarily the California landscape that drew me, but rather the aura of Edward Weston.

Santa Cruz Roadside
Carmel, California is about 130 miles south of San Fran, which I allowed 3 hours to reach. Unfortunately, that was barely adequate, given the traffic through Santa Cruz. The scenery was breathtaking, even at high speed − the landscape had the true coloration of an Edward Hopper painting. By the time I blasted through Monterey, it was late in the day.  Some other time, Seventeen Mile Drive − I needed to check in at the Weston Gallery before hitting the beach, Weston Beach, that is − black rocks, movie stars. Weston Beach, as they now call it, is at Point Lobos State Reserve, a couple miles south of Carmel, just above Big Sur.

Edward Weston, one of my photographer idols, lived and photographed in Carmel in the 1930s.  He kind of lived life in the fast lane, but then most great artists are a bit eccentric. (I’ll bet not many people know that one of the medium’s heavyweights, Robert Frank, was the photographer and filmmaker of the Rolling Stones’ most famous unreleased film, Cocksucker Blues.) The Weston Gallery is actually run by Weston’s family. So a visit to the gallery is sort of like vicariously spending time with Weston himself. (As an aside, one of the items in which I take greatest pride is my rejection letter from the Weston Gallery, from when I sent them some of my cemetery photography back in the early 1990s.)

Carmel-by-the-Sea could never be confused with North Jersey’s Avon-by-the-Sea (tho I love them both dearly) − it’s more like Aspen, Colorado, a high-end retail resort. But you can ignore all that and enjoy the Weston Gallery, the pearl of the town. The gentleman running the gallery was very friendly, despite the fact that he knew I wasn’t going to plunk down ten grand for a Weston print. When I eventually told him I was headed for Point Lobos, he said, “You’d better hurry, fog’s going to be rolling in soon.” Panic. Run. Drive fast. Bear in mind last visit to CA when you almost pancaked the rental T-Bird into stalled traffic on the PCH. 

One of Weston’s passions was photographing the stones at a particular beach at Point Lobos. Sounds absurd, but then, you never saw such stones. I’d seen the photos, and was intrigued, but I was totally unprepared for what this place looks like in real life. It’s like another planet. I’m not sure such rock formations exist anywhere else on earth. And it all looks so fragile, weirdly eroded smooth rock held together by sandy grit. How could this all not just wash away? (See Weston Gallery Website for examples.)

Weston Beach, Point Lobos
Weston Beach is within Point Lobos State Reserve. A couple miles south of Carmel, you come upon the park entrance. You drive maybe a mile through the woods to the Pacific, where you can get out and walk around. I got there toward the end of the day, and the air was misty. I shot some digital images, but felt that was a bit sacrilegious. The light was too dim to use my Holga, so I shot a roll of 35mm slide film. I walked around for about two hours, photographing here and there, mostly taking in the ambiance of the place. As the light faded, I thought about Weston shooting at the edges of the day. I was torn between spending this last hour of daylight either soaking it all in, or trying to capture it in photographs.

Toward the end, I felt a bit of what Weston must have felt every day he was there, when the light faded to the point where you could no longer photograph. I think it was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had in my life, feeling as he must have felt amidst this stunning natural beauty. You want to make hundreds of photographs of the rocks, try to capture the limitless abstract shapes and details. But then heaven’s curtain begins to close on you. I wonder if Weston ever felt he truly captured the images for which he strived so hard?  I think it’s a bit like the feeling I had of not getting the perfect shot of the Poole Angel. So close to elation, but never attaining it − like searching for the Grail.  As the fog slowly enveloped everything, it was time to release the doves and go home.

Ed at Weston Beach

Further Reading:

Colma History.Org
Bella Morte Website, truly wonderful firsthand walk-thru accounts of each of Colma's cemeteries
Video, Nancy and Michael Visit Colma, City of Cemeteries
Robert Frank NPR story, "The Americans - The Book that Changed Photography"
Cypress Lawn Cemetery
Weston Gallery Website

Saturday, April 9, 2011

No One Hears an Abandoned Cemetery Scream

"Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have." - Benjamin Franklin

As the final vestige of winter melts away, I see there’s not much left of the pigeon carcass on the roof outside my window. I’m awake, much too early again, staring out bleary-eyed at the clam-gray sky, drinking coffee and praying that the headache is just the result of too much blood in my caffeine system. 

So on this dreary morning in March, I’m thinking the conditions are right for a photographic outing to some bleak graveyard. Except, I’m too lazy, so I think I’ll just write about one. If I had dragged myself out to see the zombie movie being filmed at Laurel Hill Cemetery last night, I might have had some better background for a story, but I was unwell. Felt like I had a freight train running through my brain, dragging Richard Simmons. No matter − as I keep looking out at the rain washing away the bloody pigeon remnants, I think about the hawk or falcon that gored it the day before. Viewing the aftermath reminds me of visiting Mt. Moriah Cemetery here in Philadelphia. Not because of the pile of dead foxes some friends of mine found there recently (certainly an example of unnatural selection), but because of the desecrated gravestones and nefarious acts that go on there. You would think such things are enough to keep most people away. But then, I’m not most people.

Chased by Dogs
Standing atop one of the higher hills at Mt. Moriah the other day, I witnessed a stand-off between two people and the graveyard's resident pack of wild dogs. The human interlopers were cutting their way through the cemetery, probably on their way home from work. I was scrambling through the weeds trying to photograph a nineteenth century red granite dynasty plot, when I heard the barking. When you’re in this place, the barking always startles you. I saw the couple walking toward a bend in the grassy swath of road, and the pack of dogs around the bend. Neither party could see the other − I had sort of an aerial view. The four dogs came slowly around the corner and faced the people, barking the whole time. Our turf, folks. The couple backed away down the road and the dogs didn’t follow. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. 

The many empty monument pedestals in this godforsaken place make me think that unless their wings are broken or bound, the stone angels have gone. Even the dead leave, not wanting to witness further degradation. Betsy Ross used to be a resident, but she and her husband were dug up 35 years ago and moved to safer digs. Why risk walking through this place? For me, my curiosity is stronger than my fear − but I do always carry an ice hook or baseball bat.  

My initial interest in cemetery photography began with angels, though I was cosseted by the well-kept Victorian garden cemeteries.  Even in these pristine sculpture gardens, I always preferred the worn down broken angels to the crisp, clean, and pretty. Maybe it’s natural, then, that my interest slowly devolved to the abandoned cemetery − a Diane Arbus-like attraction to the seedier side of human existence. A vandalized and broken cemetery is a horrible sight, but like an auto accident, it’s hard to look away. The photographs I take here, backlit by a lost beauty one can only imagine, challenge the notion of the well-preserved garden cemetery, an ideal that goes hand-in-hand with money, altruism, and a desire to preserve the past. I like to think that my confrontational images mirror ourselves and how much MOST of us really care about our own history. Like Arbus’ photographs, my images of Mt. Moriah take the viewer back to the pre-Victorian era when cemeteries were scary places, a tangible embodiment of our terrors and fears. 

Mausoleum Roofs in Background
From my earliest visits to more recent ones, every encounter has been shocking in its own way. In the late 1990s, I would go to Mt. Moriah to be alone with my guitar while my marriage fell apart. In 2011, it’s no longer a quaint overgrown cemetery, but rather a wilderness grown among the tombstones, monuments, and trash. I've witnessed the devolution of this place first-hand, but trying to capture it in a photograph is challenging − like trying to take a picture of the Grand Canyon.  As you slash your way through the kudzu and buckthorn, with prickly vines ripping at your clothes, tearing through your socks, jeans, and flesh, it hits you that this is not the idyllic walk in the park that the Victorian cemetery planners envisioned. As you navigate your way around dumped building materials, old mattresses, piles of animal bones, and the occasional boom box (which makes you wonder where its homeless owner is right now…), you think of it more as a set for a George Romero zombie movie. (Why didn’t they film that movie here, instead of at Laurel Hill last night? Maybe they wanted a more controlled setting − you wouldn’t necessarily want the actors attacked by wild dogs − or maybe you would?) 

If you’re into zombie movies, you might want to play this in the background, as you continue to read:  JOHNNY CASH's "The Man Comes Around"

The Ironclad "Monitor" Memorial
The cemetery’s founding document (researched by my friend Grace Carthey) states that at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, the city's dead shall rest in undisturbed peace. She points out that the cemetery’s 80,000 residents are resting in undisturbed peace, along with VERY undisturbed foliage and trash. Referring to the magnificently decaying monuments, memorials, and other historic artifacts, she says, “I doubt an indoor museum would be allowed to fall into this kind of condition, so why does an outdoor one so languish?” 

Mt. Moriah is now officially defunct. It's no longer a partly functional, but mostly unmaintained 400-acre Victorian cemetery − it has officially been abandoned (400 acres, by the way, would be about a mile across, if it were a square piece of land). According to FOX NEWS (April 7, 2011), the message on the cemetery’s answering machine says:   

"The Mount Moriah Cemetery is now closed for business, effective immediately. Mount Moriah Cemetery is no longer accepting any orders. This includes for funerals or burials of any kind. No further information is available at this time."   (Read the entire article Here.)

No one really knows who owns this place. I heard a rumor recently that the folks who would take your money and allow you to bury a body, took off, keeping the mystery of Mt. Moriah as dark as ever. Which may explain the police cars I saw slowly cruising through it the other day. So legal burials have ceased. You wonder why a family would bury a loved one here anyway? It was probably inexpensive, though recent customers appear quite unhappy. Just have a look at this related link to one of the forums on

Rear of Gatehouse
There is, or was, sort of a maintained section of the cemetery, the part you can see along Kingsessing Avenue, where new burials have occurred. Stones are set in a haphazard fashion, if at all. Some graves are simply outlined with stones.  According to Grace Carthey, there is an account of one woman who's had family members buried here in recent years where the keepers charged her hundreds of dollars to set her mother's headstone and in spite of that, it ended up set so it was never straight, but mounted on cheap cinder blocks. Also, when this person’s uncle’s urn was buried in a concrete box, they didn’t dig deep enough and so you could still see the top of it through the grass. Maybe this is the family that’s currently suing the keepers (prompting their disappearance). There are modern headstones sitting around that would never get set unless family members showed up to complain. There is a new-looking one dated 2006, still attached to its carrying strap, behind the crumbling gatehouse facade. 

Mt. Moriah Gatehouse, with Recent Graves

So while legal burials may cease, illegal ones may continue. I mean, if you ever walked through Mt. Moriah, you’d agree there really is no better place to hide the bodies. When my friend Veronika encountered noises in the thicket ahead of her during a solo visit, she split after finding some rope, a shovel, and a bag of lye (lye is used to hasten the disintegration of flesh). Frank and I recently came across a freshly dug hole with cement poured over the top, then leveled off. I do believe there are some very good reasons to be cautious here, which is why I seldom come by myself. When fellow cemetery travelers want to visit, I tell them not to come alone. In an abandoned cemetery, no one hears you scream. If you think I’m being melodramatic, or exaggerating, just watch this video, "Buried Stones, Buried Dreams," on John Ellingsworth‘s Mt. Moriah website (John is not affiliated in any way with the cemetery). Or check out the You Tube video links at the end of this article. Oh, and if you’re brave enough to bear the mortal terrors of this place, consider the paranormal ones − someone posted this comment after one of my older Mt. Moriah blogs:

Watch out for the crazy white lady who haunts these grounds. If she feels you are there with ill intentions you may not make it back out of the all.

Near the circle of abandoned mausoleums, Frank and I found a Geocache box. The cemetery is so desolate and forbidding, someone must have thought it a great place for a daredevil game. (Geocache adventure seekers use GPS devices to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share their experiences online.) But Mt. Moriah should not be taken lightly. If you’re not afraid of the people who lurk within, you should be afraid of the coyotes, pit bulls, and the turkey vultures that will later pick your bones clean. If this place had a soundtrack, it would be the manic animal noises of a slaughterhouse. That said, it somehow seems safer to me here in winter, with the foliage gone and the trees laid bare. The eviscerated pigeon outside my window reminded me of Mt. Moriah’s resident vultures, roosting in the bare winter trees. I wonder if Eleanor Roosevelt had a visit to this place in mind when she said, "Do one thing every day that scares you."

Car on Tombstone
On the other side of Cobbs Creek Parkway, there’s a burned out car hung up on monuments deep in a thickly wooded area. Not the first I’ve seen here. Obviously someone drove the car deep into the cemetery, along the rutted overgrown dirt roads, rammed it up onto a veterans monument, and torched it. Such a sight makes you think that even with Herculean effort, this cemetery is way beyond the point of salvage, let alone restoration. Would the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs be interested is helping the situation? It seems that the Freemasons are not, though Mt. Moriah cemetery was essentially created for them in 1855 (associating with the Masonic order, the cemetery profited from “bulk” plot sales). The Masonic centerpiece here in the Circle of Saint John is the magnificently tall marble monument to the Order's Grand Tyler, William B. Schnider, who died in 1867.  Mount Moriah, being the mountain on which King Solomon’s temple was built in Jerusalem, is integral to Masonic allegory. 

It’s tempting to steal relics from this place − who would miss a marble angel wing here, a granite urn there? But as Mark Twain said of his trip to the Roman Coliseum, if every visitor took a souvenir, there would eventually be nothing left. Of course, he also more humorously said “It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.” Maybe that would be a good thing, then they could just flatten the place and build a storage facility or supermarket.  

Some cities embrace their past, especially through architecture. Take Boston or Baltimore, for example. Their buildings are restored, their monuments polished. Rent the last Rocky movie (Rocky Balboa) and compare the upkeep of those cities to Philadelphia’s dilapidated neighborhoods. Those aren’t movie sets in the film—it really looks like this. It’s embarrassing. Those bombed-out rowhomes in Rocky Balboa look just like the ones that line Cemetery Road (its real name), the perfectly joyless winding street that runs down the Cobbs Creek side of Mt. Moriah. 

Mt. Moriah is like the city it’s a part of. To paraphrase novelist Willard Manus (from his book, Mott the Hoople), the city is "like a big mongrel dog, all sad-eyed and scruffy and smelly, but likable and human. Cities can’t conceal what they are − its all out in the open, all the ugliness…smacks you in the face like a fist.” Is the beauty and tranquility of a well-maintained Victorian garden cemetery “nothing more than a mask,” as Manus might say, a mask that hides the death and corruption of life?  Nothing, he says, “is truly beautiful which masks the real face of our time.” And Mt. Moriah, it seems, is the real face of Philadelphia.

Further Reading:

Thanks to my Facebook Friends for ideas for this article:
John Thomas Grant for the great Ben Franklin quote at the beginning and Grace Carthey for her Web-based research on Mt. Moriah.

Video  "Buried Stones, Buried Dreams," on John Ellingsworth‘s Mt. Moriah website