Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cemeteries: A New York State of Mind

Sometimes an idea for a blog just stares you in the face for months before you agree to acknowledge its presence. Like when I pulled this mug out of the cupboard this morning to pour myself some coffee. I have no idea why there’s an apple on it, but Wolcott, NY is not on any cemetery traveler’s list of ‘must see’ destinations. In fact, I can’t imagine its on any traveler’s list – for any reason. Chicken egg farms and more bugs than you see on the windshields of those “Swamp Tour” vehicles in the bayou. I bought the mug at the town gift shop which was in the boarding house where we stayed. The gift shop was strangely large, given the size of the town itself (population of just 4,400).

What was I doing there? Weirdness. Some years ago I was seeing this woman whose mom had a stroke. Mom was incapacitated and was expected to spend her remaining days in a rest home outside Syracuse. She had been living in a trailer out in the sticks near Wolcott. The trailer needed to be emptied and sold, so I agreed to spend a week with Dana, her daughter, doing this. Hey, maybe I can do some cemetery photography while I’m there. 

Onondaga Nation Reservation, Central New York
From Philadelphia  we drove about five hours north on Interstate 81 straight through Binghamton and the Onandoga Nation (do they still call them ‘Indian Reservations?’) to Syracuse, then a bit west to Lake Ontario where you enter Wayne County − Wolcott is off in the distance somewhere. Not the end of the world, but you can certainly see it from here…

Syracuse has a large Victorian cemetery, Oakwood, where we planned to stop on the way home. Its old barricaded entrance looked enticing as we drove by it on the highway, but it would have to wait a week. Once we arrived at the rehab facility, we found that although Mom had lost the ability to care for herself, she was reasonably alert, chatty, and moving about. So, on to the trailer. 

Glen Side Cemetery
Over the course of the week, we spent the better part of three days emptying it out. Dana and I would fill giant plastic trash bags with food from the fridge, books, old medicines, clothing, etc., after which I would stuff them in my car and toss them (illegally) in an empty dumpster behind the old school in town. I must have made a dozen trips, hauling probably fifty bags total, each time making sure there were no coppers in the vicinity before driving into the school parking lot. It was summertime, school was out, and there was usually no one around.

Between trips to the dumpster or breaks in the work, I would make a stopover to photograph a local cemetery. I found about six in the general area, and visited them all over the course of the week as Dana visited with her mom, friends, and various family members.

Back before you could find everything you could possibly imagine on the Internet, it wasn’t that easy to find cemeteries in a strange land. You had to rely on cheesy local maps and information from strangers (“Hang a left at the fork in the road where the old barn used to be …”). Looking them up now on the Web is a cinch – simply Google “Wolcott, NY Cemeteries,” for instance, and you not only get a list, but a map with their locations pinpointed! Large cemeteries usually have links to their websites, but the small ones don’t. What you can find, however, are Flick’r pages of photographs that people have taken in these smaller cemeteries. Other than cemeteries, I didn’t actually photograph any of the local Wolcott scenery. Looking at photo web pages like this one makes me remember why!

Wolcott Fountain
And speaking of small cemeteries, most of those I visited on this trip were rather small. The low-hanging fruit for me was the one right across the street from the boarding house where we stayed. Glen Side Cemetery is in the center of town, opposite the lewd fountain at Wolcott’s only traffic light. I’d have a better photo of the fountain, but at one point during this trip, I dropped one of my small digital point-and-shoots out of my freaking car and accidentally backed over the damn thing, losing a few hundred images along with my temper. That’s the trouble with these little digitals – they’re too small to keep track of!

Glen Side Cemetery
Glen Side Cemetery proved itself to be atypical of those in this particular geographic region – quiet, plain, old, and simple. Lots of marble and slate, not much granite.  Due to the abundance of rain, snow, and shade up here near Lake Ontario, lichens and moss grow on many of the tombstones and monuments. Some photos I lost with that camera are cemetery monuments made of cobblestones, the perfectly smooth round rocks on the shore of Lake Ontario. There are even houses up there made of cobblestones!

Walker Evans, eat your heart out!
There were two other graveyards I’d stop at between illegal dumpings − Evergreen Huron and Roe cemeteries, both in Wolcott. I spent a good deal of time at Evergreen Huron composing variations of the Walker Evans−type piece of Americana you see at left. I remember it was Sunday, and people were coming out of the church across the street, probably wondering why I was lying in the grass with a camera all that time. Here in Evergreen was the first I’d ever seen pink flamingoes as cemetery decorations! John Waters would be proud.

Evergreen Huron
Roe Cemetery
Roe Cemetery was a desolate little place south of Wolcott, but the lack of vandalism still made it a welcome sight. I remember checking it out on my way to the NAPA Auto Parts store to buy a replacement car battery − but more on that later. Given the harsh winters and broiling summers in Central New York, it surprised me to see such well-preserved willows and other carvings on the marble and slate grave markers.

Barton Cemetery
Rose Cemetery

Barton Cemetery was a lovely little place on a hillside with many flat slab headstones punctuated by an extremely odd cobblestone memorial here and there. The fact that it was on a hillside was unusual, as most of the other local cemeteries were flat. Rose Cemetery in North Rose made me realize that many of the graveyards in this area are relatively shallow, side-of-the-road places, typically with woods bordering three sides. They’re barely 200 feet deep, and maybe an eighth of a mile running the length of the road. I was quite enamored with Rose’s single granite angel way in the back near the treeline – I probably spent half an hour just exploring this one statue from different perspectives. The black stains on her face were particularly emotive. Cemetery statuary of any kind is rather rare in this area, the inhabitants being nowhere near as affluent as their big city neighbors in Rochester to the west or Syracuse to the east.

The Lake Country can be beautiful, if you don’t have to earn a living. I used to live in the Finger Lakes region about an hour south of Wolcott − Geneva, NY, to be specific, and oh is it economically depressed. So this visit was sort of a homecoming, but twenty years changes everything. I'd experienced the coldest winter of my life back then at Sodus Point on Lake Ontario, but I'd never overnighted it up here in the summer. I was unprepared for the nightbugs. Not your typical no-see-ums, these things hit you in the face like small sparrows. Central and upstate New York is still sort of wilderness, with people attempting to tame it.

Lake Ontario, NY side
We did have some fun, though. Climbing down the ridiculously high embankment to Lake Ontario made me think of a humorous story told by guitarist Adrian Legg about his instrumental music. An agency once contacted him to write the soundtrack for a documentary on coastal erosion. When it rains, this scene must be one giant slo-mo mudslide as a bit more of New York slips into Lake Ontario. What kind of music would accompany that?

Zinc Memorial
After an exhausting week of cleaning and hauling, we left the fabulous lake country for home. We made one last stop at quaint Elmwood Cemetery in Lyons before jumping on the New York State Thruway and heading east to Syracuse. Elmwood is where I found this cool zinc memorial, a type of flat-packaged (assemble it yourself) and customizable monument which was widely sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalog around the year 1900. (There’s actually a Facebook page dedicated to these cast white-metal memorials called "White Bronze Headstones.")

Elk statue, Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse, NY

As planned, we stopped at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse. This was to be the high water mark of the trip (for me), but within ten minutes of entry into this lovely Victorian garden cemetery, my car broke down! It was a very hot day in the dead of summer, so I left the car idle with the air conditioning on (for Dana) and jumped out to photograph this giant bronze elk sculpture. I heard the car stall. Went back to it to try and coax it back to life, but the battery was dead. Poor Dana, I felt like a horse’s ass. Had to walk to the cemetery office and call AAA. They showed up about two hours later and replaced my battery (even though I knew this wasn’t the problem, as I had already replaced it earlier in the week), but it was enough to get us back to Philly. (Here’s a Flickr page with the photos I should have taken that day!).

People often ask me how I discover certain roadside attractions (like Harold’s NY Deli off the Edison exit of the New Jersey Turnpike where all the food is of comically large proportions), and why I retain such vivid memories of them. Simple – these are often places where my car has broken down! In fact this used to happen to me so often that AAA revoked the towing rider on my roadside assistance plan (who knew there was a MAXIMUM number of hundred-mile tows allowed per year...?).

About a month after Dana and I returned from our NY trip, she took the bus back for a week to visit her family and friends. Turns out she had struck up a relationship with a friend of the family, a guy she’d met while I was off shooting cemeteries! Within another month she dumped me for him. Just shows to go ya. 

Further Reading and Listening:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Beyond the Grave

Around 2008 some friends and I walked a moonlight mile through Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. We started out around 10 p.m. with flashlights. Usually when I do such things, its with photography in mind. However, two of my friends, brothers, were interested more in the spiritual side of things. Neither had ever been in a graveyard at night, though both were believers in the paranormal − which is essentially why we were there – we figured they were ghost magnets.  They weren’t frightened − after all, as children, the brothers would play over a friend’s house, which was a funeral home. They would sneak down the steps on one side of the house, run past the body being embalmed on the table, and up the front stairs back to the land of the living.

'Robert' doll (ref.)
One of the brothers, Phil, has seen and heard things throughout his life, things that convinced him of the existence of the supernatural. So we had high hopes of something untoward happening. About five years before, he had a terrifying experience with a doll he bought over the Internet. No, not that kind of doll, get your mind out of the gutter. This was an evil curse doll like the famed 'Robert' doll from Key West, Florida. (Part of the Robert story where he’s supposedly running through the house reminds me of the Karen Black Trilogy of Terror TV movie, which is not something you want to watch if you have insomnia – you may never sleep again.)

Phil’s doll was actually a stuffed rabbit, which came with a curse. Phil has experienced inexplicable phenomena – voices, footsteps, pictures out of place on the wall – so why he would buy a cursed doll is beyond me. However, when you know people personally who have had such experiences (and you know they’re reasonably sane), you tend to believe them – more so than you would strangers. As we walked through the graveyard, I think we all fully expected something creepy to happen, if only because Phil was open to such things.

Let me mention a couple things about Phil’s rabbit. He bought it knowing full well that prior owners had either had crippling relationship issues or debilitating spinal problems. Within a few months of purchasing the doll, his brother Don’s decade-long relationship with his girlfriend ended and Phil was hospitalized with back problems. After the cancerous tumor was removed some months later, he threw the rabbit down the basement of the old mom-and-pop store where he worked. I asked why he disposed of it there, of all places – why not burn it? Or sell it on eBay? He seemed to think it would cause no trouble down there. And apparently, it hasn’t. Its still there, five years later.

Okay, let’s lighten this up a bit – all true, but a bit too Stephen Kingy. Even I’m getting the heebie-jeebies. Consider the time I was on a plane trip somewhere, and couldn’t help noticing the huge diamond ring the old woman next to me was wearing. After an hour of wondering, I finally had to ask her, “Is that diamond real?” She replied, “Yes, it’s the famous Plotnick diamond.” I apologized that I had never heard of it and she added, “Oh, yes, and it comes with a curse.” I said, “Really? What’s the curse?” She replied, “Mr. Plotnick.

Ed's ghost behind Receiving Vault
Walking through Laurel Hill that night, we used our flashlights to visit certain statues where ghosthunters had recorded voices. I think if we had come upon a doll or stuffed animal as people sometimes leave at graves, we would have been totally creeped out, but we found none. We also heard no voices. My photographer friend Paul and I did make some photographs that evening, and even did a little experimenting with “light painting,” i.e. making photographs in the dark while selectively illuminating the subject (in our case, cemetery monuments) with a flashlight. No orbs appeared on the photos, however, and all our gear operated just fine.

After several hours of nervous exploration around the cemetery, we (maybe to our relief) experienced nothing ghostly. I did, however, lose my freaking cell phone! We spent the last hour retracing our steps, but couldn’t find it. How it found its way out of the locked holster is beyond me. Almost as if something reached up and grabbed it off my belt. Don kept dialing the number, hoping we’d hear it ring, but without success. We even went and asked the talking statues if they could direct us to it, but they were silent on the subject. So other than losing my cell phone, the escapade was uneventful – at least up to that point.

A few days later someone found my phone. Don had a message on his phone from a woman who had found my phone. When he told me, I joked with him about receiving a 'message from beyond the grave.' Then I started to muse about that possibility. I called the number she left, reached her, and introduced myself. She said she would drop it off at the Laurel Hill office for me. I thanked her profusely and without thinking, asked her how she had found my phone. I asked, “Were you just walking through the cemetery?” She said, “No, it was on my son’s grave.” Sometimes I forget that not everyone visits a cemetery for fun. Quite resourcefully, the woman had examined the last few calls to my phone (from Don, as he had called it repeatedly that night in the graveyard).

The other strange occurrence happened a few nights later, when my photographer friend Paul called me about 11 pm. I was asleep and didn’t hear the call. Next morning I noticed there was a message and played it back. Paul sounded terrified. He was making photographs in the same area of the cemetery we explored earlier in the week. He had set up his camera on a tripod to make long, time-exposure photos and when he looked through the viewfinder, he saw a shadow move past the front of the camera. When he looked up, there was nothing there. Thinking he imagined it, he got ready to take the photograph, looked through the viewfinder, and saw it again! As if a person walked in front of his camera! This is when he got really rattled and phoned me.

I imagine he felt a bit vulnerable as he knew he had a quarter mile to walk through the cemetery to get out! The only other exit was down the embankment to the river. We never heard from Paul after that. His camera was found the next day by the groundskeepers, still locked to the tripod. I’m making this up, of course − Paul was perfectly fine, albeit a bit spooked as he had no explanation for the moving shadows in his viewfinder. I think that secretly, all of us wondered if the rabbit had something to do with it. More power to Paul for being in a graveyard alone near midnight. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that.

After I showed Phil's brother Don the draft of this story, he offered to take me down the basement of the old store to see the rabbit. Actually he told me I had to take the rabbit if I wanted to use his and Phil’s real names. So I changed them. The rest of the story is true.

Further Reading and Viewing:

Read about 'Robert'
Karen Black Trilogy of Terror TV movie clip

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

Walking through Boston, Massachusetts (which is easy to do since Boston is, relatively speaking, a very small city), I happened upon King’s Chapel Burying Ground. This is on Tremont Street, next to – you guessed it – King’s Chapel. The building is a quaint old stone church in the center of a densely populated area replete with commercial businesses, tourist attractions, parks, and skyscrapers. Very out of place here – you’d expect to find it out in the country. Which is what this area was, I’m sure, when the church was established in 1686. It's graveyard is Boston’s first and oldest. 

King’s Chapel Burying Ground is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by a high fence, whose gate was locked at the time I was there in 2007. Not something that would normally thwart me from tip-toeing among the tombstones, but there were so many people around that it felt a bit uncool to do so. I made these photos through the bars.

King's Chapel is still an active (Unitarian) church, originally founded in 1686 as the first Anglican Church in New England during the reign of King James II. The original King's Chapel was a wooden church built here at the corner of Tremont and School Streets, where the stone church stands today. (Wikipedia tells us that) it was situated on the public burying ground because no resident would sell land for a non-Puritan church.

Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower ship is buried here, as is Joseph Tapping, whose stone (at left) shows a skeleton and Father Time battling over the eventuality of death. You can see the phrase "Fugit Hora" on the lower right of the stone  Latin for "the hour is fleeting."

The graveyard has quite an assortment of ‘skull and crossbones’ type headstones, which are prevalent in New England. You really don’t see such carvings in this quantity anywhere else in the United States. Lest those of us who live outside New England feel slighted, we have far more Victorian garden cemeteries than they do! There are just not many angels or statue and monument-intensive cemeteries in New England, with the exception of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (America’s first rural garden cemetery, patterned after Pere Lachaise in Paris).

Cherub head, Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Skull and crossbones
Over the course of about 200 years, the skull and crossbones as mourning art evolved into the cherub head with wings. Victorian sensibilities gradually softened the symbolism. Originally meant to portray mortality, the skull and crossbones had fearsome connotations, so fearsome that this once common symbol of death was adopted by many pirates in the early 1700s as the Jolly Roger. It became the symbolic flag of choice to strike fear in the hearts of pirates' victims.

And speaking of tombstone inscriptions…

 A few years after visiting Boston, while reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), I was surprised  to find out his inspiration for the novel came from a stone in King’s Chapel Burying Ground. Supposedly, there’s a headstone inscribed with a script letter “A” which certain people take to indicate 'adultery.' I took some liberties with the photo at the beginning of this article − this is a stone from a cemetery in Delaware.The real headstone was that of Elizabeth Pain, the model for Hawthorne’s adulterous Hester Prynne, which you see in the photo below. Pain's headstone has an engraved coat of arms in which the letter 'A' appears in the shield to the right of two lions.

Elizabeth Pain Headstone (ref.)
The Scarlet Letter is a classic American novel, but without a doubt, a tedious read. It’s a fictional story, set in mid-seventeenth-century Puritan Boston, which  tells of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair. She is made a public example by being jailed for the crime of adultery and is derided by the good Puritans of Boston. Struggling to maintain her dignity, she is forced to wear a prominent scarlet letter 'A' on her breast (a patch of cloth embroidered to all her clothing) for the rest of her life. Not only does she soldier her way through adversity, but she protects the father's identity by not divulging it. As a result, flawed Puritanical thinking puts all the blame on her. The story is as much social commentary as Hawthorne embarrasses us into realizing that morally, no one, especially the Puritan townspeople, is any better than his main character. This is especially evident when the reader learns the father is none other than the town's own esteemed young priest! Hawthorne succeeds in making the point that nothing is sacred, that we are all flawed - in other words, we are human. Not one of us is any better than the other.

King's Chapel Burying Ground is actually mentioned in the final paragraph of The Scarlet Letter:

So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial–ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb–stone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever–glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:— “ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES” - The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne
Sam Bellamy's Jolly Roger flag (ref.)
Nathanial Hawthorne was actually a descendant of John Hathorne, a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel added the 'w' to his name to distance himself from the horrors and embarrassment of his familial past. (What a difference a letter can make.) We don’t hear John’s name nearly as often as we hear about that other holier-than-thou witch burner, Cotton Mather (which happens to also be the name of a great power pop band), who lived in Boston at the same time as John Hathorne. Mather, by the way, also presided over pirate trials, attempting to extract confessions and reform them as they awaited the hangman's noose. He was involved in the trial of Sam Bellamy’s crew, as a result of the wreck of the pirate ship Wydah off the coast of Boston in 1717. Different pirates used different flags, and Bellamy's flag, coincidentally, was the aforementioned Jolly Roger.

Even if you're not a huge fan of history, Boston is well worth a visit. They've got a great hockey team and more private ice cream parlors and doughnut shops per capita than any city in America! And with Mount Auburn Cemetery just a couple miles from the center of town, what's not to like? 

Further Reading: 

King's Chapel Website
King's Chapel Burying Ground
Expedition Wydah, by Barry Clifford

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Secrets of Cemetery Monument Revealed

While every tiny tombstone and each magnificent cemetery memorial must have a story associated with it, the Gardel monument in Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery is, in my opinion, highly unusual. Why? Because every aspect of its mysterious symbolism is documented.

The monument is the most conspicuous sculpture in the cemetery, being twenty-five feet high, pyramid-shaped and adorned with white marble statuary. Its right side can be seen from Lehigh Avenue, if you peer through the trees and weeds. Mount Vernon Cemetery is a strange place, whose story is a mystery to most people (even the folks who run Laurel Hill Cemetery across the street). It is kept locked up, and rarely do you see anyone at the gatehouse inside the entrance. In summer, the foliage is so overgrown that all you can see of the magnificent monuments are the tops of the obelisks here and there. Winter is the only time to see anything through the fencing. If you're very lucky, someone might answer the phone and you might schedule a time to be allowed in. Or, if you happen to drive by and see the guy with the truck inside the gate, you can accost him and see if he'll let you in. You're not allowed to walk around by yourself, either!

The Gardel monument with its brownstone pyramid and white marble figures seems to be an exercise in symbolism run amok. But how often do we get a precise description of such symbolism? Not very. The monument was constructed in the memory of Julia Hawks Gardel, who died in 1859, while "on tour" in Damascus, Syria (which I take to mean she was on a trip).

Author and historian Tom Keels says in his book, Philadelphia Cemeteries and Graveyards, “For many years, the Gardel monument was featured extensively on Mount Vernon brochures…today the monument stands guard over a derelict cemetery.” I located a brochure (circa late 1800s) at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in which the monument is described as a "splendid work of art." And it is that. To get an appreciation for the size of its marble statuary, note Frank, my photographer friend standing amidst the statuary. The sculptures are quite beautiful, albeit weathered and worn, with trees and vines growing in the cracks between the pyramid's brownstone blocks.

 Stereoscopic photograph of Gardel Monument, c. 1865  (ref.)

A friend of Frank's recently happened to acquire a vintage stereoscopic ("3-D") photograph of the Gardel monument (shown above), which has a printed explanation of the memorial on its back.While some mourning art is expressed with symbolism of a general kind (for example, a pyramid usually signifies 'eternity'), the Gardel monument was instead designed very purposefully to relate to the life - and death - of the deceased, Julia Gardel. In my experience, it is unusual to find such specifics in funerary art, where typically the highly personal meanings of statues and monuments have been lost to the ages. I've transcribed the description word for word, so please excuse the misspellings and odd terms.


The Gardel family, while traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, was attacked by the Bedouins,causing the death of Mrs. Gardel soon after arriving in Damascus.

Representatives of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America were present at the funeral, hence the artist’s idea – a funeral procession. A figure, representing Europe, preseded by a Genius with torch and key, who deposit the cineary urn in the pyramid.

Asia, represented by a female figure, seated on a camel in a kneeling posture.

Africa, a beautifully posed Egyptian female, reclining on a sphinx, an Egyptian emblem − head and chest of a woman, posterior portions the lion − typical of the overflow of the Nile, which always occurs under the signs of Leo and Virgo.

 The bas-relief over the door contains the bust of Mrs. Gardel, inclosed in a medallion, supported in the hands of hope and faith − emblems of the religious character of the deceased. The two figures are in the act of raising the medallion to the crown above it.

The uppermost figure represents America, surrounded by the emblems of the physical sciences, cut on both sides of her socle, and with one arm resting on the Bible, deposits with the other, on the head of the deceased, the crown of Immortelles, awarded to her long and earnest labors in the mental and moral education of American youth.

                Sculptor, G. Geef, Brussels, Siolvar of the King of Belgium. Cost, $31,000.

Julia and her husband Bertrand Gardel were teachers in Philadelphia, and must have been quite well off to afford such a cemetery memorial and a trip overseas (especially on a teacher's salary!). Bertrand Gardel, a French teacher and patron of the arts, was kind of mentor to the artist Thomas Eakins (at the time also a Philadelphia resident). According to author Sidney Kirkpatrick, Gardel "exposed Eakins to sculpture while supervising the construction of a 25-foot high monument he commissioned for his wife’s burial plot at Mount Vernon Cemetery." Further quoting Kirkpatrick from his book, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, "the imposing pyramid-shaped memorial, gathering allegorical figures in mourning after a design by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, inspired Tom to try his own hand at funerary design." Bertrand Gardel himself was immortalized as one of the chess players in Eakins' painting, The Chess Players (1876). Bertrand is buried with Mrs. Gardel, having died 36 years later in 1895.

References and Further Reading: 

The Gardels on FindAGrave.com 
What are Stereoscopic Photographs?