Monday, September 26, 2011

Flowers of Evil

Once in a while I discover the reason I’ve taken a photograph. This doesn’t happen often. In fact, there was a space of ten years between the time I made this photograph at left and “discovered” its raison d’ĂȘtre. I cannot say where I made the original image (memory being imperfect, note-taking, even less so), but I did at some point apply some photo dye to a paper print. Perhaps this was ill-advised. Regardless, I like the colorized image. 

Titling my work is not one of my strong points (my oldest daughter, Julie, used to make fun of my titles). So, any help I can get is appreciated. Not being above plagiarism, I’ve stolen words and phrases from books, magazines, song lyrics − ultimately, from other people. When I came upon the collection of French poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil, it was like I found the Grail!  

I found this lovely volume while browsing the fine book section at Long in the Tooth, a fabulous used/new-book-and-music shop in Philadelphia. The couple who own it cater to a rather specialized clientele – in other words, they have cool stuff that I like. I’d heard of Baudelaire, but had no idea what his work was about. Thumbing through the book for a minute made me realize it had to be mine. Not only is this 1857 collection of poetry fabulously intense reading (forget Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn that you had to read in high school!), but for my photographic images, I can pretty much open the book anywhere and grab a fine title line! A casual thumbing rewards you with such gems as:

"Under a stricken sky"
"The twin goddesses, Force and Grace"
"Trembling like a soul in pain"

I’ve sprinkled this article with some of my original images, graced with titles borrowed from Les Fleurs du mal. For the kind of cemetery photography that I do, Baudelaire’s poetry offers descriptive candy. Merely opening the book and reading any line will serve quite nicely. But that one line can easily suck you in. Before you know it, goths, horror fans, and cemetery travelers alike may find themselves reading the entire poem, then the one after that, and so on. 
"The black hearses of my dreams"
Baudelaire was a French poet of the mid-nineteenth century. Bitter. Hated people, critics especially. Widely recognized as an innovator of French literature (Wikipedia), his work influenced an entire generation of poets, including Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell). Baudelaire had great difficulty getting his work past the censors of the day, mainly because his writing is violent, brave, vulgar (for the time), and highly sexual – all of which make Flowers of Evil a collection of exquisite poetry that is oh so worth reading! (And oh so worth plagiarizing.)

Baudelaire was fascinated by Poe's evocation of the dark side of the imagination, which influenced the sinister seductiveness of his own work. “These themes and influences play a predominant role in Baudelaire's 1857 collection of poetry, The Flowers of Evil, which juxtaposed the negative themes of exile, decay, and death with an ideal universe of happiness”(ref).

"A smile not ever, neither do I weep"
Baudelaire and his publisher were both prosecuted at the time, as Flowers of Evil was viewed as “an insult to public decency."As a consequence of this prosecution, Baudelaire was fined and some of his poems from the work were suppressed (the ban on their publication was not lifted in France until 1949)(Wikipedia). Which is all very surprising to me, as the work is certainly not as horrible, hideous, and gruesome as the work of another French writer, the Marquis deSade, who was imprisoned and sent to an insane asylum as a reward for his work. Ah, the power of the written word – and the possible consequences when you grant people freedom of speech.

The French Novel

My only experience with the French novel up to the point of my discovery of Baudelaire was a Humanities course I took in college (1978!), called “The French Novel.” I had heard it was easy – read six novels and give an oral presentation at the end of the semester. The course description was accompanied by the two most beautiful words in the English language: “No tests.” A cake course, I thought. 

Between reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Zola’s Nana, and a few other classics, I had to come up with a topic for my 45-minute speech. Early on, I learned to pick up on clues left by people as to their likes and dislikes (a skill that has allowed me to be nuts-on with buying Christmas presents over the years). The professor who taught the French Novel course would mention the work of the Marquis deSade every now and then, which was enough for me to pick up on the fact that he was a fan. And, not knowing anything about deSade's writing, my nineteen-year-old curiosity was piqued. 

"The tomb is hungry"
My presentation would be on deSade's work. After procuring some of his books (not easy, as its basically all violent porn), I devised a presentation. At the end of the semester, I brought a couple of the books to class, with the intention of not showing them to anyone. During my speech, I referred to his Gothic fiction in vague terms, never once quoting deSade. It was a small audience, maybe six guys and twelve girls. As I spoke, I could tell they were getting more and more nervous, yet curious about deSade’s writing. I kept saying things like, “You shouldn’t read this if you have a weak stomach,” and “Really, this is the most horrible thing you’ll ever seen in print. Please don't open the book unless you really want to.” 

I’d considered it experiential learning, in a way. People loosely throw around statements like, “That teacher is such a sadist! He gives SO much homework!” Perhaps we shouldn’t use the term so lightly?

"The sacred holocaust of your first flowers"
By the middle of my presentation, I’d worked them to a fever pitch. The flowers of their curiosity were opened and in full bloom, ready for my Evil. I picked up one of the books, Justine, and held it out to a student, with the suggestion that they may open it and read a few words if they dare, then pass it along. As I continued speaking, I totally ignored their reactions. Someone would receive the book, hesitantly open it, read for a couple seconds, maybe half a minute, close it, and pass it on. Every face was shocked. In the span of fifteen minutes, three young women burst into tears, got up and fled the room. I wasn't actually prepared for that, but I soldiered on. The professor loved my delivery and I got an “A” for the course. Over a year later, I actually overheard a couple of freshmen discussing the particular professor who taught the French Novel course. One of them said, “It’s a tough course. I heard only one person ever got an “A.”

When you learn more about something (like cemeteries, for instance), you typically become more comfortable with the idea. Not so with deSade's work. And maybe not so with Baudelaire's, either. So why read such dark literature? Other than providing witty titles for artwork, what other purpose can it serve? Filmaker/author John Waters points out a possible benefit to all of us: "No one ever committed a crime while reading a book!"

Links and Further Reading:

Long in the Tooth on MySpace

Marquis deSade
The writings of the Marquis deSade are not for the faint of heart, so I purposely avoided linking to any of them. However, if I've aroused your curiosity, please hunt for them yourself - but you've been warned.

Books by the Marquis deSade:
The 120 Days of Sodom
Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man

Then there's the (2000) movie about deSade, Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix (not for the squeamish). 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Old Camden Cemetery - Chickens, Prostitutes, and Civil War Vets

Just a short posting about an even shorter visit to the Old Camden Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey  yesterday. I’ve driven past this small and forlorn weed-covered graveyard a number of times, usually as more of a landmark as I tried to find other, larger local cemeteries. But I was on my way home from work on a sunny September afternoon, and I thought I’d better check this place out before daylight savings ends.

So I cut off I-295 and descended into the depths of Camden. I drove under the PATCO High Speed Line railroad bridge near Mt. Ephraim Avenue and Mt. Vernon streets (a block from the cemetery), and slowed down to dodge potholes and hookers. I get the smile and wave from one of the latter. Ah, Camden. I pull up in front of the inner-city cemetery as ambulances rush by and a commuter train thunders overhead. Another woman is walking up the sidewalk toward me. I get my camera gear out of the trunk and head into the abandoned graveyard where she is sure not to follow. I think there must be an ordinance in Camden that prohibits a prostitute from propositioning you on consecrated ground. So she just leans on the fence and calls out to me. Responding politely in the negative, I went about photographing tombstones and she strolled away. This has happened to me before at other Camden cemeteries. Everyone needs a livelihood and I know this is an economically depressed area, but it’s still a bit weird.

White marble headstones cocked at awkward angles litter the place. Large bags of trash had been unceremoniously tossed in the thigh-high weeds just inside the entrance (there is a fence, but no gate). Luckily I’m not in the habit of opening such trash bags – I was just reading up on the history of Old Camden Cemetery, and I came across this little gem posted by a visitor:

"Adding a touch of the macabre are collections of plastic grocery bags filled with headless, mutilated chickens in full feather. At the center of one cluster of graves near a large tree was a two-foot-wide hole dug nearly three feet deep -- for reasons one can only guess at." (ref)

WELL now! Had I read this BEFORE walking the grounds, I may have … not! 

It’s no surprise that this city cemetery is in such deplorable condition. I mean, Camden can’t even afford much of a police force – the Guardian Angels volunteered to supplement it last year (“Guardian Angels take to NJ streets as cops dwindle”).  So when you couple this with the fact that Camden has a 20% unemployment rate and is the “second most dangerous city in America,” you begin to see why no money is spent on the upkeep of its historic graveyards. 

Old Camden Cemetery is, well, old. The burial ground was established in 1801, with burials ceasing in 1940. The place has become progressively more derelict over the past seventy years. It hasn’t necessarily been abandoned, just uncared for. Though Camden’s Department of Public Works is responsible for the cemetery, it’s obvious that nothing is done for its upkeep. In a city that cannot even afford to employ an adequate number of firefighters, teachers, or police, how could you expect money to be spent on an old cemetery? 

Praying Mantis
As I walked the grounds, people would pass by outside the fence every few minutes and look curiously at me in the high weeds. Next time I’ll carry a shovel over my shoulder – that’ll REALLY give ‘em something to ponder! The weeds were up to my elbows in many places, and I attempted to photograph a six-inch-long female praying mantis for a while (happy not to be a male mantis - a female will usually eat the male's head while mating). A mantis will usually crawl up your arm if offered, but this one was a bit skittish (as was I, truthfully, about losing sight of my car). I followed the little critter around a tombstone, wondering if the ground below was piled with headless mantis bodies, when I realized that a big cemetery tree was now between me and my car. Stepping around it, I saw a couple guys eying its open windows. At that point, my cell phone rang and they moved along. 

Headstone base
I was shocked to later read that this (approximately) twenty acre cemetery has seen 11,000 burials! If you walk around the place, you’d guess there were only about 100 grave markers. Oddly, though, I stepped on many concealed (by weeds) headstone BASES. What happened to the headstones? In the article, “Dead and Forgotten in Old Camden Cemetery,” authors Hoag & Sandy Levins state, “In years past, when a marker was knocked from its base, the errant marker was thrown into the back of a dump truck and dumped into the Delaware River up near the Farragut Yacht Club in East Camden.

 "United States Colored Troops"
I guess I’m not surprised by this as Philadelphia did the same thing with an entire cemetery in 1958 (dumping 20,000 monuments into the Delaware)! (See my blog on the demise of Monument Cemetery). I look out over this weed field, and see but a few tall monuments, some rusty cemetery fence, and one lonely granite memorial, the sad scene punctuated here and there by brightly-colored wildflowers. And speaking of colored, I came upon this stone (at left), a marker for the grave of a Union Army Civil War veteran who was a member of the "U.S.C.T." -- the 19th-century military acronym for "United States Colored Troops." The existence of Private David Painter’s grave is reason enough for the preservation of Old Camden Cemetery. I quote from the article,  “Dead and Forgotten in Old Camden Cemetery:”

"Like the very existence of the unit in which Painter served, the existence of his grave in this cemetery commemorates a pivotal point of cultural change in America. The large-scale recruitment, training and arming of free men of color and former slaves as a cohesive African-American battlefield force marked a watershed in both the racial and military history of the United States. Similarly, the distinguished service of U.S.C.T. veterans caused some communities to rethink their racially peculiar burial prohibitions. For instance, Pvt. Painter was laid to rest in a cemetery that, prior to the Civil War, legally barred the interment of blacks or the transfer of plot ownership from a white person to a black person." - Hoag & Sandy Levins

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Washed Out Graves

Washed out graves caused by flood in Lawton, PA
I spent the last two days watching the news about the flooding in NEPA, Northeast Pennsylvania. I have kind of a morbid interest in it, like looking at an automobile accident. Not because I like to see people in pain, but because I lived through the Flood of 1972 in NEPA’s Wyoming Valley, caused by Hurricane Agnes.

I live in Philadelphia now, a geographic region not prone to natural disasters. Until recently, that is. I used to like that about Philly. Unfortunately, two weeks ago (the last week of August, 2011), we not only had an earthquake (5.8 in intensity), but a freakin’ hurricane in the same week! Jesus Christ on a toasted bagel! My kitchen ceiling leaks now and I am no longer a fan of the rain gods.

Flood waters gushing past levee (ref.)
Given a choice, however, I’d rather have ceiling leaks than live through another flood. I mean, imagine this scene at right (from a few days ago) being your home town. Led Zeppelin's song, "When the Levee Breaks" takes on a whole new meaning. You wake up to the television showing evacuation routes out of your city. I watch these poor people (and animals) in Wilkes-Barre (near where I grew up with my parents, brother, and sister) packing up their possessions and lashing them to the roofs of their cars – it brings back, well, a flood of memories. We had water up to within one step of the second floor of our house. We lost everything in the basement and on the first floor. My dad and I paddled a rowboat out to our house when the water was highest. Scraping the metal boat bottom on the roofs of cars is a sound I still remember.

My friend George, who lived a few blocks away, got it just as bad. He reminded me recently that the worst thing about having your house under water is the flood mud that’s left after the water recedes. River flood water is not clear water, it becomes muddy and brown as it rips up everything in its path. Look at the water in the photo above – its BROWN! It also stinks like fish. The mud dried on everything. I still have some in a little 35mm film container. People tried to hose out their TVs and other appliances, tried to salvage them, to no avail. Flooded cars got sold on the other side of the country, to the unwitting and the unlucky. 

My Mom said to me last night – and this gave me chills as I hadn’t thought about it for decades – “Remember we had to kick down the warped doors to get into our house after the water went down...?” 

Tomorrow, volunteers are needed to clean up the abandoned Mt. Moriah Cemetery in West Philly. At the same time they’re looking for volunteers to sandbag the dikes along the Susquehanna River north of here. I remember sandbagging on top of a twenty-foot-high dike in front of my grandmother’s house. It looked for all the world like her house would get washed away when the water came over the dike. Instead, it ripped through the dike a couple miles up river, gutting a cemetery in its wake. There were stories about the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers collecting bodies and removing caskets that had jammed themselves onto the front porches of houses.

I wrote about walking through the devastated Forty-Fort Cemetery in a blog last year ("Cemetery Flood"), and the horrors and stench that greeted you if you were crazy enough to crawl under the boarded-up fence after the waters receded. (They shored up the levee at this point on the river last week.) Seeing these photos yesterday of exposed coffins and vaults in the Snyder−Rush Cemetery in Lawton, PA (photo at top of this article) brought back some of those memories. You think when an area is flooded, the water comes in, then goes away. Not so. There’s a lot of force involved. Cemeteries aren’t necessarily safe just because the bodies are underground.

Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown
In 2006, I visited Georgetown’s  (Washington, D.C.) Oak Hill Cemetery, an incredibly picturesque and beautifully landscaped Victorian cemetery. It was late spring and had been raining a lot. I checked in at the gatehouse and the caretaker, a little old lady, welcomed me. As I strolled down the wet slate walkway (that you see at left), she came out and yelled, “Be careful! The walk is slippery, but stay on it! The grass is even more slippery and you could fall into a sunken grave!” 

As I made my photographic way down the winding paths under the trees, I heard water below. Curious, I continued down the lovely terraced switchbacks until I could see Rock Creek down there through the trees. The landscaping is extraordinary here – the hills and dales provide a greater amount of acreage than you expect. What you see from the road (‘R’ Street) gives you the impression that Oak Hill is a rather small cemetery. However, the majority of its 22 acres is tree-covered and slopes down and away from the road toward Rock Creek.

Reaching the bottom of the cemetery, I was a bit shocked to see the muddy waters of the swollen creek licking at the bases of the monuments. The swift current carried tree limbs and other debris past the foothills of the cemetery. Everything was damp and mossy down there and I was overwhelmed with a very uneasy feeling, a feeling that I still get when I look at the photos I made that day (the ones you see here). I climbed back up the hill toward daylight.

I emerged from the dark woods and clambered up onto the base of a large marble obelisk to photograph its angels, when almost immediately, a police helicopter appeared directly overhead! (oddly, this is not the first time this has happened to me! (see my blog posting, "Bessie Smith's Grave.") I froze, and realized that the streets outside the cemetery were crawling with cops; roadblocks were set up on 29th and R Streets where I was parked. Hey, whatever manhunt is going on here in the land of the living sure beats the creepy flooded graves down by the creek. So I just eased on out of there and headed for the nearest alehouse. I often wonder if anything ever gets washed away down there, off into the Potomac River. Who would know? Like the bodies – skeletons in old-time clothes – that got washed down the Susquehanna River and into the Delaware Bay in 1972. That river is like a running, open wound, a wound that never heals.

View other Flood News:

Volunteers Needed for Sandbagging
Shoring Up the Levee in Forty-Fort, PA
Flood photos at WNEP-TV's Facebook site
Susquehanna River Flooding
Hurricane Agnes: Here We Go Again  
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Levees Under Extreme Stress after Record Crest
Cemetery Flood posting on The Cemetery Traveler 
Bessie Smith's Grave posting on The Cemetery Traveler
 Photo credit for top photo of washed out graves:
Book: A Portrait of Agnes

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

White Bronze Memorials

Every once in a while in my cemetery travels I’ll encounter a zinc monument amidst all the stone ones. You may have walked right past one yourself and taken it for granite (small joke there), but this light bluish gray material is actually metal. Perhaps you’ve knocked on one and noted its clanking hollowness. Sometimes called white bronze (to make them sound fancy), these memorials have a rather interesting history.

You may only find a couple of them in any given cemetery, interspersed with the hundreds of marble, granite, and slate grave markers. Their relative scarcity is due to the fact that they were only manufactured (in the U.S.) for about forty years (between 1870 and 1912). Given that the U.S. has about 330 years worth of cemeteries, forty years is not a long time. Interestingly, the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester N.Y. actually mapped out the locations of the zinc monuments in that cemetery!

Where did zinc monuments come from, you may ask? And why were they around for only forty years? Well, catalogs, and because forty years is the period of time the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport Connecticut, was in the business of making them. That could really be the end of this blog, but you know me better than that! I can just go on and on ….

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
(According to Samuel Orcutt in his History of Monumental Bronze) M.A. Richardson and C.J. Willard perfected the method of casting molten zinc in 1873, with the intent of using the material as funerary monuments. They ran out of money, however, and sold the process before they could bring their dream to fruition. The idea was to offer customers a cheap, yet elegant, alternative to stone. This was the heyday of Victorian cemeteries in the U.S. and all God’s children wanted fabulously ornate monuments for their family plots. Unfortunately for the eventual manufacturers, the Monumental Bronze Company (which made all of the monuments), the idea never quite caught on.

What’s Wrong with Zinc?

Zinc Jesus on Iron Cross
Compared to marble or granite sculpture, zinc does look rather cheesy (which may have been part of the reason "white bronze" monuments were banned from some cemeteries). However, the main concern of the buying public was that zinc wouldn’t last as long as stone! Perhaps there were doubts about the manufacturer’s insistence that the metal would not rust. A hundred and forty years later, the company’s claims of longevity have certainly been borne out. These monuments seem to have weathered as well as any carved stone memorial.

“A Thing of the Past”
The monuments were actually cast, which means a mold was used (standard design or customized with names and dates created by an artist at Monumental Bronze), into which was poured molten zinc. In the case of a small flush-to-the-ground marker like the one you see at right (typically costing around six dollars), this was a one-step process.

Lawrenceville Cemetery, New Jersey
For more elaborate structures, several pieces were made, then either zinc-welded or bolted together. This way, monuments could be as large as twenty feet high. Flat packaging the sides allowed the manufacturer to easily ship the monuments to any of its subsidiaries across the U.S. Decorative plates (of mourning symbolism) could be later replaced with ones bearing the name of a future deceased family member. The design was actually much more flexible than stone carving!

Charlotte Cemetery, Rochester, NY (Dorothy Loney)
As you can see from the holes in this memorial at right, such a design unfortunately invites vandalism as well. It also brings to mind the rumor that bootleggers used these zinc memorials to hide their bottles during prohibition!

 City Cemetery, San Antonio, TX
Zinc-welding, a process perfected by Richardson and Willard, is part of the reason such three-dimensional castings as the one at the beginning of this article (in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA) have endured the ravages of time, tree branches, and ground settlement even better than stone. Part of the reason might be their weight. Some friends of mine tried to lift a fallen one to an upright position recently and were surprised at how heavy it was. Even though these monuments are hollow, zinc is actually heavier than iron! Still, some do suffer irreparable damage (its a conservator's nightmare to fix one of these), as you can see in this photo of the angel with its broken wings

Fountian Cemetery, Forstria, OH (Jeff Ronald)
Richardson and Willard's patented zinc-welding process has held up very well. According to Barbara Rotundo, it involved heating molten zinc much higher than its melting point and pouring it into the joint between the cast pieces. This melted the surface of the quarter-inch thick pieces and fused them more solidly than soldering would have done. This way, very large monuments could be made from smaller pieces, allowing the fine detail you see in this portrait at left. I like the caption under the relief, "FROM A PHOTO TAKEN IN 1865." Here's where my misguided sense of humor kicks in - I imagine that when the family of the deceased sent the order in to the Monumental Bronze Company, they included a photo for the artist to create a likeness for the memorial. The artist's apprentice misunderstood the instructions and cast this phrase instead of the man's name! Everything about these monuments was customizable - even if you couldn't afford a portrait, you could choose specific text and decorative interchangeable panels. Another interesting thing to notice about this particular monument is the cracking at its base. This is fairly common with larger monuments as their bases begin to buckle and crack under the enormous weight.

Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ
Since zinc is actually a shiny, gleaming metal, like chrome, I wondered if the original zinc monuments were sold like this, with the chalky, dull coating appearing some months after being installed on a grave. “Left exposed to the elements the monuments rapidly form a tough and very durable skin of zinc carbonate that protects the underlying metal. The zinc carbonate is what gives the monuments their characteristic bluish gray color (ref.).” Although I would think a shiny futuristic monument would be rather cool, this, most assuredly, was at odds with Victorian sensibilities. Since the purpose of zinc monuments was to simply be an alternative to stone, it apparently was more aesthetically pleasing for them to resemble stone. Hence, the dull coating was actually created after the monument was assembled; it was delivered to its final resting place looking like it does today. 

Despite a nationwide distribution network (many companies across the U.S. were contracted to assemble the monuments, but the parts were actually poured and molded in Bridgeport), interest in the monuments died off after WWI. Part of the reason was a poor sales organization, which consisted only of catalog sales by part-time door-to-door salesmen. While the Monumental Bronze Company had a lovely catalog (view it  here as a pdf on the Association for Gravestone Studies' website), customers were expected to buy the monument sight unseen. The zinc monuments were not sold by the stone carving businesses where people would normally purchase their memorials. And not insignificantly, the U.S. government took over the Bridgeport plant for the manufacturing of munitions during the war (1914) - zinc is a key ingredient of brass (70% copper, 30% zinc), from which shell casings are made. The price of zinc tripled, probably contributing to zinc’s downfall as an economical alternative to memorial stonework.

Technology Transfer

During the war, interest in the zinc monuments died off and the company retooled to make other products. Zinc, you may not realize, plays a vital role in the process of galvanizing steel, which makes the steel rust-resistant. Though the Monumental Bronze Company couldn't predict its own demise, its processes would brighten everyone's future decades later. 

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
While the zinc monument industry eventually disappeared, the company's zinc molding and welding processes contributed greatly to future technological advance. The anti-corrosive properties of zinc were put to use in everything from galvanized steel ductwork for your home heating system to the galvanized steel used in automobile bodies. When a certain technology is made available to others so that it may be used in more diverse ways for the common good, its called technology transfer. Did you know that molded plastic ski boots and cordless electric drills had their origins in the U.S. Space Program (NASA)?

Monumental Bronze Company
If you ever want to learn more about gravestones, a likely place is Association for Gravestone Studies
Monumental Bronze Company Catalog
Cemetery Monuments – White Bronze – Zinc
Cemetery Monuments Made of Zinc, Carol A. Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator, MCI (Smithsonian Museum)
Zinc Sculpture in America