Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Horror

What reminded me of this incident was the fact that my homeowners’ insurance company suggested I have a “mold remediation” service look at my kitchen ceiling. I had a roof leak during the hurricane that hit Philadelphia in August, 2011. Water came in, the ceiling got wet, and some mold formed. The ceiling needs to be repaired, and any mold remediated.  The “mold remediation” service that was suggested by my insurance company is called “SERVPRO.” SERVPRO figures prominently in this very real horror story.

As I waited outside my house a few weeks ago for the familiar light green truck to pull up, I started thinking back to that fateful day in 1997. I was a bit surprised when two men got out of an unmarked car and approached me with meters and clipboards. In retrospect, the company may only send out a green vehicle to do an actual job. Why make the neighbors’ curious with a SERVPRO truck in the neighborhood? Now, if you’re anything like I was in 1997, a SERVPRO truck wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. But in the last ten years, I’ve noticed many more of their trucks around, which can only mean that business is booming. What business might that be, you wonder? Let’s just call it ‘biohazard waste clean-up,’ for now. So every time you see a SERVPRO truck waiting in traffic or parked in front of some house, you can guess what they’re up to.

Back in 1997, I had a previous life. Married to the first wife, we owned a duplex in the suburbs. Had three lovely children. Rented the upstairs half of the house. One hot summer day, I was washing the car in the driveway. Everyone was inside their air-conditioned homes, including two of my kids in my house. What with the noise of the hose and the neighborhood AC units humming along, no one heard the gunshot. 

An ambulance pulled in front of my driveway, a bunch of EMTs jumped out and started running toward me up the driveway. Before they got to my car, they turned and ran up the exterior staircase leading up to our second-floor apartment. The story goes that Gary and Gail, boyfriend and girlfriend – our tenants − were lying in bed. Gail was “fooling around” with Gary’s handgun. She supposedly put the barrel in her mouth and said to him, “You don’t think I’d do it?” 

She wasn’t dead when they took her away in the ambulance, but died shortly thereafter. The police questioned Gary, and then left. He came down to tell me his version of what happened and told me he was too shaken up to stay in the apartment. He said he’d be staying with his mother for a while. We didn’t see him for several weeks. Thought it was kind of odd that the police didn’t suspect him of any wrongdoing, but hey, they’re the pros. They must have been satisfied with his story.

Other than the death scene itself, one of the most horrifying things is that the guy had a gun. And he and is girlfriend were in my house playing games with it. What if the bullet had gone through the floor into the living space where my children were? What if it went through a window into a neighbor’s house? For years I concerned myself with enforcing the ”no pets “ clause in the lease – never occurred to me that tenants would have guns!

After everyone left, I went upstairs. Blood and brains splattered on the wall, a blood-soaked mattress. Blood on the wall-to-wall carpeting. It all smelled like blood. NOW what? They never show you THIS part on the cop shows on television. Who cleans this up? I spent the better part of a day on the phone calling all the likely resources – police, fire department, ambulance companies, funeral homes. By their responses, you’d swear nothing like this had EVER HAPPENED BEFORE! NO ONE had a clue what to tell me! Having worked in a hospital, they train you to take precautions when handling any bodily fluid spills, since all sorts of diseases can be living in it. So I knew I couldn’t touch anything without the proper tools. Plus it was gross. I called a friend of mine who used to be a firefighter. He suggested calling SERVPRO, a company I’d never heard of.

SERVPRO is who you call when you have “hazardous waste” to clean up. Crime scenes, accidents, anything involving blood and human tissues.  It’s a national chain. I’m sure other private companies exist, but good luck finding them! 

Ever see the movie “Sunshine Cleaning?” It came out in 2008, and it’s about cleaning up after messy deaths. This is something most people don’t ever have to think about. It’s also something they never address in cop shows on TV or in the movies, at least until “Sunshine Cleaning”  came out. The movie is about two young women with dead-end jobs who start “a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service.” It’s a dark comedy, both funny and revolting at the same time. They clean up all sorts of messy death scenes − gun shots victims, gruesome bodies that had been putrefying for months, and on and on. I was mesmerized by the movie, especially at how the women figured out how to do the job, since I had been through the learning process of clean-up myself. But the movie came out years after my own incident - I would’ve given ANYTHING for such information at the time of the gunshot death in my house.

I was certainly appreciative when the SERVPRO guys came the next day in their white Tyvek zipper suits and space helmets. They bagged up the mattress and tore out the rug. I watched them carry it all down the outside stairs, wondering where they would take it all. They cleaned the walls and disinfected the hardwood floor under the rug (blood had seeped through the rug). They did a great job - as they say in their advertisements, like it never happened. Well, sort of. It was also surprisingly affordable. I remember thinking, “They could have charged me TEN TIMES this amount and I would’ve had to pay it.” 

Gary came back a few weeks later and announced that he would be moving in with his mother. Okay with me. Was wondering how I was going to get him out of there. After he left, I had to go through the process of finding a new tenant. As people came to look at the place, I hoped none of the neighbors would pull them aside and whisper, “Hey, you know somebody died up there?” Killing all my chances of ever renting the place again. But that didn’t happen. Got new people and they never found out, to my knowledge. Time passes. 

Fast forward two years later, when I spot an item in the local paper, showing a photo of Gary! The police had arrested him for murder. Did somebody have second thoughts about the shooting at my house? Did they nail him for killing his girlfriend? Well, no. It seems that at some point, Gary moved in with a couple the next town over, then shot and killed them both. To my knowledge, they never re-opened the case of his “suicide” girlfriend.

Last Words:

"Gary" and "Gail" are not their real names. 
 Link to SERVPRO, in the event, God forbid, you ever need them.
View trailer of the movie,  “Sunshine Cleaning

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beginning to Die - The Strange State of Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Things are beginning to die once again at Mount Moriah Cemetery, in southwest Philadelphia. It is October, when the grounds unveil their new fall wardrobe. Which is essentially the opposite of what the living do as it gets colder − a paring down, a baring-all in comparison to its heavily clothed leafy summer atire. It’s really the only time of the year to see this enormous Victorian cemetery in all its run-down glory. No camouflage to mask its sores, no briars and poison ivy left to prohibit access to its most forbidden corners. 

Volunteers pruning trees
The volunteer clean-up crews have died out for the season as well. As the heavy weed growth has been curtailed by Mother Nature, there is no need for whacking, mowing, and raking. Though an enormous amount of maintenance and restoration can keep volunteers busy all winter, the idea may to avoid burning out the willing help. 

As one of the registered volunteers, I received this letter last week from the Chief of Staff at the Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office. I thought it would be of interest to all my readers to see what goes on behind the scenes of keeping a cemetery from dying. Maintaining any cemetery as a viable business is not an easy thing to do, which is no wonder so many succumb to abandonment.  Read on, you may learn a bit about the biz. You’ll also see how a cemetery can be managed quite unscrupulously.

(Photographs by Ed Snyder)

All - I have been asked by a number of stakeholders to recap what's happened around Mt. Moriah Cemetery.  That overview is below.  As you'll see, this situation is complicated and there's no easy answers.  However, I'm confident that by working together, we'll continue to make progress.
If you have additional questions, please let me know.
Brian Abernathy, Chief of Staff
Managing Director's Office
Suite 1430 Municipal Services Building
1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd.
Philadelphia,  PA  19102
(215) 686-2134
(267) 455-4444

Mt. Moriah Cemetery – An Overview

Background and History
Mt. Moriah Cemetery is an historic burial ground incorporated by an Act of the State Legislature in 1855.  While reports indicate that the Cemetery is 380 acres, a review of real estate records indicates that it is approximately 200 acres.  Philadelphia and Yeadon share approximately equal shares of the Cemetery.
Since its founding, the Cemetery has been governed and cared for by the Mt. Moriah Cemetery Association.  In 2004, the last known member of that Association, Horatio C. Jones, Jr., passed away.   From 2004 until March 2011, the Cemetery appears to have been operated by an employee of the Association. 
The State still recognizes the Mt. Moriah Cemetery Association as the legal owner and operator of the Cemetery; however, because the last known board member has passed away, no individual exists to act on the Association’s behalf.  As such, no responsible party is present to assist with maintenance, burials, disinterments or the placement of headstones.
Sometime after the mid-1950s, the Association established a Perpetual Care Fund to assist in the long-term maintenance of the grounds.  The Fund would deposit a percentage of the cost of the burial lot into a separate account.  The interest earned on the account was to be spent to maintain the grounds and the principal of the account was not to be spent. 

In March, the City was made aware through news reports and citizen phone calls that Mt. Moriah had ended its business operations.  To our knowledge, no one from the Association informed the State, the City or the funeral directors that had worked with the cemetery of its intent to close.  
Since first hearing of the closure, the City has led a working group consisting of representatives of Yeadon, Council President Verna, Councilwoman Blackwell, Councilman Jones, Representative Waters and Senator Williams.
Governing Authorities
Cemetery operations are governed by state law and regulated by the Commonwealth’s Real Estate Commission.  However, the Commission’s authority is limited to licensing and ensuring that proper payments are made to the Perpetual Care Fund. The City itself has no specific oversight of cemetery operations although the City’s Property Maintenance Code does apply in the maintenance of the buildings and grounds not occupied by existing burial lots.

Burned-out car hung up on gravestone
There is no state or local agency directly charged with regulatory oversight of cemetery maintenance or the physical conditions of burial lots; however, the failure to properly maintain the cemetery may constitute a misdemeanor under the State’s Burial Grounds Law and other criminal violations may have occurred.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General has received complaints alleging consumer fraud relating to the purchase of burial plots that may no longer be available.  The Attorney General cannot confirm or deny that an investigation is ongoing; meanwhile, other state agencies may also be conducting their own, independent investigations. 

Maintenance and Records
Cemetery forest
The Cemetery has been poorly maintained for decades with many of its historic sections overgrown and wooded.  Since its closure, the portions of the Cemetery that had previously been maintained by the Association have deteriorated.   Because business operations have ceased at the Cemetery, there is no operator to coordinate and consent to the placement of new headstones, and, regardless of whether or not burial plots were previously purchased, no operator to coordinate and consent to new burials on the property.  
Mount Moriah Gatehouse, Kingsessing Avenue
Because of the condition of the property and the deterioration of the historic gatehouse, which is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, the City instituted a Code Enforcement complaint against the Association.  The City named the Association and Lydia Jones – the widow of the last known board member of the Association - as defendants.   Lydia Jones appeared through an attorney and claimed that she has no substantive relationship to the Cemetery.  
The City’s action against Mount Moriah revealed that the Association that owns and operates the cemetery has not had a board of directors or any other person authorized to act on behalf of the Association since 2004 when the last board member of the Association, Horatio Jones, died.  
Due to overgrowth of foliage, mausoleums can only be seen in winter.
Since the Association is a non-stock entity there are no shareholders to push for the election of new board members.  While it is still a validly existing entity in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there are no individuals that are duly authorized to run and operate the business.
As such, it is unlikely that the Court will hold any person, in their individual capacity, responsible for the property maintenance violations.
Through this lawsuit, the City also learned that the balances of the bank accounts owned by the Association are too low to effectively operate the Cemetery.  This issue has been reported to the Real Estate Commission, the Attorney General and District Attorney.  
Graffitied mausoleum
As part of the City’s court action, the Court allowed the City access to the property to abate the most egregious conditions.  The City’s vacant lot program was able to cut the grass on a significant portion of the property at a significant cost.  This effort culminated in a community event organized in larger part by three community organizations: the Friends of Mt. Moriah, Save a Grave for Mt. Moriah and Build a Fence for Mt. Moriah. The Association has been billed and a lien will be placed on the property for the full amount.  

These community groups have committed to provide best efforts to maintain the property for the immediate future and several additional community clean-ups are scheduled. Estimates for annual maintenance of the entire property are approximately $500,000.
Yeadon side, Cobbs Creek Pkwy.
Because of the resources required to maintain the property, Yeadon has not been able to take the same action as Philadelphia; however, they are moving forward with property violations and intend to lien the property.
Because of the imminent threat of damage to the historical records contained in the Association’s office, the Court authorized the City to remove and secure the historic records.  The records are currently being stored by Iron Mountain, a records storage company.  The City’s Consumer Affairs Advocate Lance Haver is the point-of-contact for family members inquiring about their loved ones.
Ongoing Operations – The Long-term Issue
The future operations of the cemetery are complex and must account for a number of issues.  
        Considerations include:
        The Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries in the City known to accept Muslim burials.
        The Cemetery is one of two in the vicinity known to accept “communal” burials – burials where three bodies share one grave and are a less expensive option for many families.
        The Cemetery charged approximately $1500 per burial – a much more affordable option than other cemeteries, which charge up to $5000 per plot.
        Approximately 60% of Philadelphia’s portion of the cemetery and perhaps more of Yeadon’s portion – including the most important historical sites - is overgrown and inaccessible to the public.  
        While approximately 80,000 dead are buried in the Cemetery, by most reports, there is still significant space for additional burials.
        As previously mentioned, the perpetual care fund – a fund established by law in the 1950s to guarantee ongoing cemetery maintenance into which 10% of the plot cost is to be deposited – and the general operating account do not have balances sufficient to maintain the property.  
        Several reports have indicated that burials may have not occurred properly (i.e. within a drainage area) and there are unconfirmed reports that multiple burials have occurred in single (not communal) plots.
        Because of the questions surrounding the Cemetery’s operations, whatever entity takes control of the Cemetery in the future must be protected from the Association’s past liability.
The Cemetery contains several historical burials including soldiers of the Revolutionary, Spanish-American, Civil and both World Wars.  
        Notable individuals buried at the Cemetery include Betsy Ross (thought to be moved in the mid-1970s); George Connell, Philadelphia’s first Mayor; Senator Israel Wilson Durham, a former President of the Phillies; John Whitehead, singer, songwriter and producer; and Henry Jones, fugitive slave turned successful restaurant owner that won a landmark Supreme Court decision to allow his burial at the cemetery.  
Several churches moved their cemeteries to Mt. Moriah over the years.  Notable sections include: First Baptist Church, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, St. George’s Methodist Church and others.  Several Masonic Lodges also have specific sections and the Beverly National Cemetery maintains veterans’ sections.
        The Cemetery may be a node for the East Coast Greenway.
        Because of these historical and environmental attributes, funds may be available through historic preservation, recreation and environmental grants.
        Because the Cemetery is an important resource to several racial, religious and socioeconomic stakeholders, it is important to guarantee stability of its future operations.  
Today, the Mount Moriah Cemetery is owned by a defunct non-profit corporation and the Cemetery cannot continue its business operations unless and until the ownership issue is addressed. In order to obtain a new owner for the property court action is likely required.  
Yeadon and Philadelphia are currently negotiating the development of a new not-for-profit organization to take ownership of the property.  Because of the complexity of the issues and in order to insure a similar situation does not occur in the future, ongoing municipal involvement is important.  While the organization would be led by the municipal governments, the organization’s board would be as diverse as those interested in the Cemetery and include representatives of different races, religions and backgrounds. 
There are several opportunities to fund the new organization and improve the Cemetery’s current conditions.  Historic preservation grants, storm water management fees, funding as a portion of the East Coast greenway, environmental protection grants and donations from stakeholders like the various churches, masons and veterans’ organizations are all potential funding sources. Cemetery operations could be funded by new burials.  Once the site is abated, most death care industry experts believe the cemetery may be self-sustaining.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cemetery Exploring: Scranton PA and its Environs

It seems I’ll be allowed to go on being Ed Snyder for a while longer. Just got home from having surgery on my inner ear and am waiting for the power headaches to kick in. Pass the Darvocet, please. As I write this, I’m flying higher than angels.

When you go under general anesthesia, you’re never a hundred percent sure you’ll wake up, you know? (That is, unless you checked the appropriate box on the “Advanced Directive” form.) But hey, aren’t these the best conditions under which to write a cemetery blog? I certainly can’t go exploring in a local graveyard– my equilibrium is off and I might fall over a cliff or something. Boneyards around here are like that. Of the literally scores of them in the Philadelphia area, many are not kept up that well. There are the ones with sunken graves, open crypts, tombstones spilling into the river, the ones with dealers and hookers and burned out cars, voodoo offerings and long rusty saws and knives hidden in weeds. As for this last one, I’m not referring to the self-defense weaponry with which I typically arm myself when I explore such places. I’m referring to the giant carving knife I found stuck inside a child’s grave monument (shown above) in an abandoned Philadelphia cemetery. Intertwined with the memorial ’s faded and soggy stuffed animals was a melon vine. So I’m sure some homeless guy was using the knife only for good. The only thing worse than abandoned cemeteries is abandoned people.

Too bad you don’t dream under anesthesia. You have no brain capacity for that − they basically kill you, while keeping you alive. Thanks to Tommy for that comforting thought, and for driving me to the hospital this morn − Whoops – I was listing to port for a moment there, felt a bit of my brains leaking out my ear. Better right myself and prop up with some pillows. There. Any “Distance Reiki” practitioners out there willing to send some positive energy my way?

I need to recuperate well, you see, and not lose any white matter. The Cemetery Traveler will be heading up to Scranton, PA in a few weeks and he needs all his faculties. He also plans to stop talking in the third person, as it gets on his nerves. I was offered a spot at St. Luke’s Church as an exhibitor during Scranton’s First Friday Art Walk for November. I will be showing my photography (prints framed and unframed), greeting cards, and books – all for sale. As it will be in a church, I may need to go easy with my usual tongue-in-cheek banner ads, like “Death Images – Just in Time for Xmas!

I don’t have a lot of work from the Scranton area (even though I grew up around there), but I do intend to show some of the images sprinkled throughout this article from the nearby towns of Wilkes-Barre and associated environs. In fact, my signature image, “Folded Hands” (which you see at the beginning of this article, on my Facebook page, business cards, and the cover of my “Stone Angels” book) was made in the Exeter Cemetery, across the Susquehanna River from Wilkes-Barre. I shot it some years ago around seven o’clock one misty morning, roughly twenty minutes after I left a sleeping woman in bed to zip back to Philadelphia. As I closed her locked front door behind me, I realized I left four pounds of fresh Polish kielbasa in her freezer. Damn!

Slovak Cemetery, Exeter, PA
Occasionally I post images on the Facebook page, “Cemetery Iron,” like this gate from the Exeter cemetery. (“Cintorin” is Slovak for ‘cemetery.’) The wrought iron fencing reminds me that for the next few months, all my food will have a metallic taste. Side-effect of the stapedctomy (ear surgery). My doting wife Jill just allowed me to devour a hot dog, which tasted much like one would expect a piece of cemetery iron to taste, were it served up on a bun. Maybe later, I’ll try a metallic Nutella sandwich.
Oww! Sorry − just tore off an errant ECG electrode they left on my right leg. Funny how when they were monitoring my vital signs, they complimented me on how “normal” I was! Hah! Me! Normal! If only they were to read this blog! Anyway, I’m glad I had the bionic ear installed (my hearing acuity will be so amazing I’ll be able to hear what people are thinking! Imagine that.). A benefit of hearing well is that when I do shows now and meet people face-to-face, I’ll actually be able to hear what you’re saying (instead of faking it, as I’ve been doing.  No that’s not true – I’ve learned to read lips. Again, not true. I can kind of hear, but I do sometimes allow my imagination to fill in the gaps. Much like how I write, since my memory is less than perfect. I’ve had considerable hearing loss since I was twenty years old, when I spent way too much time next to the PA speakers at several KISS concerts. I’ve also come to suspect that my parents may have dropped me on the head as a small child.

So anyway, while in Scranton for the Art Event, I intend to spend some time in the nearby Dunmore Cemetery, as recommended by my Facebook Friend,Wendy Conrad Belaski, who is a member of  The Dearly Departed Players (who give tours of the cemetery while reenacting the personalities buried there).

Angel, Hollenback Cemetery
Another favorite graveyard of mine in the area is the Hollenback Cemetery, which is across the street from the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital (click here for a view of its rather unique entryway). My Dad died there in 2004 (the hospital, not the cemetery). Hollenback is a quaint old hilly Victorian cemetery along the river, which is where I shot this angel. As for the cemetery where my Dad‘s ashes reside, that’s an unassuming little back-mountain graveyard in an area north of Wilkes-Barre that is so “out there” it’s just called the “Back Mountain.” I don’t believe there’s even a town associated with it, just a sand pit.

"Damaged Woman with Dog"
Here’s a photo a little statue near my Dad’s grave. Looks like the woman had some surgery done to her head. Which prompts me to break here and apologize since I, your favorite content provider, seem to be jumping around a bit, ah, content-wise. It’s the drugs. But hey, if it worked for Hunter Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.), should work for me, right? Gee, I wonder if Microsoft Word has a plug-in for correcting dyslexic text? (Try to say that quickly three times! .. or just ONCE, actually…) It’s taking me much longer than usual to type this article since the effector neurons sending impulses from my brain to my fingers seem to be regularly misfiring. Have to keep going back to make corrections. Maybe I’ll lighten up on the next load of painnkilerz.

"Old Man"
You look at pictures like this “Old Man”  (double-exposed and cross-processed Ektachrome) from the Hollenback Cemetery, and you wonder if this guy had anything to live for when he reached the stage in his life when the sculpture was made.  Me, I certainly do have a lot to live for and to be thankful for – a wonderful wife, four lovely children. Oh, and the ability to go on being Ed Snyder for a while longer, until my peep-hole into the world is finally closed, as Kurt Vonnegut would say (or said, rather, as he’s dead). Vonnugut’s work, by the way, is one of the few things you can read when you’re drugged up and loopy, and still have it all make sense! This last image is for him:

Epitaph, Hollenback Cemetery, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Indian Summer (Graves)

I don't even know if its politically correct to call it "Indian Summer" anymore! (Do kids play 'Cowboys and Native Americans' these days?) So here it is, Columbus Day, almost mid-October, and its 85 degrees in Philadelphia! The tomato plants in my garden are still putting out, yet the osage oranges are beginning to fall in St. Peter's Churchyard cemetery! (Osage oranges, or 'hedge apples' are baseball-sized citrus-y pounders that do a bit of damage when they fall out of the trees.)

Columbus Memorial, South Phill
I started thinking about Indians today, which is what Christopher Columbus called them when he hit the shores of the Americas, thinking he had landed in India (get it, Indie-ans...?). Columbus carried with him a passport from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, written in Latin and dispatching him "toward the regions of India" on their behalf (ref). My friend Tom asked me today if I knew how you're supposed to celebrate Columbus Day. He said, "Walk into somebody's home and say, 'I live here now.'"

Osage orange
As there are no Indian graves nearby for me to photograph on this Indian Summer day, I did the next best thing. I went to the St. Peter's Churchyard cemetery in Philadelphia (3rd and Pine Streets) and photographed the "Tribal Chieftains 1793" sign you see above.

St. Peter's Church, est. 1791

I had originally read about the story in Tom Keel's book, Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, and was kind of surprised to actually see more evidence of it on a sign in the graveyard itself. In our continued effort to take land away from the Native Americans, the late 1700s saw pioneering expansion of the land west of the Ohio River. Several Indian tribes from the area were, naturally, against it.

Excerpt from sign in st. Peter's Cemetery
In the summer of 1793, U.S. President George Washington invited all the tribal chiefs from the region to Philadelphia (then the capital of the country) to discuss a treaty and "negotiate." In the meantime, Washington had Revolutionary War General "Mad" Anthony Wayne assemble a highly trained army to fight the area's Indians and take the land. In an amazing coincidence, during Washington's "peace" negotiations, all eight chiefs contracted smallpox, died, and were buried in unmarked graves in St. Peter's churchyard. Without their leaders, all the tribes were easily defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers a few months later in 1794. Gee, that's pretty sickening, don't you think? I don't believe I'll call it Indian Summer anymore.

Here's how the sign in St. Peter's Cemetery tells the story:
"In January of 1793, a delegation of tribal chieftains from what are now Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan arrived in Philadelphia, the U.S. capital. The Indians had been invited by President George Washington to a Peace Council to resolve boundary disputes in the newly created Northwest Territory. No agreement was reached at this time and war followed. The Indians were defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794." (ref.)
Godd ol' USAir flying over 'our' amber waves of grain.

References and Further Readings: 

Does "Indian" derive from Columbus's description of Native Americans? 
St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia, PA 
Find A Grave site related to the seven Indian Chiefs in St. Peter's Cemetery smallpox
Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, by Tom Keels

The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (text)

The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (book)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cemetery Rain

Sitting on the bed at night playing my guitar, all is peaceful as I watch the rain against the window. The colors continually shift into new Impressionistic patterns as the rain and glass refract the glare from street lights, traffic lights, and cars. The colors have a liquid flow not unlike the lava lamp my childhood dentist had in his waiting room. 

With all this tranquility, I naturally think about cemetery rain. Great name for a song, huh? "Cemetery Rain."

More specifically, about how no one ever visits a cemetery when it’s raining. I used to be one of those people. But a few days later, I find myself driving around Cathedral Cemetery (est. 1876) in New Castle County, Delaware, hopping out of my car here and there to grab a few shots with an umbrella over my head. When the rain gets heavier, I simply shoot out the car window. With the exception of the occasional funeral, I’m alone in a cemetery when it’s raining. It’s a very quiet place. As Cathedral Cemetery’s website says, “when our temporal world requires refuge, our cemeteries offer solace.
Being here brings to mind the old Velvet Underground song, “Who Loves the Sun:”

"Who loves the rain
Who cares that it makes flowers
Who cares that it makes showers
Since you broke my heart
Who loves the sun
Who cares that it is shining
Who cares what it does
Since you broke my heart."

When you play guitar while looking out at the rain, you find yourself playing to the rhythm of the weather, the rain gently tapping against the window pane. Which is not unlike visiting a cemetery in the rain – you play to the rhythm of the weather. You’d be surprised at the new things you see, once you get yourself past the inconvenience of it all − strange dampness forming on headstones, water dripping off plant leaves, marble monuments glistening. The odd patterns that formed on this mausoleum above as the moisture soaked into the granite made me realize that this stoic material is not impervious to change. 

I wouldn’t have even noticed this flat-to-the-ground headstone if it wasn’t for the wet, red artificial flower resting forlornly at its base. A lot of people assume headstones just fall over, and that is why they’re flush with the ground. Who would’ve known they do this on purpose in Scotland? In Glasgow, any rickety headstone is placed flat for safety reasons. Unfortunately, a playing child was once killed when an old tombstone fell on him, prompting the practice.  

It sounds counter-intuitive, but you really can’t take a bad photograph during a cemetery rain. You would think it would be severely limiting, given the conditions. Sure you may not be able to control every aspect of the photographs you make, but nature may help you create something you would never have thought possible. Like playing guitar during a rain, it alters your mood. When I photograph cemeteries under less than ideal weather conditions, it’s very much like allowing the rain and color patterns on my window to influence my playing. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but it always adds a new creative dimension that helps me leave the temporal world. When I can’t quite coax what I feel out of the instrument, however, I take solace in the words of guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke, who  said, A guitar sounds good even if you drop it on the floor.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Children's Graves and Sperm Donors

The package of Oreo cookies I bought last week (September 25, 2011) had a stamp on it that said the cookies were okay to eat until January 2012. I love fake food! Food that doesn’t go bad for three months! Food that refuses to die a natural death.  So by mixing in bad chemicals (as writer Kurt Vonegut would say) with the cookie matter, Nabisco extends the shelf life of the product from (let’s guess) one week to twelve! Too bad they can’t mix up a bad chemical cocktail for humans, huh? Extend our lives by twelve times the normal. Why must immortality be so elusive?

The Oreos got me thinking about mortality, but two other things happened that day that REALLY got me thinking about mortality. First, I found out a neighbor backed his truck accidentally over another neighbor, killing him. Second, this show came on the telly called “Sperm Donor.”
The reality TV show Sperm Donor is about a guy who (indirectly) fathered seventy children via donation of his sperm - and, get this - he wants to meet them all! Despite this grossly egocentric desire for immortality, he’s trying to convince his fiancĂ© to marry him. I happen to know two of the children he helped conceive – and they look like him!

Obviously, desire exists on the part of some people to procreate, when they physiologically cannot. It's great that we have the technology. Children’s gravestones from the 1800s remind us of the preciousness of life.

Back before vaccinations and prenatal care were all the rage, infant mortality was much higher than it is today. Couples back then didn’t have large families due to lack of birth control – they had large families because they knew many of the children would die young. Today we’ll use dramatic medical intervention (at a cost of perhaps a million dollars) to save one baby, while down the hall another medical team will be aborting a healthy fetus. What’s up with us? Is it really just about survival of the fittest?

They say that in a hundred years, there will be all new people, implying that all the troublemakers (and hence, all our troubles) will be gone. Obviously, that won’t happen – there will just be new troublemakers. WE will be gone, but what sort of legacy will we have left behind? If only someone were looking at the big picture (like the guy in the photo below), and telling us, “No, don’t do that – it doesn’t make sense in the long run,” or maybe, “Go ahead and eat that entire package of Oreos – tomorrow someone’s going to run you over with a truck and you’ll be dead anyway.
Looking at the Big Picture

Further Viewing:

(If you can stomach this freak show)
Sperm Donor, broadcast on The Style Network

Vaccine History and Achievements (The National Network for Immunization Information) 

And for the contrarians out there:  Vaccines Did Not Save Us – 2 Centuries of Official Statistics