Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cemetery in the Devil's Woods

There’s an odd little graveyard in an odd little corner of southeastern Pennsylvania, the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery in Chester County. Specifically, it’s in the Brandywine area, bordering Delaware, in Birmingham Township. An old girlfriend introduced me to it, and not under the best of circumstances.

Brandywine is fairly creepy, what with its bloody place in the American Revolutionary War, its cold and barren Andrew Wyeth-type stone farm houses, and its Devil’s Woods. The Battle of Brandywine Creek (also known as the Battle of Birmingham) was fought here on September 11, 1777. Due to a miscalculation by General George Washington, regarding the advance of British troops, the battle was a decisive victory for the British. This left Philadelphia, the revolutionary capital, undefended, and as a result the British soon captured it. Driving along Brandywine Creek is kind of an unnerving experience, especially at dawn. There are no houses—you’re out in the boondocks. There are no streetlights, and you can’t see any road signs, so a GPS is virtually useless. I got lost a number of times. One early morning as I was leaving her house and driving south along the creek, I got a bad case of the creepies. As mist rose off the water and pale colors slowly asserted themselves in the ancient woods, I imagined British, Hessian, and American troops fording the creek, battling, shedding blood, and dying. It really didn’t take much to imagine this—I could almost see it as I drove along.

I didn’t know until sometime later that the nearby cemetery is home to a mass grave for the hundreds of British and American Colonial troops that died in this big and bloody battle of the American Revolution. You just know any cemetery with a mass grave has to have many suffering spirits lurking about! The cemetery itself is only a few acres in size, with assorted large memorials and many smaller oddments. The few buildings nearby, e.g. the Birmingham Friends’ Meeting House, were actually standing at the time of the battle. The Quakers continued their service in this building on September 11, 1777, as the battle outside raged on. The Meeting House was then taken over by Generals Lafayette and Pulaski for use as a makeshift field hospital. The dead were buried in the mass grave across the road in what became the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery.

The cemetery is spooky because it’s so peaceful and quiet. Yeah, I know that’s one of the modern purposes of cemeteries, to be meditative retreats, but this is just weird because it’s so far out in the woods. The graveyard is not landscaped for quietude or anything, like the Victorian sculpture gardens—it’s just a flat tract of land with a tree-lined road going down the center. The stone walls of this (originally) Quaker burial ground were actually used by the American army in its first line of defense during the Battle of Brandywine Creek. Paradoxically, this cemetery was a battlefield! The dead were just buried where they fell. A monument was erected to mark the spot where George Washington’s Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette, was wounded during the battle. The cemetery was renamed in his honor.

Living in a city, the lack of people and houses is somewhat unnerving. All that’s here are woods and silence. Doesn’t make it any more comforting knowing about nearby Devil’s Woods, or the “Cult House” (you can read more about these by clicking the link below). The area is rural, country even, and densely wooded. Cemetery trees are one thing, but this place is just too creepy. No doubt due to its weirdness and the legends accompanying it, M. Night Shyamalan fimed his movie “The Village” in the vicinity. (You may recall that the film is about a village of brainwashed people living deep in a dark wood). According to Matt Lake in the book Weird Pennsylvania, nature can even sense the evil in the area, as the trees that line narrow Cossart Road (better known as “Satan’s Road”) rear back from the roadway as if recoiling from something unspeakable. Along that road is the “Devil's Tree,” a big tree that itself is in the shape of a human hand reaching into the ground, not unlike this one in the cemetery itself (see links below).

So my introduction to the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery happened this way. My girlfriend (of a couple months) and I were out driving in her car one day and without warning, she just stopped at a supermarket a few miles from Birmingham-Lafayette.  Silently, she got out of the car and went in. I followed. She bought a large potted flower and headed back to the car. Silently, she drove to the cemetery. Slowly coasting dawn the single straight road that divides the grounds, she stopped. She picked up the flower, got out of the car, and began walking toward some headstones. She stopped in front of a newer-looking one, put the flower down in front of it, and just stood there. I looked at the inscription on the stone and realized it was her father’s grave. He had died two years ago on this day.

I waited. Eventually she came back to the car, totally dry-faced, and apologetic. I more than made up for her lack of tears by totally breaking down. My father had been dead two years as well. I hadn’t mentioned this to her, and I hadn’t yet cried.

She found it as difficult to let go of her father as my father had found it difficult to let go of life. On his deathbed, he was scared. He was terror-stricken. This anvil of a man, this cursing, coarse and vulgar stone mason cried, and said to me while grabbing at my hands, “It’s not fair!” It was the only time I ever cursed in his presence. I raged bitterly at the situation that had befallen him and said, “Nothing is fucking fair.” What took both her father and mine was a fairly quick illness that caught them in their sixties. I think my dad would have made a ferocious Revolutionary War farmer-fighter.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
                               —Dylan Thomas (1952)

I don’t ever have to go back to this cemetery. The photograph relieves us of the burden of memory, says Susan Sontag in her essay, “Uses of Photography," (in On Looking, J. Berger, Pantheon Books, 1980). “With the loss of memory the continuities of meaning and judgment are also lost to us…the camera records in order to forget.

Links of Interest:

Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site
Map of Brandywine area including Brandywine River Museum, home to many wonderful Wyeth family paintings
Andrew Wyeth links on Amazon
Local Legends:
Devil's Road and Cult House
Leaping monsters of Brandywine
YouTube Trip up Devil’s Road