Saturday, April 9, 2011

No One Hears an Abandoned Cemetery Scream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Moriah Gatehouse, with Recent Graves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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