Tuesday, May 10, 2011

One Year Anniversary of The Cemetery Traveler!

Hard to believe it’s been a full year since I began writing this blog. Since May 2010, I’ve posted 67 of these buggers. My original goal was one per week, but I got a bit carried away.

A friend once asked me what I like best about Robert Burns’ poetry. My answer was ‘mainly, the words.’ Words are things I’ve only recently attached to my photography – words don’t come naturally to artists, it seems. I’ve always had difficulty writing artist’s statements, for example, and I dislike giving titles to my work. But people will ask, “Where was this taken? Why do you photograph cemetery statues? Have you ever been to XYZ Cemetery?” So I started writing about my work.

A blog became the perfect vehicle, because it could be nothing more than an informal travelogue, punctuated with particular photographs I made in a certain cemetery. This is how Mark Twain began writing novels, by the way – his first two bestsellers were travelogues.  It was only after he began making attempts at an actual novel that he realized how difficult it was!

I began The Cemetery Traveler thinking I’d mostly reminisce about my decade of wandering through graveyards photographing the monuments and statues. Writing about my travels never occurred to me at the time, so I rarely took notes. Although history has a way of merging fact with fiction, my writing does not suffer on that account. Like Twain said, my memory’s so good I can remember things whether they happened or not.

But frankly, I’m thrilled by the interest and attention paid to the blog by followers, subscribers, Facebook  friends, and email friends. Heck, in addition to all my virtual readers, I even know actual people who read my work! So I thank you all. Knowing there are folks out there who like what I write makes it all the more enjoyable to do.

Is it Curtains for The Cemetery Traveler?

Have I run out of material? Exhausted my trove of experience and now my blog will suck? Heavens, no − I can go on and on. This is just a way of stopping to catch my breath. You may have noticed that my recollections have been punctuated with new adventures. Not only has writing about past travels become a sort of catalyst for new ones, but I’ve found people who are more than willing to accompany me on cemetery trips. Ten years ago, people just thought I was weird.

I do welcome suggestions and comments on the blog, as they often spark an idea for a new topic. For instance, I have one vigilant reader to thank for the suggestion to write about photographing mausoleum stained glass windows, and another to thank for (inadvertently) prompting me to visit a cemetery I hadn't seen in eight years.

In addition, as I go through my archives of thousands of graven images to post on my Facebook site, Ed Snyder's StoneAngels Photography, I’m reminded of experiences I had while making those photographs. Since I’ve barely begun to scan the negatives from my first six years of cemetery photography, I have plenty of material. Like the time I impressed a girlfriend when my car broke down in a Syracuse cemetery 300 miles from home. Or the time my friend John and I drove two hours to Baltimore only to find our destination cemetery locked up and surrounded by police, with a wanted killer holed up inside (so to speak).

New Adventures

As I’ve said, I started writing the blog with an eye toward reminiscing about my past cemetery travels. I didn’t plan to continue to have new adventures to write about. But the process of recounting my experiences seems to have triggered the urge to continue the forays. For instance, it never occurred to me a year ago that I’d become so interested in abandoned cemeteries. But then, you can’t really do anything without experiencing something new. In addition, comments and questions from readers spurred me revisit cemeteries I hadn’t seen in years. A pleasant result of such an instance was when I returned to Philadelphia’s Knights of Pythias Cemetery to find that it was no longer abandoned, but in the process of being restored!

Too Revealing?

Spoken like the true psychotherapist she is, my wife said to me the other morning, “I had the weirdest dream last night. Want to hear what it meant?” Personally, I’m not quite so introspective. In fact I used to brag about my profound inner shallowness.

The blog, however, has kind of forced me to dig in and find out more about what I do and why I do it (which I still can’t succinctly explain). Sporadically, I’ve revealed some very personal things in The Cemetery Traveler, and have been surprised by the outpouring of emotion and support from readers. I’ve learned a little more about myself and a bit more about people in general.

I also have new adventures planned. On the docket for this summer is to visit my Mom, and the cemetery in which her two brothers and sister are buried. Until about six months ago, I thought she was an only child.

Social networking via Facebook and blogging has helped turn my morbid fascination with cemeteries into a healthy sense of wonder about people’s views on death and dying. Though I’ve written a lot on these subjects for my StoneAngels website, the experience is very different – websites don’t actively invite feedback.

Abandoned Graveyards

Some surprising feedback I've received has to do with my investigations of abandoned graveyards. They're fascinating to me, but can be a source of real anguish to others. It really seems to suck all the joy out of cemeteries for them.  Here’s one comment I received:
"ed this story upsets me so much. i can't BELIEVE nobody has done anything about this..."
I’m always asked the question by perplexed people, “How does a cemetery become ... abandoned?” That’s a topic for another blog post, but it has become evident to me that many are appalled by the idea. Hey, sorry, that’s how we roll, people – sometimes we just don’t care. Although such places are inner city and a bit dangerous, it isn’t just about thrill-seeking for me (okay, it started out that way). It’s a fascinating real-time exercise in demographics, history, and the changing attitudes of a population. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have."  (Thanks to writer and cemetery photographer John Grant for that quote.) 

A positive outcome of this is my growing interest in Philadelphia’s notorious Mt. Moriah Cemetery, which is leading me toward becoming a member of the Friends of Mt. Moriah, a volunteer organization dedicated to saving the cemetery. Can it be saved? There are best and worst case scenarios to compare. Looking to the past, the city's Monument Cemetery was allowed to decay to the point where it was plowed over and turned into a parking lot in 1956. But then Laurel Hill was in the same condition in the 1970s. Luckily enough people with the wherewithal slowly resurrected it from the garbage and graffiti to the wonderfully restored Victorian cemetery it is today.


Angelo Bruno's Headstone
Okay, I feel a little guilty about this, voyeuristic, really. Sometimes I get ideas for blogs from reading other people’s Facebook comments or viewing their photographs of cemetery statuary. For instance, I’m presently working on a blog about a cemetery in which several organized crime notables are buried. I got the idea from a Facebook friend who has an entire photo page of mobster’s gravesites. I began thinking, huh, the mob’s always been pretty active in Philly – I wonder where they’re buried? Turns out that many of them are planted in the very cemetery near my old house where I began making cemetery photographs in 1997!

But let’s rationalize. This from Keith Richards autobiography, Life, regarding where ideas for songs come from:

“the other thing about being a songwriter … is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert….Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You shouldn’t really be doing it. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter.”

So that kind of brings me full circle—I began my cemetery photography at this very same cemetery 14 years ago, I learned something new about it, which made me want go back and do some research. I never used to go to cemeteries looking for anything but angel statues. Facebook has helped me to expand my horizons, to appreciate cemeteries as continual sources of interest and inspiration.

Readers Reactions

I’m humbled that people with such seemingly disparate backgrounds have an interest in The Cemetery Traveler. Photographers and other artists, ghost hunters, horror enthusiasts, genealogists, funeral home directors, even morticians reading and commenting on the work has helped me develop the blog into more than I originally intended it to be. At some point in the near future, I hope to coalesce it into book form. Perhaps it will include readers’ favorites, with sections on Getting Locked in a Cemetery, Zombie Attacks, Abandoned Graveyards, etc. The cover idea I owe to a reader who noted that a photo (below) I posted on my Facebook site “Screams ‘book cover!’

As I’ve accumulated readers, I’ve also lost some. Some have disagreed with things I’ve written. Some have shied away when a friend or relative died this past year. I may wonder why someone’s stopped reading and shoot them an email. You have fun around cemeteries and you forget about its raison d'ĂȘtre – death.  It’s like the time I lost my cell phone in a graveyard once. Some days later, a woman called a friend of mine, whose number was stored in my phone (she called the stored numbers trying to locate me). When I got the message, I called her, thrilled that she had found my phone. Like an idiot, I asked, “Did you just find it walking through the cemetery?” She said, “No, it was on my son’s grave.” Sometimes even I am rendered speechless.

Drawing the Shades

As the preacher said last week at the funeral service for my friend’s Dad, ”know who you are and know where you’re going.” As I continue to write this blog, I may eventually find out who I am and why I take pictures in cemeteries. So on this one−year anniversary of The Cemetery Traveler, let me again thank my readers for putting up with the highly subjective accounts of an itinerant cemetery explorer. There are still tales to be told, mourning art to be shared, cemeteries to visit, and lessons to be learned.