Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cemeteries: A New York State of Mind

Sometimes an idea for a blog just stares you in the face for months before you agree to acknowledge its presence. Like when I pulled this mug out of the cupboard this morning to pour myself some coffee. I have no idea why there’s an apple on it, but Wolcott, NY is not on any cemetery traveler’s list of ‘must see’ destinations. In fact, I can’t imagine its on any traveler’s list – for any reason. Chicken egg farms and more bugs than you see on the windshields of those “Swamp Tour” vehicles in the bayou. I bought the mug at the town gift shop which was in the boarding house where we stayed. The gift shop was strangely large, given the size of the town itself (population of just 4,400).

What was I doing there? Weirdness. Some years ago I was seeing this woman whose mom had a stroke. Mom was incapacitated and was expected to spend her remaining days in a rest home outside Syracuse. She had been living in a trailer out in the sticks near Wolcott. The trailer needed to be emptied and sold, so I agreed to spend a week with Dana, her daughter, doing this. Hey, maybe I can do some cemetery photography while I’m there. 

Onondaga Nation Reservation, Central New York
From Philadelphia  we drove about five hours north on Interstate 81 straight through Binghamton and the Onandoga Nation (do they still call them ‘Indian Reservations?’) to Syracuse, then a bit west to Lake Ontario where you enter Wayne County − Wolcott is off in the distance somewhere. Not the end of the world, but you can certainly see it from here…

Syracuse has a large Victorian cemetery, Oakwood, where we planned to stop on the way home. Its old barricaded entrance looked enticing as we drove by it on the highway, but it would have to wait a week. Once we arrived at the rehab facility, we found that although Mom had lost the ability to care for herself, she was reasonably alert, chatty, and moving about. So, on to the trailer. 

Glen Side Cemetery
Over the course of the week, we spent the better part of three days emptying it out. Dana and I would fill giant plastic trash bags with food from the fridge, books, old medicines, clothing, etc., after which I would stuff them in my car and toss them (illegally) in an empty dumpster behind the old school in town. I must have made a dozen trips, hauling probably fifty bags total, each time making sure there were no coppers in the vicinity before driving into the school parking lot. It was summertime, school was out, and there was usually no one around.

Between trips to the dumpster or breaks in the work, I would make a stopover to photograph a local cemetery. I found about six in the general area, and visited them all over the course of the week as Dana visited with her mom, friends, and various family members.

Back before you could find everything you could possibly imagine on the Internet, it wasn’t that easy to find cemeteries in a strange land. You had to rely on cheesy local maps and information from strangers (“Hang a left at the fork in the road where the old barn used to be …”). Looking them up now on the Web is a cinch – simply Google “Wolcott, NY Cemeteries,” for instance, and you not only get a list, but a map with their locations pinpointed! Large cemeteries usually have links to their websites, but the small ones don’t. What you can find, however, are Flick’r pages of photographs that people have taken in these smaller cemeteries. Other than cemeteries, I didn’t actually photograph any of the local Wolcott scenery. Looking at photo web pages like this one makes me remember why!

Wolcott Fountain
And speaking of small cemeteries, most of those I visited on this trip were rather small. The low-hanging fruit for me was the one right across the street from the boarding house where we stayed. Glen Side Cemetery is in the center of town, opposite the lewd fountain at Wolcott’s only traffic light. I’d have a better photo of the fountain, but at one point during this trip, I dropped one of my small digital point-and-shoots out of my freaking car and accidentally backed over the damn thing, losing a few hundred images along with my temper. That’s the trouble with these little digitals – they’re too small to keep track of!

Glen Side Cemetery
Glen Side Cemetery proved itself to be atypical of those in this particular geographic region – quiet, plain, old, and simple. Lots of marble and slate, not much granite.  Due to the abundance of rain, snow, and shade up here near Lake Ontario, lichens and moss grow on many of the tombstones and monuments. Some photos I lost with that camera are cemetery monuments made of cobblestones, the perfectly smooth round rocks on the shore of Lake Ontario. There are even houses up there made of cobblestones!

Walker Evans, eat your heart out!
There were two other graveyards I’d stop at between illegal dumpings − Evergreen Huron and Roe cemeteries, both in Wolcott. I spent a good deal of time at Evergreen Huron composing variations of the Walker Evans−type piece of Americana you see at left. I remember it was Sunday, and people were coming out of the church across the street, probably wondering why I was lying in the grass with a camera all that time. Here in Evergreen was the first I’d ever seen pink flamingoes as cemetery decorations! John Waters would be proud.

Evergreen Huron
Roe Cemetery
Roe Cemetery was a desolate little place south of Wolcott, but the lack of vandalism still made it a welcome sight. I remember checking it out on my way to the NAPA Auto Parts store to buy a replacement car battery − but more on that later. Given the harsh winters and broiling summers in Central New York, it surprised me to see such well-preserved willows and other carvings on the marble and slate grave markers.

Barton Cemetery
Rose Cemetery

Barton Cemetery was a lovely little place on a hillside with many flat slab headstones punctuated by an extremely odd cobblestone memorial here and there. The fact that it was on a hillside was unusual, as most of the other local cemeteries were flat. Rose Cemetery in North Rose made me realize that many of the graveyards in this area are relatively shallow, side-of-the-road places, typically with woods bordering three sides. They’re barely 200 feet deep, and maybe an eighth of a mile running the length of the road. I was quite enamored with Rose’s single granite angel way in the back near the treeline – I probably spent half an hour just exploring this one statue from different perspectives. The black stains on her face were particularly emotive. Cemetery statuary of any kind is rather rare in this area, the inhabitants being nowhere near as affluent as their big city neighbors in Rochester to the west or Syracuse to the east.

The Lake Country can be beautiful, if you don’t have to earn a living. I used to live in the Finger Lakes region about an hour south of Wolcott − Geneva, NY, to be specific, and oh is it economically depressed. So this visit was sort of a homecoming, but twenty years changes everything. I'd experienced the coldest winter of my life back then at Sodus Point on Lake Ontario, but I'd never overnighted it up here in the summer. I was unprepared for the nightbugs. Not your typical no-see-ums, these things hit you in the face like small sparrows. Central and upstate New York is still sort of wilderness, with people attempting to tame it.

Lake Ontario, NY side
We did have some fun, though. Climbing down the ridiculously high embankment to Lake Ontario made me think of a humorous story told by guitarist Adrian Legg about his instrumental music. An agency once contacted him to write the soundtrack for a documentary on coastal erosion. When it rains, this scene must be one giant slo-mo mudslide as a bit more of New York slips into Lake Ontario. What kind of music would accompany that?

Zinc Memorial
After an exhausting week of cleaning and hauling, we left the fabulous lake country for home. We made one last stop at quaint Elmwood Cemetery in Lyons before jumping on the New York State Thruway and heading east to Syracuse. Elmwood is where I found this cool zinc memorial, a type of flat-packaged (assemble it yourself) and customizable monument which was widely sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalog around the year 1900. (There’s actually a Facebook page dedicated to these cast white-metal memorials called "White Bronze Headstones.")

Elk statue, Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse, NY

As planned, we stopped at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse. This was to be the high water mark of the trip (for me), but within ten minutes of entry into this lovely Victorian garden cemetery, my car broke down! It was a very hot day in the dead of summer, so I left the car idle with the air conditioning on (for Dana) and jumped out to photograph this giant bronze elk sculpture. I heard the car stall. Went back to it to try and coax it back to life, but the battery was dead. Poor Dana, I felt like a horse’s ass. Had to walk to the cemetery office and call AAA. They showed up about two hours later and replaced my battery (even though I knew this wasn’t the problem, as I had already replaced it earlier in the week), but it was enough to get us back to Philly. (Here’s a Flickr page with the photos I should have taken that day!).

People often ask me how I discover certain roadside attractions (like Harold’s NY Deli off the Edison exit of the New Jersey Turnpike where all the food is of comically large proportions), and why I retain such vivid memories of them. Simple – these are often places where my car has broken down! In fact this used to happen to me so often that AAA revoked the towing rider on my roadside assistance plan (who knew there was a MAXIMUM number of hundred-mile tows allowed per year...?).

About a month after Dana and I returned from our NY trip, she took the bus back for a week to visit her family and friends. Turns out she had struck up a relationship with a friend of the family, a guy she’d met while I was off shooting cemeteries! Within another month she dumped me for him. Just shows to go ya. 

Further Reading and Listening: