Saturday, August 6, 2011

Atlantic City Cemetery

Its summer, and everyone goes to the shore. At least that’s what those of us on the east coast typically do. And Atlantic City, New Jersey is one of the popular destinations. What people don’t realize until they visit AC is that it isn’t all beaches and glitzy casinos – that’s just the actual boardwalk area. The rest of the city is really just a shanty town, like Hollywood, California. Kind of run down, with cheesy bars, pawn shops, and cheap motels. Just like me to go for the seamy underside of things, isn't it?

And speaking of Hollywood, the first time I was there, I was walking near Hollywood and Vine when I heard a man calling out, "Ten ninety-five! Fresh cut today!" I turned the corner to see him standing there selling mechanical severed hands that were slowly crawling around the sidewalk! But I digress.

Casino-intensive beach area of Atlantic City, NJ (ref.)

Atlantic City is like any other large town - its got laundromats, supermarkets, and ...cemeteries. People certainly don’t associate this beach resort with cemeteries, but such things are a part of life, right? Though you won't find it listed in the tour guide, a two hundred year old city (est. 1854), must have one. Established in 1865, its respectable Victorian-era, non-sectarian cemetery is rather off the beaten path. It’s actually on the mainland (AC itself is on Absecon Island), outside the main city area - in Pleasantville, NJ, to be specific (see map). The two-block long by two-block wide cemetery is nestled between the AC Expressway and the Black Horse Pike (Route 40). I was there back in 2005 and it is definitely worth a visit.

Though I didn't realize it at the time, this short visit to the AC Cemetery provided me with several jumping-off spots for what became related interests of mine – voodoo dolls, mausoleum stained glass, and fraternal organizations in cemeteries. Perhaps it was this Ganesh I came across which removed certain artistic obstacles for me, took the blinders from my eyes, as it were.
Jersey cemeteries - maybe not oddly -  are the only places I’ve ever personally seen dolls, dead chickens, candles, and other ritualistic voodoo-type accouterments. So here's a photo of the doll I came across in the AC Cemetery. You can't see it up close, but the fabric is printed with moons and stars. People do tend jump to the worst conclusion when they see such things, which is not necessarily warranted. We fear what we don’t understand. And I for one, didn’t understand the severed hands sticking up all over the cemetery (top photo). They freaked me out.
A ritual evocation of the Voodoo gods and spirits of the dead can be for good purposes as well as for evil. We’re just used to what we see on television, when we really know nothing about any of the various African-derived religions like Santeria and Vodun. However, with Western culture based heavily on movies and television (used to be the other way around), it’s easy to see how peoples’ imaginations can run wild.

It amuses me to see people’s reactions to such things. As I was walking through a cemetery in Camden, NJ back around 1997, I saw a dead chicken on a grave and mentioned this idly to my fifteen-year-old daughter as we walked by. She thought I was joking and physically JUMPED back when she actually saw it! If you search the Web for “Voodoo dolls in cemetery,” you’ll find lots of sensationalistic accounts. Headlines like, "Scouts Find Voodoo Dolls at St. Petersburg Cemetery" are sure to sell papers. This particular one in fact, is quite amusing:

"They looked nothing like dolls," said Bryan McDonough, 12. "They were kind of like ugly creatures that would eat you alive," added his 10-year-old brother, Kevin, a Webelos Cub Scout. - St. Petersburg Times, 2008
Even better than newspaper headlines are the dramatic-to-the-point-of-ridiculous television news stories, like this one from ABC, “Voodoo Dolls Found at Gravesite,” an account of jars of voodoo items found buried under a guy’s headstone in Houston, Texas.

Another item of interest I found and photographed in Atlantic City Cemetery is this broken stained glass window. The place has a smattering of mausoleums on one side. Up to that point in time, I’d never given mausoleums in general much notice. I knew they had stained glass windows and ornate metal doors, but I saw nothing photo-worthy in them. Call it a flaw in my personality. Enter the Ganesh. I guess what drew me to this particular structure was the unusual fact that the stained glass window was on the FRONT of the building, rather than the back, and its glass was smashed, its leading mangled. I guess I’m drawn to the forlorn and damaged more so than to the pretty and preserved. This came to be the beginning of my interest in stained glass mausoleum windows (many of which you can see in my "Mausoleum Stained Glass" album on my Facebook site, Ed Snyder’s StoneAngels Photography). I even wrote a blog about Photographing Mausoleum Stained Glass back in March, 2011.

Oh and the severed hands sticking up all over the cemetery? I found one that still had the Odd Fellows symbol on it - the interlocking rings at the fingertips with the letters "FLT." Mystery solved. I didn't know what it meant at the time, but I later looked it up, which is one of the most interesting things about Cemetery Travel - unravelling these little mysteries that confront you. "FLT" stands for Friendship, Love, and Truth, one of the symbols used by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a benevolent and social society (fraternal organization) which had its origin in England in the 1700s. The local lodge number is written on the palm in this photo.

So for me, the hour-long stopover at Atlantic City Cemetery with my ex-girlfriend was productive, informative, and inspiring. We later went surfing. Feels weird to have written that now, years later, as my two-year-old daughter falls asleep in my arms. Memory surely is not a simple recollection of the facts, is it now? Noted author Brillat-Savarin (see his book below, The Physiology of Taste, 1825) believed that one’s personal experience becomes wrapped up in, and affects how one remembers certain "facts." Remembering is, in part, reliving the situation. Its more than just, "Here's a picture of a voodoo doll I once found." A seemingly short visit to a cemetery can remind you of who you were, and help you to see your present life more clearly.

 For Further Reading: