Saturday, September 17, 2011

Old Camden Cemetery - Chickens, Prostitutes, and Civil War Vets

Just a short posting about an even shorter visit to the Old Camden Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey  yesterday. I’ve driven past this small and forlorn weed-covered graveyard a number of times, usually as more of a landmark as I tried to find other, larger local cemeteries. But I was on my way home from work on a sunny September afternoon, and I thought I’d better check this place out before daylight savings ends.

So I cut off I-295 and descended into the depths of Camden. I drove under the PATCO High Speed Line railroad bridge near Mt. Ephraim Avenue and Mt. Vernon streets (a block from the cemetery), and slowed down to dodge potholes and hookers. I get the smile and wave from one of the latter. Ah, Camden. I pull up in front of the inner-city cemetery as ambulances rush by and a commuter train thunders overhead. Another woman is walking up the sidewalk toward me. I get my camera gear out of the trunk and head into the abandoned graveyard where she is sure not to follow. I think there must be an ordinance in Camden that prohibits a prostitute from propositioning you on consecrated ground. So she just leans on the fence and calls out to me. Responding politely in the negative, I went about photographing tombstones and she strolled away. This has happened to me before at other Camden cemeteries. Everyone needs a livelihood and I know this is an economically depressed area, but it’s still a bit weird.

White marble headstones cocked at awkward angles litter the place. Large bags of trash had been unceremoniously tossed in the thigh-high weeds just inside the entrance (there is a fence, but no gate). Luckily I’m not in the habit of opening such trash bags – I was just reading up on the history of Old Camden Cemetery, and I came across this little gem posted by a visitor:

"Adding a touch of the macabre are collections of plastic grocery bags filled with headless, mutilated chickens in full feather. At the center of one cluster of graves near a large tree was a two-foot-wide hole dug nearly three feet deep -- for reasons one can only guess at." (ref)

WELL now! Had I read this BEFORE walking the grounds, I may have … not! 

It’s no surprise that this city cemetery is in such deplorable condition. I mean, Camden can’t even afford much of a police force – the Guardian Angels volunteered to supplement it last year (“Guardian Angels take to NJ streets as cops dwindle”).  So when you couple this with the fact that Camden has a 20% unemployment rate and is the “second most dangerous city in America,” you begin to see why no money is spent on the upkeep of its historic graveyards. 

Old Camden Cemetery is, well, old. The burial ground was established in 1801, with burials ceasing in 1940. The place has become progressively more derelict over the past seventy years. It hasn’t necessarily been abandoned, just uncared for. Though Camden’s Department of Public Works is responsible for the cemetery, it’s obvious that nothing is done for its upkeep. In a city that cannot even afford to employ an adequate number of firefighters, teachers, or police, how could you expect money to be spent on an old cemetery? 

Praying Mantis
As I walked the grounds, people would pass by outside the fence every few minutes and look curiously at me in the high weeds. Next time I’ll carry a shovel over my shoulder – that’ll REALLY give ‘em something to ponder! The weeds were up to my elbows in many places, and I attempted to photograph a six-inch-long female praying mantis for a while (happy not to be a male mantis - a female will usually eat the male's head while mating). A mantis will usually crawl up your arm if offered, but this one was a bit skittish (as was I, truthfully, about losing sight of my car). I followed the little critter around a tombstone, wondering if the ground below was piled with headless mantis bodies, when I realized that a big cemetery tree was now between me and my car. Stepping around it, I saw a couple guys eying its open windows. At that point, my cell phone rang and they moved along. 

Headstone base
I was shocked to later read that this (approximately) twenty acre cemetery has seen 11,000 burials! If you walk around the place, you’d guess there were only about 100 grave markers. Oddly, though, I stepped on many concealed (by weeds) headstone BASES. What happened to the headstones? In the article, “Dead and Forgotten in Old Camden Cemetery,” authors Hoag & Sandy Levins state, “In years past, when a marker was knocked from its base, the errant marker was thrown into the back of a dump truck and dumped into the Delaware River up near the Farragut Yacht Club in East Camden.

 "United States Colored Troops"
I guess I’m not surprised by this as Philadelphia did the same thing with an entire cemetery in 1958 (dumping 20,000 monuments into the Delaware)! (See my blog on the demise of Monument Cemetery). I look out over this weed field, and see but a few tall monuments, some rusty cemetery fence, and one lonely granite memorial, the sad scene punctuated here and there by brightly-colored wildflowers. And speaking of colored, I came upon this stone (at left), a marker for the grave of a Union Army Civil War veteran who was a member of the "U.S.C.T." -- the 19th-century military acronym for "United States Colored Troops." The existence of Private David Painter’s grave is reason enough for the preservation of Old Camden Cemetery. I quote from the article,  “Dead and Forgotten in Old Camden Cemetery:”

"Like the very existence of the unit in which Painter served, the existence of his grave in this cemetery commemorates a pivotal point of cultural change in America. The large-scale recruitment, training and arming of free men of color and former slaves as a cohesive African-American battlefield force marked a watershed in both the racial and military history of the United States. Similarly, the distinguished service of U.S.C.T. veterans caused some communities to rethink their racially peculiar burial prohibitions. For instance, Pvt. Painter was laid to rest in a cemetery that, prior to the Civil War, legally barred the interment of blacks or the transfer of plot ownership from a white person to a black person." - Hoag & Sandy Levins