Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Cemeteries of Old San Antonio

About a half mile east of the Alamo (downtown San Antonio, Texas), is a grid of old cemeteries. These are the cemeteries of Old San Antonio. The cemeteries of NEW San Antonio are on the south side of the city, traditional Victorian ones – angels, mausoleums, and so forth.

The City Cemeteries were the first public cemeteries in San Antonio  −  City Cemetery No. 1 was established in 1853, and the Alamo Masonic Cemetery next to it a year later. You really won’t find many tombstones dated before 1853, as Texas was only annexed to the United States in 1845. There was an old original cemetery on the west side, but that filled up by 1853 and was subsequently turned into a park. The grid of cemeteries takes up roughly the size of seven city blocks, sitting there under the scorching Texas sun.

Cruising Alamo Masonic Cemetery

Sandra Ilene West (ref
As I sat in my air-conditioned rental car last summer watching the police cruiser parked under the pecan and palmetto trees, I wondered if one of us was parked on top of the buried Ferrari that I’d read about. In 1977, the beautiful oil heiress Sandra Ilene West was buried here (Alamo Masonic Cemetery) in her best lace nightgown, behind the wheel of her powder-blue 1964 Ferrari 330. Her tombstone is basic, nothing to indicate the extravagance below (Read more via links at end).

City Cemetery No. 1
I got out of the car and meandered about the weird orange-lichen-covered stones, but felt uncomfortable poking around near the cruiser with my camera. Also, I could see why he was parked under the trees – it was 100 degrees in the shade and there wasn’t much shade. The ground was parched and cracked, with only tufts of grass growing out in the direct sun. I never found Sandra West’s grave marker.

Exploded seashell grave
I drove over and asked him how it was going. It’s not unusual to see cops or U.S. Mail carriers taking a break in a cemetery, but I was kind of surprised by this fellow’s reply. He said the police now guard the old cemeteries because thieves drive in with stolen cars, strip them, and leave. Being from back east, it’s kind of difficult to imagine crime in the desert.

National Cemetery
The Old San Antonio City Cemetery area is a 103-acre complex made up of – I kid you not – 31 individual cemeteries! In my Cemetery Travels, I’ve found that it’s not unusual to find that one cemetery is actually two that merged, or that due to a cemetery being moved, one cemetery has accepted all the graves of another cemetery. However, it appears as though San Antonio just decided that whenever someone wanted to start a new cemetery, it would be here. However, after about 1900, local residents resisted further expansion into the area.

St. Michael's Polish Cemetery
Below is a list of the cemeteries, and I believe I visited twelve of them. Where else can you say you visited twelve cemeteries in an hour? Also, here is a link to a rudimentary map showing most of the cemeteries. There is not much in the way of documentation for ANY of these cemeteries available on the web  - or through the San Antonio Historical Society or Parks Department (which operates and maintain the cemeteries). Turns out that most of the interesting information is found if you search for “Eastside” San Antonio Cemeteries Historical District.

Old San Antonio City Cemeteries:

Mausoleum, Odd Fellows Cemetery
Dignowity Cemetery
Tempel Beth-El Cemetery
Agudas Achim Cemetery
St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery
Old German Lutheran Cemetery
Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery,
National Cemetery,
Dullnig Family Plot,
St. Michael's Polish Catholic Cemetery
City Cemetery No.1,
City Cemetery No. 2.,
City Cemetery No. 3,
City Cemetery No. 4,
City Cemetery No. 5,
City Cemetery No. 6.,
Harmonia Lodge No. 1 Cemetery
U.S. National Cemetery
Hermann Sons Cemetery
Nat Lewis Plot & Mausoleum
Alamo Masonic Lodge Cemetery,
U. S. Cemetery
Confederate Cemetery,
Anchor Masonic Lodge Cemetery,
Knights of Pythias Cemetery,
St. Joseph's Society Catholic Cemetery,
Alamo Masonic Cemetery
St. Peter Claver Catholic Cemetery,
Beacon Light Masonic Lodge No. 50 Cemetery,
St. Elmo Lodge No. 25 Knights of Pythias Cemetery,
United Brothers of Friendship Cemetery,
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery,
San Antonio Lodge No. 1 Cemetery,
St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery,
St. John's Lutheran Cemetery
Emmanuel German Lutheran Cemetery

It is a fascinating place, this cemetery zone, and I wished I wasn’t on my way to the airport so I could spend more time. Being a hardcore Cemetery Traveler, there was a certain familiarity to the place, but some of the architecture, the landscape, and memorials were quite  foreign to me - the ornate iron crosses of Polish immigrants, the seashell-and-mortar graves, the Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. National Cemetery. I found the broken zinc angel and crucified zinc Jesus in St. Michael’s Cemetery to be rather odd, especially with bullet holes in them. Kind of fitting, as this cemetery complex is built on Powder House Hill, the site of an old Spanish gun powder mill.

City Cemetery No. 6
There are a few mausoleums here and there, but most of the headstones and monuments are rather modest. There are occasional exceptions, such as the grave of Mount Rushmore sculptor Lincoln Borglum in City Cemetery No. 1 and this (Winn Family) marble statue of the woman with children at the entrance to City Cemetery #6. It was created by the Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini, whose most famous work is the cenotaph to the Alamo Heroes in front of the Alamo (battle fought between Texas Revolutionaries and General Santa Ana’s Spanish Army on March 6, 1836).

1964 Ferrari, like Sandra West's (ref)
I have to say, though, the most interesting thing about these San Antonio cemeteries was Sandra West's nose-thumbing at the saying, "You can't take it with you." She loved her Ferrari so much that she wanted to be buried in it. But did she really get her last wish? Check out this link to an interview with Sandra West’s nephew. According to him, she was not buried in her favorite Ferrari! That one was too valuable so her brother-in-law (her late husband's brother) substituted one of their lesser-valued ones to be her final resting place! (Read more here.)

Further Reading and References:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Warholized Cemetery Angels

It’s rather odd that my own fifteen minutes of fame actually involved Andy Warhol. In the February 2012 DaVinci Art Alliance exhibit, “Warholized (The Silver Show),” one of my two photographic entries, “Vibrating Angels,” was awarded Honorable Mention. What made this truly an honor was that the judges were Andy Warhol’s niece and nephew, Madalen and James Warhola.

DaVinci’s multimedia group exhibition (February 4-26, 2012) features artistic interpretations of the impact, influence, and inspiration of Andy Warhol, on the silver anniversary of his death (25 years ago). The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalogue/book including essays by various Warhol notables.
For the show’s opening a couple weeks ago, the Warholas (“Warhola” was Andy’s real last name) involved the audience in a panel discussion (led by art historian and Warhol scholar Debra Miller, PhD), explaining their own art and telling stories about growing up with Uncle Andy. Madalen runs the family silkscreening business, “Warhola Designs,” and James is an illustrator. (In addition to books, he has drawn for Mad Magaine and the popular “Garbage Pail Kids” trading card series.) James was kind enough to sign a copy of his children’s book, “Uncle Andy’s Cats” for my 2-year-old daughter Olivia. (See photos from Opening Night.)

A week after the opening, it was my turn to gallery-sit. When I showed up, the gallery director congratulated me on the award, and totally surprised me by telling me that “Vibrating Angels” had been purchased on opening night. I was knocked out when he told me that Madalen Warhola bought it! This is probably the single highest art honor I’ve ever received – that my work will reside in the Warhol family collection.

At Andy's Grave (Photo by George Ondis)
Warholized (The Silver Show)” is really a wonderful exhibit, with photography, sculpture, painting, and fabrics – some of which include the inevitable Campbell’s soup can idea. (Appropriately enough, Campbell’s sponsored the show!) You can’t really get away from this, as the soup can is Andy’s most recognizable image - so much so that people still place them on his grave in Pittsburgh!

Andy Warhol's grave, Bethel Park, PA (Photo by George Ondis)
Last month I asked my friend George, who lives in Pittsburgh, to take the cemetery photos you see here. I had visited St. John the Baptist Byzantine (note the cross on his headstone) Cemetery in Bethel Park, PA near George’s home about a decade ago, but could not locate my photos. I appreciate the fact that he made these photographs as they are much more interesting than my old snapshots -  the soup cans stand out so nicely in the snow! (Note the “Warhola” name on a stone behind Andy’s.) The Andy Warhol Museum, by the way, is located in Pittsburgh, where Andy was born and grew up. This is simply an amazing place to visit.

You can visit the DaVinci Art Alliance to see the exhibit until February 26, 2012. There’s also a book that can be purchased with an image of each artist’s work along with a paragraph explaining how the artist was influenced by Andy Warhol’s art. There are fascinating essays as well, by James and Madalen Warlola, Debra Miller, poet and Warhol Factory associate Gerard Malanga, and Warhol Superstar Ultraviolet.

"Vibrating Angels," by Ed Snyder
I had to write up a bit of an artist’s statement for my work in the book. Here’s the story behind “Vibrating Angels,” a “Warholized” rendition of a photograph I made years ago in the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans:

"Vibrating Angels" - Statement
It’s been said that religion may have been Andy’s only emotion. He began and ended his professional art career with religious iconography, heavily influenced by the piety of his mother Julia. People view my own work - photographs of cemetery statuary - as religious, though in large part it addresses society's desire to come to terms with death and dying. I’ve “Warholized” one of my own images in tribute to Andy’s final decade of work, in which he seemed to contemplate the promises of popular religion. As he said about his paintings in 1985-6, "Heaven and Hell are just one breath away!"

My second piece in the show is called “Cherubs,” which you see below. I created the 20 x 20 inch print in Photoshop with two images of cherubs – the one on the left is from Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the other from Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Essentially, both “Cherubs” and  "Vibrating Angels" are “digital art, ” printed on watercolor paper, as opposed to being strictly photographs. I am reminded how Warhol turned his photographs into artistic presentations using various types of media – they were no longer actually ‘photographs.’

"Cherubs," by Ed Snyder

One of the most interesting panel discussion ideas discussed at the opening of “Warholized (The Silver Show),” was "DIY POP," an app you can purchase (for your iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch) from the Andy Warhol Museum that allows you to “Warholize” a photograph! Kind of wish I knew of its availability before I spent hours manually creating my images in Photoshop! (With this marvelous app, you can make your own people photo-portraits look like Warhol's famous images of Mick Jagger and Jackie O!)

"Cherubs" - Statement
In the Bottom of My Garden of cemetery angel photography, there are a few slightly suspect cherubs. I never knew what to do with them. I thought back to Warhol’s early days (1950s) when he illustrated advertising campaigns with mischievous cherubs - basically black line drawings on white, with some color added. Andy had a playful and joyous side before he adopted the Pop Art stance of distance and evasiveness. His version of folk art angels made me think about ways to give life to my own black and white cherubs. If they’re lacking color, why not follow Andy’s lead and just add some? I also spray-painted the frame for Cherubs with silver, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his death.


A few weeks before I was to deliver my work to DaVinci for the show, and picked up my prints at a local art supply store, I experienced fifteen seconds of fame. The guy taking care of my transaction told me he bought one of my photographs at a show two years ago, as a gift for his brother. I’m always flattered when people remember such things. He asked about my two prints and I told him about the upcoming Warhol-themed show. He said, “My aunt went to elementary school with Andy. She used to ride the bus with him. The only thing she ever said about him was, ‘He was a  very strange bird.’

References and Further Reading:
The Warhola Family Album website
James Warhola's Mad Magazine illustrations 

"Garbage Pail Kids," by James Warhola (Peel Slowly and See...?)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Death - A Love Story

For this month of February, I present to you a labor of love that has totally moved people – literally so. I recently met a woman who, as a volunteer, participated in the excavation and moving of about 250 bodies from a cemetery. Her great-grandparents were among the exhumed.

Occasionally in my Cemetery Travels, I’ll come across a situation that is just too weird for words, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. This is one such situation. I don’t profess to find answers to life’s little mysteries – I just present them to you. If you find a way to wrap them in a neat package of understanding, all the better.

The woman in question was working with a group of archeologists who were carefully and respectfully removing bodies as part of a cemetery renovation. The bodies were reinterred on the other side of the cemetery. If the coffins and concrete crypts were intact, these were moved. If not, the bones and other remains and artifacts (clothing, jewelry, etc.) were boxed and buried in large concrete vaults. Along with gravestones and other markers, all this was moved to the other side of the cemetery.

Probably the most astonishing things she showed me were video still images of her interaction with her great grandparents’ remains. It was unclear whether she was as intimately involved with any other exhumations. She had an image of her grandfather’s skeleton lying inside his mostly-disintegrated wooden coffin. The photograph was taken from above, looking down into the grave. Either the coffin lid had disintegrated or was removed, and one could see his skeletal torso, head, and shoulders as he lied face up grinning at his new fans. She had another image of her holding his skull. 

At the time I thought it was awfully weird and now I wonder if I could ever do such a thing. Obviously, one must become somewhat detached from the familial relationship. Her experience was certainly a labor of love, one she felt needed to be done. I didn’t think to ask if she knew them while they were alive. I certainly appreciate her candor and possible need for personal involvement, but the whole scenario is rather odd. I don’t know that I’ve ever run across anything  like it in my fifteen years of Cemetery Travels.

Animal bones found in a cemetery
Finding bones in a cemetery is always a startling thing - even though you know full well you're standing on a field of bones. Most likely, however, the ones you find are the non-human kind. The photo at left is my friend Patricia holding bones of two animals found together in an abandoned cemetery. Some people even go looking for such things! I once met a woman met who makes jewelry out of tiny animal bones she finds in the woods behind an old cemetery. Apparently when owls gobble up tiny animals, they regurgitate a ball of indigestible waste (an “owl pellet”) which is comprised of the bones of their prey. (Who knew?) She hunts for these little crusty balls of regurgitated animal bits, picks them apart, and uses the bones to make lovely earrings, pendants, and necklaces.

But I stray from my story; back to the cemetery excavation. The cemetery volunteer woman had photos of coffins and vaults in various states of being unearthed. Caskets sticking out of a wall of dirt is just an odd thing to see – it’s as if you're looking at a cross-section of the cemetery ground cut about twelve feet down, the ground a honeycomb of coffins. Then she showed me photos of herself holding a section of her great-grandmother’s spinal column. Several vertebrae were fused, so she hypothesized that her ancestor had a spine problem when she was alive. 

Alive. It’s really a lot different than being a box of bones, isn’t it? Our volunteer’s love story makes me wonder how you can bring yourself to touch your ancestors’ bones - especially if you had known them when they were alive. I have to admire her strength. 

Would I have kept my great-grandmother’s wedding ring after slipping it off her boney white finger instead of re-burying the ring with the rest of her skeletal remains? I really don’t know. Would you? It seems like such a simple question, but really it’s a very, very deep one - a Valentine's Day question of love, commitment, and respect.

On my way home, my car stereo was playing a song by the band Bright Eyes, called, “We are Nowhere, and Its Now.” The haunting, halting lyrics went:

I haven't been gone very long but it feels like a lifetime ...  
Stars that clear have been dead for years, but the idea lives on.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Cemeteries of Germantown

Days after our mid-January tramp through Philadelphia’s Germantown cemeteries, I’m worshiping the Neti (pot) god, hoping the water doesn’t contain any parasitic brain-eating amoebas (see link at end). The frigid winter weather made my cold worse, in addition to freezing my fingertips off. But it was worth it.  Two fellow cemetery travelers and I checked out St. Luke’s and St. Michael’s churchyard cemeteries in Germantown, a Philadelphia neighborhood northeast of center city.

I had been to both locations in the past, but my friends hadn’t. I certainly didn’t mind, as you find something new in a cemetery each time you visit. For instance, the first time I visited St. Michael’s Lutheran Church cemetery around 2006, it was just for a few minutes. I was in a hurry to get somewhere and saw it as I drove by. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I pulled over and checked it out. I came away with the "Sacred" image below and these hourglasses-and-crossbones stones. So I was anxious to spend more time there. Turns out these are the only examples I’ve ever found in Philadelphia cemeteries that have markings similar to the old skull and crossbones symbols that are so prevalent in New England.

Both St. Luke’s and St. Michael’s are fairly large cemeteries, densely populated with Civil War and Revolutionary War veterans’ graves - most notably American soldiers who fought the British in the Battle of Germantown in October 1777.   

About six blocks from St. Michaels, down Germantown Avenue, is the Chew House (now known as “Cliveden”), the site of the Battle of Germantown. General Washington led his troops to attack the British on this spot, about five miles outside Philadelphia. The British, led by General Howe, won the battle, ensuring that Philadelphia, the capital of the self-proclaimed United States of America, would remain under British control throughout the winter. It was a key battle, in that it convinced the French government to side with the Americans.

"Christopher Ludwick was a resident of Germantown, a baker whom George Washington befriended at the time of the Battle of Germantown in the fall of 1777. Ludwig was a master baker of gingerbread, which seemed to one of Washington’s favorite treats. General Washington asked Ludwick (an ardent Patriot) if he would consent to becoming the Baker-General of the Continental Army, in charge of baking bread for the officers and soldiers. He consented, and thus became a part of the war effort for the Americans. He was personally responsible for causing a great many Hessians (German mercenaries) to forsake their cause and become American citizens after the war. Ludwig was also well-known for his generosity, and he funded many charities for orphan children with his estate money." (Ref.)

Ludwick is buried in St. Michael’s cemetery, having died in 1801. Both St. Luke’s and St. Michael’s appear to be closed to new burials, as we didn’t see any dates past the 1940s. St. Michaels seems quite a bit older, with graves dating back to 1742. While all the graveyards of Germantown are historic in their own right and definitely worth visiting, something about St. Michaels took me by surprise. After photographing there, I looked it up on the Internet and was amazed to find such an organized parishioner effort geared toward restoration and preservation of the cemetery! I invite you to read it on St. Michael’s website, where you’ll find photographs and historical information like the above quoted description of a quite notable grave.

The cemetery is at road level, and the iron fencing is bent and broken in spots – the unfortunate result of auto accidents on Germantown Avenue. It’s a very busy road, and apparently has been since the 1680s! Certain grave markers have actually been damaged by cars, if you can believe that. Though restoration efforts continue, many stones toward the back of the cemetery are toppled over, graffittied, and surrounded by empty beer cans. Sections of fence are missing all along the Phil Ellena Street side of the cemetery, inviting delinquents and vandals.

Axe's Burial Ground, Germantown
The ”Battle of Germantown” could actually be a current descriptor for the area’s fight to keep itself from totally collapsing under the weight of crime and urban blight. While the neighborhoods on Germantown Avenue are not horrible, they’re close. St. Michaels is just up the road from Germantown High School, where other battles rage - the students here have been known to beat up the teachers. The area around St. Luke’s is a bit safer, but not by much. It’s situated kind of between St. Michael’s and the more famous Axe’s Burial Ground further down Germantown Avenue. That area is definitely sketchy. The fortress-like wall around the burial ground thwarts vandals and has been painted with anti-graffiti paint.

A few years ago I pulled the car over to duck into a nearby package store for a cold six-pack, and was stunned to see the Asian clerk looking at me from behind bullet-proof glass. After taking my beer from behind the spinning security door, I walked out onto the avenue toward my car. Now realize that this is broad daylight on a warm Saturday afternoon. A well-dressed African-American gentleman in his seventies stopped me. In a hushed voice, he said, “Son, you really don’t want to be here.”

Times change, don’t they? While I found no additional hourglass-and-crossbones carvings in St. Michael’s cemetery, I was rather shocked to come upon a giant Roman-numeralled clock face lying amidst some stones – its bent metal hands and motor mechanism strewn across the grass. Luckily no one was standing here photographing the tombstones when it blew out of the clock tower above our heads. Time flies. After photographing the remains of the timepiece, it just got too cold to continue. Frozen on this late January day, with both my memory card and bladder full, we all beat a hasty retreat from St. Michaels’ for some winter ales and hot soup at McMenamin’s pub, a ways up Germantown Avenue, to contemplate life and all its quirks.

References and Further Reading:
Germantown Avenue (Philadelphia City Paper, 2003)