Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What's Buried in that Graveyard?

I mean, besides the obvious stuff. I was rather shocked to find out from a cemetery grounds keeper friend of mine some of the things that he and his workers find on the grounds. Now, I’m not talking about some abandoned graveyard out in the woods, but rather a nice well-kept, city cemetery. The cemetery in question is large enough that visitors can easily drive a little way and be out of sight of the people in the office.

When you or I walk through the occasional cemetery, we’re not inclined to notice something that was not there yesterday – a small mound of dirt, an item sticking out of the ground. But people whose job it is to care for the monuments, the stones, and the grounds DO notice such things. And they’ll typically remove them.

Voodoo doll, Atlantic City Cemetery
The typical voodoo dolls are found, to be sure, along with the dead chickens. I’ve seen these too, but there are creepier things. One time my friend saw something sticking up a bit out of the ground near a grave. Upon investigation, he pulled out a three by ten-inch parcel wrapped in a scarf. He was curious, so he unwrapped it. Inside were two face-to-face Barbie-type dolls, naked, with coins and pieces of broken mirror between them.  One had a pin stuck in her.   

Another time, he found a plastic shopping bag full of dead headless chickens – in full feather − with a note tied on saying “Neptune.” He assumed this was done by one of these whackos whose job it is to warn us about space aliens – until he read in the newspaper the following week about Yvon Neptune, Haiti’s imprisoned Prime Minister. Probably had to do with that governments’ (2004) crackdown on voodoo priestesses (I’m not making this up!).

Snake Handle, compliments of Angela Dellutri Photography
Then of course there was the jar of dead snakes he found, swishing around in some liquid, the large jar just sitting on a headstone. All of this stuff, obviously related to voodoo spells, curses and conjures. According to, "Snakes are a common subject in the realm of hoodoo and folk magic. Their uses range the gamut from good luck to retribution, and the omens assigned to them as equally as varied." Now keep in mind, this was not in New Orleans, it was in Philadelphia. Whatever the locale, a graveyard is a popular place for voodoo practitioners to enlist the aid of spirits (of the dead) to help with spells. (Check out this video posted by one intrepid cemetery explorer, and see what he found in a cemetery in New York City!)

Even more disturbing than finding snakes in a jar must  have been when the cemetery groundskeeper at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California found the human hearts in a jar in 2010. (You can read about that in more detail in one of my previous blogs, "Human Hearts Found in Jars in Cemetery.")
"Police opened up one jar and found a human heart with the photo of a young man and woman pinned to it. Nearby was a second jar with the same contents, but bearing a photo of a different young man and woman. Officers also found partially burned cigars and candles…"
-The Oakland Tribune, 10/22/2010
Though I’ve never personally found snakes or hearts in jars, I started thinking about the weird stuff I have come across in fifteen years of cemetery travel, and wondered what other people had found. So I began a Facebook Group called “Unusual Cemetery Objects,” and encouraged people to post their findings. I was kind of hoping to tap into the experience of the cemetery groundskeeper, but so far, they are a shy bunch. I assume this is partly because cemetery managers would rather not make it known to the general public that jars of snakes had been found buried on the grounds. Still I encourage those people to add such findings to the comments at the end of this blog – if you’d rather maintain anonymity, email me and I will add your comments.

So this blog’s title phrase “buried in a graveyard” can also refer to found objects only figuratively buried, i.e. hidden from the public eye. When I asked people about the “Unusual Cemetery Objects,” they’d found, I did get some unexpected responses. While people certainly photograph odd-looking monuments and casket vaults, they typically don’t photograph the surprising things they come upon, like homeless people or nude model shoots (both of which are fairly common).

Here is a list of a few things people posted on my Facebook Group page, “Unusual Cemetery Objects:”
  •          stack of blankets and a comforter in a bricked in plot (homeless people apparently camped there)
  •          bullet holes in ceramic death portraits
  •          helium balloons tied to headstones in Scotland
  •         a dead body … came across police investigating the body of a dead prostitute
  •          a music video shoot with model and fog machine  [popular with the Goth set – ed.]
  •         a casket key         skeleton gloves in a trash can
  •         a headstone where a local serial killer scratched his name on the back
  •         grass that won’t grow on a plot
  •          the top of a skull in a pit in Pere Lachaise
  •         goat’s head
  •          Someone ELSE putting flowers on YOUR loved one’s grave!
That last one might just be the most unnerving! Which goes to show that there’s a world of life in cemeteries that we don’t normally see.

Headstones appear inside fallen tree!
When I read one person’s comment about the skull at Pere Lachaise, I was reminded of the human teeth I found in the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. I scooped up a handful of the gravelly walkway material because I thought it looked like broken up seashells, which it was, mostly, but there were also a half dozen teeth in my hand! (Once you learn about the above-ground burial techniques common in the area, you realize this is not unusual. But still ….)

Stuffed lynx (or perhaps an ocelot?) with garden furniture inside mausoleum!
Dead fox, Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Phila.
I’ve seen animals in cemeteries, live and dead. And bones. Bones are a strange thing to find in a graveyard, which is kind of funny and ironic when you think about it. I once found a pile of animal bones in the shape of the skeletons of the animals, probably wild dogs. They laid there along with three skulls of roughly the same size. They either fought each other to the death or this was the ancient wild pit bull burial ground.

Who knows what evil lurks?
One of the oddest things I ever saw in a graveyard was a freshly-dug, two-foot-square cement-filled hole, with a dog's footprints in the cement! This was among other graves in an abandoned cemetery. Kind of reminded me of an old, hand-painted plywood sign that used to be on the fence at Evergreen Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, which said, "No unauthorized burials permitted."

But really, what’s the worst possible thing you can find in a graveyard? Yeah, the hearts in a jar was pretty gruesome, but compared to the horrible things living people do to each other, it’s nothing.


Thanks to Angela Dellutri for the use of her Snake Door Handle photograph.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Stuck in a Photographic Rut

I was in the supermarket a couple weeks ago with my wife and child when we bumped into a friend of ours. Maria is a photography professor at one of Philadelphia’s art colleges. We’ve been friends for several years and I greatly admire her work as well as the historical retrospective photography exhibits (link at end) she has produced and curated.

She told me how much she enjoys reading this blog. I was grateful, a bit embarrassed, and curiously, I began to feel guilty for not spending much time writing about photography. (I also feel guilty about not updating my website in forever!) 

"Rocky's" deceased wife, Adrian
I started thinking about the fact that in my blog, I’ve gravitated toward using photography as a means of documenting things, to prove I was there – the real world. Originally, I would write about a particular fine art photograph that I made, how I made it or perhaps the details related to my bringing it into existence. Now, the photographs at times do no more than punctuate my words. As a result, my photography recently has become more journalistic than fine art. The images are not exactly snap-shoddy, but they have veered off my intended path. While it’s true that I’ve continued to enter some juried art shows and attend events to sell my work, these mainly involve older images.

Available at
I suppose I could just continue the documentary-style photography and hope someone will archive it all into a book like Michael Lesy did with Charles Van Schaick’s Wisconsin Death Trip. But I REALLY like making fine art photographs! It’s a way of creating fantasy out of reality for me. So how do I get back on track with what I truly like to do? Or better yet, achieve a better balance between the fine art images and the documentary photos?

I began thinking about a presentation that my friend Maria made a few years ago to the Photographic Society of Philadelphia. The presentation was a slide show and lecture about her recent trip to Italy. Maria creates wonderful fine art photography. Her images in the presentation, however, were travelogue photos of the Italian countryside and its people. Hers are the type of travel snapshots you would expect a seasoned professional photographer to take. Maybe I need to hone this skill.

"Death" in the English Cemetery
Travel, of course, is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. I was in Italy too, a few years ago, but only came back with tombstone photographs! While the English Cemetery in Florence was beautiful, perhaps I should have looked at the rest of the beauty around me. (If you’re a cemetery photographer, by the way, Italian sculpture has everything else beat!)

Get Out of Your Element

Making photographs outside your usual stomping grounds is certainly a good way to get your creative juices flowing. However, you don’t need to travel all the way to another country for a change of scenery – often such new experiences appear in your own back yard. For example, I attended the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood recently to enjoy the festival and take photographs. Even if a certain kind of art is not your forte (e.g. building bicycle-powered vehicles), you can still get ideas from other people’s creativity. After seeing the Amish buggy, I realized that I should make a trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see what Amish graves look like. Hmmm. Never even thought about that! In addition to the wonderful vehicles, the woman standing next to me in the crowd was a member of the Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia, a group of artists who create art out of trash (I’d always wondered what those people looked like!). When you talk with artists who work in a different medium, your own creativity can be stimulated.

If you feel like you’re in a rut and want to get out, there are all sorts of catalysts standing by, waiting for your call. Travel is just one of them. A photographer can learn things by hanging out with other photographers, but why limit yourself? While I certainly expect to learn some new things when I attend the AGS (Association for Gravestone Studies) conference next month, I already live in this world. It’s useful to jump the rails and land in an entirely different sphere every so often. You can learn things from wildly disparate sources, like seeing how the arts and crafters display their wares at art shows and talking with painters and sculptors about how they create. Such experiences help you see things from a different perspective. Everyone has artistic skills to share – for instance, I’ve gotten useful get tips about marketing my work from a friend who is a competitive BBQ chef.

Amish zombies at Kinetic Sculpture Race
Not being an academically-trained artist, I need all the help I can get. In my quest to create more of a balance between my documentary photography and my fine art work, I like to refer to those who have gone before me, to learn from their experience as well as my own. A reference I recently stumbled upon is Deanna Wood’s “Emerging Artist” blog. She has an archive called “Helpful Posts” which covers many of the anxiety-producing details that artists find themselves dealing with. Topics include “Hanging Artwork,” “Writing an Artist’s Statement,” “How Galleries Choose Artists,” and my personal favorite, “Rejection.” Since you REALLY would like nothing more than to just create your art, it’s helpful to have these essential things laid bare in front of you. Eliminating the guess-work of the real world helps me to concentrate more on my make-believe world.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Vote for Woodlawn Cemetery!

Over the years I’ve visited Woodlawn Cemetery in New York’s Bronx borough a few times, and it is a magnificent place. If you’re a cemetery photographer, it is a must-see. It’s one of the first cemeteries I found myself accidentally locked in, and oddly, the first cemetery I later intentionally allowed myself to be locked in, just so I could photograph the magnificent statuary! (Read more about that at the link below.)

For me the cemetery brought about other firsts – the first grandly opulent cemetery I’d ever seen where the statuary, landscaping, and mausoleums were laid out (pun intended) to breathtaking effect. It was all so precise yet natural − the first classical ‘garden’ cemetery I’d seen that was in such perfect condition. Woodlawn was also the site of my first paranormal cemetery experience (and you can read about that here), brought on by my desire to photograph this angel statue. 

The gargoyle detail you see above is from the cemetery's Belmont mausoleum (near the Jerome Avenue gate) - arguably one of the most fascinating mausoleums on the planet. It is a full-scale replica of the Chapel of St. Hubert in France, designed by Leonardo Da Vinci in the “Gothic Flamboyant” style in the early 1500s. The structure is the size of a small church and was the reason for my accidental lock-in all those years ago.

I’m telling you all this for two reasons: 1) you should visit; and 2) Woodlawn is competing with forty other New York City sites for a grant award to help with funding and restoration projects – and they can use your vote!

The cemetery is participating in the Partners In Preservation program, an initiative to give away three million dollars in New York City. Sponsored by  American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Partners in Preservation is a community-based program which provides preservation grants for local historic places. If you’ve ever been to Woodlawn and experienced its splendor, you’ll want to vote for them! So please take a moment to do so now: Vote!

Woodlawn Cemetery website
Read: Locked in and Climbing Out
Read: Voices in the Cemetery

Thursday, May 3, 2012

2nd Anniversary of "The Cemetery Traveler!"

Well, it’s been two years since I began writing The Cemetery Traveler blog. That’s most of my two-and-a-half year-old daughter’s lifetime – a fact that puts all that work into startling perspective for me. I’ve posted 120 articles and have 144 regular subscriber/followers. I greatly appreciate the fact that you’re reading this and hope you will continue. 

Daughter Olivia at Laurel Hill Cemetery
After 120 blog postings, you might think I’ve run out of material, especially since these postings have not been just a photo and a few sentences. They’ve been more substantial than even I expected they would be. The articles began as short pieces, but then the content took on a life of its own. I began to get carried away – the blogs started to read like mid-career Dickens. Frankly I’m surprised they held peoples’ attention. But readers responded. In blog comments and private emails, they expressed opinions. Many of the most commented-on pieces were about abandoned cemeteries.

When I started The Cemetery Traveler, my intent was mostly to recount my past experiences traipsing through the graveyards of America (and Europe), camera in tow. However, through Facebook I’ve encountered new ideas, new friends, and made new excursions. I’ve written (or will write) about a variety of people with whom I’ve had interactions in reference to my blog – a psychic, a film maker, descendants of people whose graves I’ve photographed, Andy Warhol’s niece and nephew, Victorian-era and Civil War re-enactors, and fellow writers. I’ve also met new companion adventurers (or ‘gravers,’ as we’re sometimes called!).

Ed's photograph in "175 Years of Reflections"

On rare occasion, I actually wrote about photography (e.g. my blog about ‘painting with light’ in a cemetery at night). This past year saw the publication of the book, 175 Years of Reflections, Laurel Hill Cemetery, which one of my photographs was chosen to be in. The book celebrates Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery and its 175th anniversary.

Abandoned Cemeteries

Probably one of the least expected results of the The Cemetery Traveler blog has been my interest in helping to restore abandoned and run-down cemeteries around Philadelphia .

Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia
Initially, I started exploring and photographing them like they were carnival sideshow attractions. However, my postings generated quite a bit of heated discussion, mostly from the “how could they let this happen” crowd, but also from descendants of people buried in those cemeteries! I received messages like this (related to Philadelphia’s gigantic abandoned Mt. Moriah Cemetery):

"Mount Moriah holds different emotions for different people. I have family here. As a child in the 70s, I actually played and rode my bicycle with my friends in this place. The people buried here need people to speak for them and try to undo the damage that has been done to them. Help us to do that with your lens. And if you are adventurous, come to a clean-up. They are inspiring and lets those buried here that someone still gives a damn."

Primarily as a result of people commenting on my blogs, I have participated in several clean-up days, and the comment is correct – the work is inspiring.

Tombstone under Betsy Ross Bridge
I also received many comments and emails about the destruction of Monument Cemetery (Philadelphia, 1956), and the unceremonious dumping of its thousands of headstones into the Delaware River. I received dozens of emails from descendants, looking for traces of their ancestors. The stones can still be seen under the Betsy Ross Bridge (at low tide), so I photographed them, and added the names, dates, and photos of the stones to the online database at, as suggested by one reader, whose initial comment to me was:

"While their graves may never be found, their information would be of great interest to family, historians, and genealogists."

The majority of comments  related to the destruction of Monument Cemetery were of this nature:

"I came across your site while trying to locate this cemetery so I could visit my ancestors' tombstones, as many of them were buried at Monument. I feel a bit sick realizing they're now in a mass grave and their tombstones have been dumped like this."

"I join many of those who are horrified that this could have happened in Philadelphia during the 1950's.  It seems so disrespectful and almost sinister in that advertisements were not required to be made in the newspapers if relatives could not be reached.....I think my family, especially my grandmother would have rallied the family (a large one) to relocate the graves of her mother, aunt and grandparents.  I gave a presentation of our family history at our reunion a year ago and my generation was horrified at what we discovered about the cemetery."
Opinions on the travesty of Monument Cemetery ran to the other extreme as well:

"I understand that moving a cemetery for parking seems crass, but the world belongs to the living and the not-yet-living - and Temple [University] has been and remains the most-affordable, best-hope for higher Education in Philadelphia. Isn't that worth more than a decaying cemetery?"

Some people were upset that I wrote about the cemeteries in their neighborhoods in a sensationalistic way. It got peoples’ attention, though, didn’t it? I am sure it helped with public awareness and the need to restore, rehab, and care for what we have.

What’s on The Cemetery Traveler’s  event horizon?

So what is on The Cemetery Traveler’s event horizon for "Year Three" of the blog? Well, a few things.

  • Publish a book of selections of essays from The Cemetery Traveler blog. I expect this to be available in about six months, with eBook versions on Nook  and Kindle. I have to thank the observant reader who commented on this photo a while back, “This photo screams ‘Book Cover’!”
  • Pay closer attention to comments made and emails sent by my readers, as your feedback adds another dimension to my writing. That said,  I’ve not been prompt with my replies. I’ll do better – or at least the best I can with two-and-a-half year-old vying for my attention! 
  • More travel! I plan to have a vendor table at the AGS (Association for Gravestone Studies) Conference in West Long Branch, New Jersey on June 22, 2012. Hope to become a member and interact with the conference attendees. I’m also planning to visit some of the historic cemeteries in Charlotte, North Carolina next month.
In Conclusion…

An advantage the living have over the dead:  we can go to sleep at the end of a long day, then wake up and do it all over again. So, shall I keep on writing? In the words of author/screenwriter S.J. Perelman, “To the fiery temperament, decision is consonant with action.” In other words, I intend to continue shooting off my mouth without thinking. Stay tuned – all shall be revealed.