Thursday, August 30, 2012

Jersey Shore Cemetery

What’s a summer beach vacation without a stop at a cemetery? Even when I take my family to the Jersey shore, I map out a local cemetery to visit. Now, Long Beach Island (South Jersey) has no graveyards to my knowledge, so you must head inland a bit. The town of Manahawkin on Route 9 in Ocean County is right on the mainland just before you hit the causeway out to the island. There are half a dozen small old graveyards between Manahawkin and Tuckerton, five miles south on Route 9. I figured that on Saturday morning, I’d get up before my wife and daughter, drive over and do some shooting.

So on Friday night, I told Jill I’d be heading out early the next morning to do some photography. She said she noticed that I was all shpilkas (Yiddish term for having ants in one’s pants) and looked like I needed to get it out of my system. I got my camera gear ready and set my alarm for six a.m. It feels most insane to wake up that early when you’re on vacation. 

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, Beach Haven, New Jersey

When I awoke, I was surprised to see that the sun hadn’t yet risen! Can’t really make photographs without light, now can we? So I decided to go out to the beach and shoot the sunrise while I was waiting. (Here's a secret: I’ve made far more sunset photographs than sunrise ones.) It was quite a magnificent display that the summer sun presented about ten minutes later, here over the Atlantic Ocean. Took a few shots, sighed with awe at nature's majesty, then jumped into the car. There were tasks at hand. I only had two hours and still had to score coffee and a bun somewhere, creep the eight miles up the island at 25 mph, and tear across the causeway and Barnegat Bay at high speed.

Long Beach Island (LBI) really hasn’t changed much in the twenty-five years since I brought my first brood of children here. Quaint little shops and a family-oriented atmosphere, very few amusements and no boardwalk − totally unlike Wildwood and Atlantic City to its south. In fact, LBI seems to be the cutoff point between the north Jersey shore (with Asbury Park and Point Pleasant) and the south Jersey shore. Architecture changes drastically, vacationers are different. It’s much quieter and cleaner to the north. You begin to notice the change fairly quickly as you head north on Route 9 past Manahawkin.

Odd Fellows "FLT" symbol
Lighthouse engraving
As I hit town, I realized that over the years, I had passed Manahawkin’s Greenwood Cemetery so many times that my memories are worn (as John Prine says in his song Paradise). However, I never stopped there. Always had a carload of kids, or something. Times change. 

The front name fencing of this rural cemetery was bathed in the early rays from the sunrise − quite nice edge-of-the-day light with which to make photographs.  I like those sign fences, or whatever they’re called. I parked my wife’s Toyota RAV4 in the center of the small, football field-sized cemetery, got out and quickly surveyed the place. Only had an hour until I needed to head back to Beach Haven (I swear, that’s really the name of the town where we were staying), pick up Jill and Olivia (our three-year-old daughter), and head out to breakfast. Until then, I’d enjoy the quiet solitude of this Victorian seashore graveyard.

Plot borders at Greenwood Cemetery
The ground throughout the cemetery was sandy, with sparse grass. There were trees and old iron fencing at the front, the land grassier toward the back. There were strange, yet carefully delineated family plots throughout – all well-maintained. The borders were generally just low marble or concrete curbing with white gravel or sand over the graves. I couldn’t really do these justice with a photograph, so click my friend Kimberly Killeri’s video for a better idea of what I’m talking about (the video is interesting in its attention to detail). Greenwood offers just one angel statue at the back, but this lovely graveyard has many other things to offer gravers and taphophiles.

As I munched my glazed donut and set my convenience store coffee cup down on a tombstone, I noticed the odd little zinc medallion you see at left. I shot it and did a bit of research later. Remember the Boston Tea Party (1773)? Well, the "S and D of L" were responsible for that. The name "Sons and Daughters of Liberty" was given to the secret clubs of marauding American patriots that threatened the British ruling authority prior to 1776. Up and down the eastern seaboard, this "private band of societies provided an intercolonial network that would help forge unity" through "extralegal means" (reference:

Another interesting thing I stumbled on (literally) was this set of stones at the front of Greenwood Cemetery. "Friend?" How close a "friend" would you say? This was not the family name, by the way. There was a large monument among these stones with that name one it.

Roaming around, I found several interesting decorative items, offerings, lighthouse carvings on stones, and so on. But, you know how every once in a while you find some REALLY unusual piece of architecture or statue that just produces utter delight? This was the case for me when I found this amazing little cast iron gate! It was swung partly open, and may have been like that for years – or at least since the last coastal storm. It bore the family name and date, along with a splendid harp design below. I don't believe I've ever seen one like it in person, though I'd seen vintage photos of them from cemeteries of the late 1800s.

All too soon, I'm tearing back over the causeway, the morning sun blazing as I drive past the weird Jersey signs, the custard stands, fudge shacks, the “Pottery  Barge.” I'm blasting Izzy Stradlin's G'n'R version of the Stones' Dead Flowers on the car stereo, feeling good about another successful adventure in a new cemetery. But I face another challenge: fighting the breakfast crowd at Uncle Will’s Pancake House.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Odd Decision by the Odd Fellows Cemetery

Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia certainly has a look of abandonment about it. Locked gate, shoulder-high weeds, statues peeking out from the trees. Photographers have been trying to get inside for years, but it’s just been next to impossible. The absentee-owner seems to fear publicity and resists any request for entry unless you want to buy a plot. How the people who have loved ones buried here (and that includes the famous Barrymore theatrical family, among them actress Drew Barrymore’s grandfather) tolerate the conditions is beyond me.

So it was not a surprise when someone at a local photography show told me a few weeks ago that there was a “condemned” sign on one of the buildings. (People always come to me with juicy cemetery tidbits.) So a few days later, I zoomed up there (31st Street and Lehigh Avenue) to check it out. I drove around the cemetery perimeter only to find the orange “Notice of Demolition” sign taped to the window of the gatehouse belonging to the cemetery next door, Mount Peace, sometimes known as the Odd Fellows Cemetery. 

A big old brick and wooden structure, the gatehouse seemed to be in much better condition than the actual inhabited row homes across the street. The sign said that demolition of the house would begin on or about July 31, 2012. The yard was dug up and “Caution” tape was strung across the front porch. The inside of the old house, which had been used as the cemetery office, was in obvious disrepair. A trailer sat in the yard, looking like the demolition work crew’s headquarters. (Here’s an old photo of the house on the Odd Fellows Cemetery website

Estate House at Odd Fellows' Mount Peace Cemetery, Philadelphia
From the Mount Peace website, a bit of history:

“The Odd Fellows Cemetery Company of Philadelphia was incorporated in 1849 when the population of Philadelphia was only 400,000. The original Odd Fellows Cemetery was located on Diamond Street, between 23rd and 24th Streets. Due to Philadelphia's population growth, in 1865 the Cemetery Company purchased grounds for a second cemetery. This 50 acre tract was purchased from an estate named "Mount Peace" and is located at what is now 31st Street and Lehigh Avenue. The cemetery maintained the estate name for Mount Peace Cemetery.”

One can assume the house was the original “Mount Peace” estate house, which means it was built prior to 1865. Though the house looked to be in great shape externally, what interested and concerned me at least as much as the house was the possible plight and fate of its surrounding ironwork – the black iron fencing, main gate, and “Mount Peace” sign. I hoped this would remain intact. Philadelphia is known for some truly magnificent historical ironwork, and this fencing must have quite an historical pedigree.

For intricate ironwork, the swirls on each side of the entrance pillars are nothing short of amazing. These and the wrought iron vertical extensions of the pillars (to which the cemetery name sign is connected) appear to be truly unique among Philadelphia cemeteries. I spent about an hour photographing just the ironwork.

The huge house appeared to contain the office, with a garage and extension off the back to hold construction equipment. I was curious as to what was going on so I phoned Lawnview Cemetery, who owns Mount Peace (also known as the old Odd Fellows Cemetery). I was told the house was indeed being demolished but the ironwork would remain. The trailer, according to the person to whom I spoke will replace the old house! Interesting how the company boasts "Historical Pride" on its website; however, I suppose there may be a good reason to wipe away all traces of the historic home.

Looking out cemetery gate onto Lehigh Avenue
A few days later, I posted a photo of the soon-to-be-demolished house on Facebook, and get a flurry of irate and incensed responses in the “How could they do such a thing?” vein. One person suggested I contact the Philadelphia Historic Commission and Preservation Alliance (for Greater Philadelphia). So I posted info on both their Facebook sites and received zero response. Quite a shame to lose this wonderful piece of architectural history.

References and Further Reading:

Mount Peace/Lawnview website
Read peoples' comments on Ed Snyder’s Facebook page 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cemetery Photography Gone Mainstream?

I was rather surprised to find an article in the August 2012 issue of Popular Photography entitled "Plot Shots  – Cemeteries, where heavenly photos await." Written by Jeff Wignall, the article is interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it reinforces what many of us have known for years – that cemeteries provide a “rich mix of interesting photo subjects.” In addition, it’s written to appeal to the “travel photographer.” One of the best ways to stimulate photographic creativity is to put yourself in a fresh new setting – different things just look more interesting than familiar things.

August 2012 issue
Accompanying the single-page article (on page 40) is an image of the famous “weeping angel” statue, photographed by Laura McElroy. I assume the statue was located at the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans (Chapman H. Hyams Tomb), since that’s where the article says McElroy shoots extensively. The Atlanta-based photographer describes angels as her favorite subject, though she finds there to be many other types of cemetery statuary that allow her to  evoke the emotions of “mystery, sadness, curiosity, or hope.”

I checked McElroy’s ATL Flickr site and found the published image (which you can see here with several other fine examples of her work). 

As a travel article, the piece mentions several of the “most photographed” cemeteries in the United States. These include: Forest Lawn in Glendale, CA, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, NY, Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, MA, and St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans. Having been to all but Graceland, I would concur that these are certainly top choices.

"Weeping Angel"
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t live close to any of these places. You might be surprised to find that most any cemetery can provide, as the article says, “a very calm, creative, and serene experience.” (In addition, you can find replicas of the weeping angel just about anywhere, including Conshohocken, PA, of all places, where I made the photo at left!). The author states that “Wherever people live (and die), you will find cemeteries.” True enough, but for my money, the most interesting cemeteries in the United States are in Baltimore, Maryland! They’re not as flashy as the ones listed in this article, but they have their own personality and would provide any cemetery photographer with YEARS of photographic stimulation! 

McElroy makes two interesting comments, providing us with some photographic ideas:
  1. On All Saints Day (November 1) in New Orleans, “family members practice the tradition of whitewashing tombs and, at nightfall, lighting candles on them. 
  2. When photographing in a cemetery, “keep working until you have taken six distinctly different shots of your subject.

    Fine suggestions, both of these. I like the idea of forcing yourself to take six different shots; this seems like it would help you to concentrate on good composition. Many of us get swept up in the moment when we find a cool sculpture or monument. We just fire away and end up with a mundane snapshot or a typical postcard photo. So, are all kinds of amateur photographers going to be running out to our favorite graveyards and getting in our way? Will they crowd New Orleans "cities of the dead" to capture images like EcElroy's wonderful photo of the candlelit graveyard? I doubt it. While Freud famously said that sex and death are our greatest drives, death remains much more taboo in Western society. Unlike with sex, most people prefer to marvel at death from afar.

    The Weeping Angel statue photographed by McElroy and reproduced in the Popular Photography article is one of many replicas of the original “Angel of Grief” sculpture by William Wetmore Story. The original was sculpted an 1894 and serves as the grave stone of the artist and his wife at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy. I, myself have photographed several versions of this amazing statue, including this one at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, CA. Check this Wikipedia link to see where the many replicas reside!

    Further Reading and References:

    Read more about the Hyams Angel of Grief and the New Orleans mausoleum in which it resides.

    My adventure tracking down the Cypress Lawn "Angel of Grief" in my Cemetery Traveler blog posting, "Colma Cemeteries and Points Beyond."

    Wednesday, August 8, 2012

    My Grandmother's Grave

    Last week I wrote in The Cemetery Traveler about visiting the graves of my Mom’s “lost” siblings (see link at end to revisit that story). This week will be a continuation of that odyssey. On the same day, after visiting Evergreen Cemetery in Shavertown, Pennsylvania, where my mom’s two brothers and sister are buried, my mom, my brother Tim, and I drove across the Susquehanna River into one of the south Wilkes-Barre suburbs, Hanover, to visit her mom’s (my grandmother) grave.

    Anna Jones does not have a gravestone. According to my mom, my deceased father didn’t want to spend the money. So all we had to go on for locating her grave in Hanover Green Cemetery was my mom’s memory and a deed to a double plot. If memory failed, we could ask in the office. Why did we not know where it was? My father was not interested in my mother’s family and actually would not allow her to visit her mother’s grave. I don’t know how long it had been since my mother was last here – but my grandmother died in 1964. 

    Zinc Memorial at Hanover Green
    After driving around in the rain to the area in which my mom thought the grave was, we gave up as she did not recall any familiar landmarks. I myself had some notion that I had been there before, but you know me – my memory’s so good I can remember things whether they happened or not. So I grabbed the deed and told my mom and brother I would go ask in the office. My mom said she could never do that, afraid that the office workers might think, “What kind of daughter is this? She doesn’t even know where her own mother is buried!  I told her not to worry, that I’d go in by myself with the deed and find out. 

    I had never examined a deed to a grave before. I found it interesting that the cost of the two side-by-side plots in 1964 was only $150! One hundred dollars for the graves and fifty for perpetual care. In comparison, in case you're wondering, forty-eight years later in 2012 a plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia will set you back $5,000!

    The fellow behind the desk was very helpful and accommodating. I showed him the deed and he began looking it up in his computer database. I strolled over to a big plot map on the wall and located the two plots in question, # 1017 and 1018. I pointed this out to him but he dismissed the map as being inaccurate. After about ten minutes, he pinpointed the plots and led me outside. It was raining, so he sprinted across the grounds and we were to follow after I collected my mom and brother Tim from the car (Tim graciously chauffeured us around all that day).

    My Mom at Hanover "Green"
    Upon our arrival, we found the cemetery guy standing on a large open spot covered in ratty brown grass. Not a very picturesque place. He said, “I knew where the spot was because of the plots next to yours.” We thanked him and he returned to the office. My mom said she thought he would be “old and bent over.” “Sort of a John Carradine-type character?” I asked. She laughed and agreed. Life is full of irony and contradictions (take Red Bull smoothies, for instance).

    Brother Tim and our Mom
    We didn’t spend much time there, as there was nothing to see but the ground under which my grandmother was buried. My mom said, “I remember you could see houses down the hill from her grave, so this must be it.” She told me later that she said a little prayer as we began to walk away. 

    I don’t know what the prayer was, but it just might have been answered − as we headed back to the car, we looked up under our rain-soaked umbrellas and saw the cemetery guy running toward us with a big rolled-up map in his hand. He stopped before us and said, “I’m sorry, that’s not your mother’s plot.” Ouch. Though the photo below wasn't taken at that moment, my brother's look of surprise shows how we all must have felt!

    "You showed us the wrong grave ...?"
    He told us he would take us to the correct spot so we followed him across the cemetery in the car, back to the original area where my mom thought the grave was! Which, coincidentally, was the same area the map on the wall showed. So much for databases. I was a bit perturbed, but still, we would not have found it without him. He explained the mistake in the database and apologized again.

    Here’s a photo of the double plot, with the cemetery worker standing on Anna's grave. Doesn't look like much, but it now has deep meaning for all of us. We stood there for a few minutes after he left, and I asked my mom if she’d like to get a stone made for her mother’s grave. She replied, “Maybe a small one – they’re so expensive.” So I’ll look into that. 

    I pretty much spent the first six years of my life with my grandmother Anna - she died when I was six. I kind of remember the viewing and funeral. My father worked in the mines at the time and my mother worked in a factory, so my mom would drop me off at my grandparents’ apartment every morning. I really liked spending the day with them, Anna and Daniel, Grandma and Grandpop  – I even remember the layout of their apartment. I had a big bag of toys by the television. My mom said that Anna treated me like a king. I was their only grandchild. My brother was born shortly before she died in 1964. Our sister Donna Lee was born in 1966, so she never knew Anna. Before we left Anna’s grave, my mom said, “I’m glad she got to hold Tim before she died.” 

    Plaque at Hanover Green
    I like Hanover Green Cemetery. It's low key and in a pleasant, quiet neighborhood. The cemetery’s founding pre-dates the Declaration of Independence by a month – June 9, 1776 – which I think will make it a fitting final resting spot for my mom when the time comes. In a way, a final declaration of her own independence from my father, who is buried twenty miles away.

    Related Link:
    "Graves of Lost Siblings" blog posting