Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Evergreen for the Holidays

For a totally joyless experience, drive or walk through an abandoned cemetery at Christmas time. That said, I waited until New Year’s Day to take a drive through Camden, New Jersey’s Evergreen Cemetery  (an ironic name if ever there was one). I'd like to say that it is old, elegant, and beautifully restored, but such is not the case. A wreck of a graveyard, the shock of its graffiti-painted roadways are only eclipsed by sunken graves into which you can see ancient brick vaults and exposed wooden coffins.

A light, intermittent rain is hurrying to go nowhere, the wan sky casting an even illumination on the busted monuments. I expected to take some photos out the car window or through the rainy glass, making all blurry and cool images (but I forgot to do that). One thing that threw my concentration was the fact that the workshed door was ajar.

Note bike at lower right in photo
I’d never before seen this small cinderblock building open. As I drove by, I could see it was empty, except for a bicycle. Two scraggly artificial Xmas wreaths hung awkwardly off the edges of the wire door corners. Huh. I drove past, getting out to photograph the graffiti painted on the driveway in front of it. As I got back in my car, I was startled to see a man in his early thirties come out of the doorway holding the bike. He stood there all nonchalant. As I drove past him, I started to roll down the window to jokingly ask with faux sincerity, “Are you the caretaker?” But I reconsidered  – I could end up on the wrong side of a gun. 

So I slowly drove past, avoiding eye contact. This is always a good tactic as they know you can’t identify them. Camden is the second most dangerous city in America, cemeteries included. City officials and police have stated that massive budget problems and a deteriorating infrastructure have eroded the city's ability to keep the peace. In an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer, one resident summed up Camden's woes with what is surely the scariest quote you'll hear all day, "We don't have any real policing in Camden. They're just out here to pick up the bodies."

Sunken grave, Evergreen Cemetery
I drove around the back of Evergreen, making photographs here and there, when I noticed from across the cemetery the guy with the bike guy was still standing at the entrance of the workshed. Then I noticed another man, about the same age, walking into the cemetery carrying a white plastic bag. Um, there really is no LEGAL reason for two guys to be in an abandoned cemetery in the middle of the day in the RAIN. As I was ready to head out the entrance and leave them to their dealing, I noticed a sunken grave. The earth had collapsed about three feet down and you could see the brick arch of an underground crypt roof – and an old wooden coffin! Well, their business matters would just have to wait. Though I certainly didn’t want to get shot, I needed to get this shot. 

Even in this pseudo-maybe, maybe not really abandoned cemetery, you see leftover Xmas decorations on some of the graves. I saw six small stones in a family row, each with its own wreath and red bow. So relatives still visit decrepit, tumble-down cemeteries. There are still people who care about those who’ve set out ahead of the rest of us. While that doesn’t make the experience joyful, per se, it does to some extent restore one’s faith in humanity. Xmas decorations in a cemetery are like angel statues – they don't do anything for the deceased, but they benefit the living by softening the blow and honoring the memory of those long gone. 

After driving around for another ten minutes, the wind and rain got stronger, so photographically, I stuck a fork in it – I was done. I drove out the gate, past the guy with the plastic bag who was just STANDING inside the cemetery entrance waiting for me to leave. I made sure not to make eye contact. Cemeteries are filled with good discovery. You hang around them and you can’t help but learn things – mostly about yourself.

Further Reading:

Camden runner-up for most dangerous city

 Camden Named 2nd Most Dangerous City in America