Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wintering at Philadelphia's Mt. Moriah Cemetery

I sit in the heated sidewalk enclosure of Tony Luke’s cheese steak shop in deep South Philly, eating what may be the second best breakfast sandwich I ever had. (The first one by the way, also came from Tony Luke’s.) I’m watching the UPS trucks and car haulers take off for their morning runs as I sit inside the warm seating area.

St. Alban's Court
Cold outside, this early winter day, and supposed to get colder and windy. Perfect for an abandoned cemetery run – a hike through the wilderness that is Mount Moriah Cemetery. I pick up my friend Bob, who appropriately lives on St. Alban’s Court in West Philadelphia, where they filmed the movie, The Sixth Sense. Together we’re off to see dead things.

We park at the cemetery’s Cobb’s Creek Parkway entrance, which has been barricaded with concrete highway dividers. Before we begin our exploration around the abandoned mausoleums, I weapon up and load my cameras. This is only Bob’s second time here, so he’s not fully aware of all the things of which to be afraid. I had been told that the city pound confiscated all the wild dogs, but I took my iron ice hook just in case.

Mausoleum Ridge, Mt. Moriah in winter
Summer view of Mausoleum Ridge
As we clambered around inside the circle of mausoleums, I was surprised to see things I’d never seen here before. It’s almost as though the foliage has died a fuller death than usual − in summer, you can hardly see anything for the wildly overgrown bushes and trees, vines and pickers. The pickers and vicious thornage are REALLY what keep you from accessing any of the quaint old headstones and even the grand memorials.

It’s still a wilderness here, even though the city and volunteers spent the entire summer cleaning up portions of the place. Most of the effort had been spent on the Kingsessing Avenue side of Mt. Moriah, with its hundreds of relatively new Muslim graves and its tumble-down gatehouse. So I was surprised to see an entire section (above, Sect. 127, perhaps – see map) on the Cobb’s Creek side cleared of brush and looking the way a cemetery SHOULD look. Not only that, but we found a beautifully cared for family plot nearby, trimmed nicely with Christmas decorations at the top of the hill. This, in the midst of thousands of other graves covered with dead weeds and fallen trees.

As we make our way through the dense underbrush toward the giant rusting hulk of an iron memorial fountain, Bob tells me about growing up in a house surrounded by nine cemeteries. He’s comfortable around (and in) them, but his friends were afraid to go to his house. He’s also used to the dangers of abandoned cemeteries, as he has researched, explored, and photographed many of them in Edinburgh, Scotland. Apparently, many Scottish cemeteries are in the same deplorable condition as Mt. Moriah.

Climbing out of the tangles of vines and dead trees, we entered a clearing, and heard the dogs. Then we saw them. A small pack – three maybe. I tried to photograph them, but when I put the camera up to my eye, they darted into the high dead thicket. The barking continues as vehemently as ever. We head off in the opposite direction and talk about how stun guns and mace are illegal to buy or carry in the city of Philadelphia (though you can buy them in neighboring counties).

Winter is strange here at Mt. Moriah, with all the foliage gone – it’s almost as though you’re looking at the skeletal remains of the cemetery itself. There are hundreds of acres of dense woods shrouding massive marble and granite monuments, but the dirt roads are now walkable after the summer’s big clean-up. These roads weren’t made for giant garbage trucks, however, so the granite coping around some family plots has been scraped and broken. At least one tall granite monument is knocked over. The price of progress – at least all the piles of trash, building materials, and old tires are gone. (Just so you know, it wasn’t the barricades that stopped the illegal dumping – it actually stopped BEFORE the city locked the place down. All thanks to the zeal of one nearby resident who shall remain nameless).

People look at my photos and assume the cemetery is out in the boonies somewhere. Well no, I say, its in a densely populated, yet run down area of Southwest Philadelphia. Its size is estimated to be between 300 and 400 acres – most of which is an overgrown wilderness. A forest filled with all the grandeur of a Victorian cemetery, from the lowliest sweetly sleeping tombstone to massively ornate marble and granite monuments erected for the purpose of remembering God knows who, at this point. Bob points out that with all the negative publicity Mt. Moriah has achieved, those buried here are now remembered for a completely different reason.

Pet carrier, headstones in background
This is only Bob’s second visit to Mt. Moriah. I’ve been here so many times that nothing seems to surprise me. The more you learn about a thing, the less you pay attention, I suppose. For instance, the pet carrier we walked past. I though nothing of it, just Mount Moriah weirdness. Bob, however, deduced that someone had let their small animal loose in the wild, to fend for itself or get eaten by a coyote. He must have a sixth sense about such things. I thought of the small lame dog I saw here once, dragging itself through the weeds. But why leave the carrier here, with the door open? Because the person didn’t want to be seen leaving with an empty animal carrier. Ah.

We spend a few hours first on the Cobb’s Creek side, then make our way over to the Kingsessing Avenue side. I’ve been here so many times I’ve lost my early, wide-eyed reaction to this overgrown wrecked hull of a cemetery.  Still, I’m surprised at the piles of deer droppings here and there. You’d think with the dense woods, this place would be lousy with deer, but I’ve never seen one.

Most of the picker bushes at Mt. Moriah are dead for the season. Those that survive, however, can tear through armor. They are the worst here in the Circle of St. John as we try to navigate around the central marble monument to the Masonic Grand Tyler. It‘s shocking that someone went to the trouble to get all the way in here just to spray paint the monuments. It does seem to be a popular destination – empty beer cans abound and I find a burned American flag on the ground.

We talk about how to restore this place, on a piecemeal basis. When you think hundreds of acres of overgrown woodland, it does seem rather impossible. The place looks more like an improbable act of will than a result of simple neglect. So why aren’t movies being filmed in here? Certainly it would be very difficult to build something like this as a Hollywood movie set. Maybe film producers would think the viewing public would never believe such a place could exist. Why did Philadelphia allow this to happen to an historic landmark? Whatwould the Eiffel Tower look like today if it were in Philadelphia instead of Paris?

More dogs circle us. Great – we’ve got them on both sides. (Why is it that wild animals never attack people you WANT them to attack?) I kind of wanted to move further back to where dense trees hid some quite ornate dynasty plots, but Bob indicated that there were more dogs coming from that direction. I fondle the hook in my large coat pocket, enjoying the menacing power it gives me whenever I touch it. Then it occurs to me that one hook might not be adequate protection if TWO of us are attacked by several dogs. I blithely asked him what he would rather do. He said, we should probably head in the direction of the gatehouse (away from the dogs). I said, well, yeah, that would be the sensible thing to do, but what do you want to do? He was a bit uncomfortable with the proposition so we moved out of harm’s way.

I had this notion of an action hero called “The Hook,” who sits down with Bob at this point and says, “Now listen – this is CEMETERY photography we’re about here,” as our hero, without turning, takes a mighty swipe at a vicious dog leaping through the air toward them. The hook connects, the dog cries and runs off.

We walked toward the back of the crumbling gatehouse, really nothing more than a fa├žade of crumbling brownstone, at this point; the clinging vines actually holding what’s left of the structure together. I spent a few minutes photographing the statue of Father Time behind it while Bob investigated the ruins of the gatehouse. “Looks like they’ve cleaned this place up a bit,” he said, noting the absence of broken tombstones, piles of old tires, and assorted garbage.

A few minutes later he came walking toward me and I asked him if he wanted to go around to photograph the front of the gatehouse. He said, “I don’t think so − someone has taken up residence in there.” Yikes. Bet that guy hasn’t had a Tony Luke’s breakfast sandwich in a while. So we headed off back in the direction of my car, a good twenty-minute walk across the cemetery. The weather turned windy and colder as I thought about Philadelphia’s upcoming Homicide Parade, meant to lament the city’s Big 300 murder rate for 2011. Yay.

Gatehouse at Kingsessing Ave., Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Thanks to Bob Reinhardt, Tom Bera, and Donna for their inspiration in helping me write this article.