Saturday, March 10, 2012

"The Lonely Bones" (A Film)

Last week a good friend sent me the following one-line email: “Since you like cemeteries … a brother of a friend did this.” Attached was a press release announcing the world premier of a film called, The Lonely Bones. Apparently Dave knew the film maker’s brother, and although Dave didn't realize it, I knew the film maker.

Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ
A year or so ago I drove into the pseudo-abandoned Evergreen Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, only to find a man and a teenage boy (turned out to be his son) near the entrance working a video camera on a tall tripod. Given the fact that during recent visits to Evergreen, I’ve either avoided drug dealers or have been propositioned by prostitutes, this was a welcome change. 

Johnson Cemetery "Park"
Curious, I introduced myself and briefly asked what they were up to. The man, Kevin Walker, explained that he was making a documentary about another abandoned Camden cemetery – Johnson Cemetery on the other side of town – and he needed some background footage. I wished him luck and was quite appreciative that he told me about Johnson, which he referred to as “Needle Park.” Subsequently, I made two visits to the Johnson Cemetery which you can read about in my two blog postings: Abandoned Cemetery ... or just Repurposed?  and Lost Civil War Graves of the Johnson Cemetery

Jacob Johnson marker
After seeing Johnson, I realized why Mr. Walker needed background footage – Johnson no longer looks like a cemetery. This former burial ground for African-American Civil War veterans had fallen into such a sad state of disrepair that Camden, um, turned it into a park in the early 1980s. Graves were supposedly moved to other area cemeteries and the land planted with grass and park benches. The thing that really weirded me out was the fact that the old headstones were lying flat in the grass face up, like so many paving stones in a garden walkway. The only upright stone was this rectangular marble hunk with "Jacob Johnson, Died 1890" engraved on it.

Trash, dirt, leaves, and empty liquor bottles covered most of the flush headstones I found during my first visit. When I returned a couple weeks later, I met two women who were uncovering and cleaning off the stones. They actually dug them out of the ground, scraping an inch or so of soil and debris off each one. All they had was a plastic windshield ice scraper, and their camera battery had died. They asked me if I would photograph the names on the stones and send them the images, which I did. They were doing genealogical research, looking for links in their ancestral tree.

Civil War Veteran Headstone at Johnson Cemetery Park
As we cleaned off the stones, we noticed a dual arc pattern in which the stones had been laid, which made it easier to predict where to unearth the next stone. In all, I think we found about thirty. I was extremely curious about the cemetery and why it was turned into a "park," but information on the Internet is rather sketchy. This is why I so look forward to seeing Kevin Walker's film. When I contacted him, he was quite gracious and provided me with certain information you'll read in this article. Have a look at his movie trailer on YouTube, “The Lonely Bones: The Official Trailer.” I think you'll agree the movie needs to be seen.

The Lonely Bones will have its world premier at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on March 25, 2012. Here's a bit of Kevin's promotional information:

"The Lonely Bones ... focuses on tiny Johnson Cemetery in East Camden.  Johnson holds the remains of over 120 members of the United States Colored Troops, the African American soldiers who fought valiantly for the Union during the Civil War.  Instead of being an object of veneration, however, the long-neglected cemetery has become a needle park -- a site strewn with bottles, debris and the discards of the drug trade.  'Unfortunately,' says Walker, 'what has happened to Johnson Cemetery is symptomatic of the broader problems facing Camden and urban America in general. I have tried to use the cemetery as a kind of trope to examine those issues.

Camden Radio and Film Works
“The Lonely Bones”

... A struggling city tries to reclaim its past …

When the nation called, they answered. Nearly 200,000 of them -- freemen and emancipated slaves -- flocked to the Union cause. Known as the United States Colored Troops, they fought valiantly during the Civil War.  They dispelled racial stereotypes and, in the view of many historians, helped propel passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, conferring civil rights on black citizens.
But today, the memory of scores of black Civil War veterans from New Jersey -- their legacy -- lies buried on another battlefield.

                                The Lonely Bones, Kevin Walker’s 30-minute documentary, focuses on tiny Johnson Cemetery in East Camden.  Johnson holds the remains of over 120 members of the United States Colored Troops.  Instead of being an object of veneration, however, the long-neglected cemetery has become a needle park -- a site strewn with bottles, debris and the detritus of the drug trade. A small group of activists and historians want to change that.  They see in Johnson’s salvation, the salvation of an entire city.

I look forward to seeing Kevin’s film. Personally, it might provide insight as to why I am drawn to abandoned cemeteries.

Further Reading:

Purchase tickets to see The Lonely Bones at the Garden State Film Festival
YouTube link to: “The Lonely Bones: The Official Trailer.”

Johnson Cemetery blog postings by Ed Snyder on The Cemetery Traveler:
Abandoned Cemetery ... or just Repurposed?
Lost Civil War Graves of the Johnson Cemetery