Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finding Lost Graves

Not being a professional cemetery worker, I don’t often find myself helping people find the grave sites of their loved ones. In my present role on the Board of Directors of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery (in West Philadelphia), I occasionally find myself performing this service. It’s quite rewarding in a place like this, when descendants may not have visited a grave for thirty years.

The reason for people avoiding Mount Moriah for the past few decades is usually that it was not safe to be here. The weeds had overgrown the place and even in the 1960s, half of the cemetery’s 300+ acres had grown into a forest. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, it apparently got worse. Visitors stayed away in droves.

Cleanup Day
But now they return regularly during the cleanup days sponsored by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery. Other large organizations get involved too, Asplundh, Comcast, the City of Philadelphia, for example. Colleges send students to clean for the day as part of their Civic Engagement courses in community involvement. Drexel, LasSalle, Cheney and other local universities have sent busloads of volunteers to the cemetery. Descendants return to help clear their ancestor’ graves, as well as the graves of others lost to time and thicket.

The people who show up to clean and look for ancestors’ graves are usually in their forties and beyond. They may have spent their childhood living near Mount Moriah, learning how to ride a bike or ski down its gentle hills. The members of the Friends Board go out of their way to help them find the graves of their familial ancestors. The Friends group has access to cemetery records and maps – the latter are on the Friends’ website, the former still not yet available to the public (contact us at info@fommc.org).
Yeadon side of Mount Moriah during "Comcast Cares" Cleanup Day

People want to see the gravesite of their forebears – it gives people a sense of their place in a larger history. We all need a tangible anchor to the past. I’ve helped folks look for graves a few times myself - it can be a truly rewarding experience, or terribly frustrating when you can’t actually find the grave. Why would you not be able to find it with a section map and plot coordinates? As of this writing, although many of the sections in Mount Moriah Cemetery have been cut back and are being kept clear by volunteers and family members, about two thirds of the grounds are still overgrown with trees and high weeds.

Map: Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery website
Having a map is one thing, but trying to claw your way through a thicket rife with fallen headstones entangled by “mile-a-minute” weeds seldom yields a satisfactory outcome. Usually a visitor has done some preparatory research and contacted the Friends group to request information as to the whereabouts of a certain plot. If they want help finding the plot, they may request this of the Friends group or wait for a cleanup day when scores of people are around.

One time an experienced cemetery worker and I spent about an hour trying to find a woman’s grandparents’ graves, but gave up for two reasons: 1) it was summer and the foliage was dense; and 2) though we found the proper area in the proper section, most of the headstones had been pushed over and were lying face down. (You would think vandals would have the common decency to push them the other way so people could still read the inscriptions.)

Northern border of Naval Asylum Plot (graves in woods beyond)
With plot number in hand and even grave row and number, you would think it would be easy enough to find a grave. That’s typically the case in a well-maintained cemetery. However, Mount Moriah has not been maintained. Sometimes you can find a grave if it is one of the historically well-maintained (by the Veterans’ Organization) military plots e.g. the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot or the Naval Asylum Plot. Civilian graves prior to about 1913 are in the older areas of the cemetery and are more likely to be grown over with wild rose bushes, poison ivy, or any number of invasive, spreading plant such as knotweed. These include massive monuments and dynasty plots. This year in particular, the Friends group has organized some highly effective cleanup days and these areas are slowly but surely coming under control.

A few weeks ago during a cleanup day, a woman asked me if I could help her find her husband’s great uncle and great-grandfather’s graves. Looking at the section and plot information, I was afraid it would be a jungle. Someone must have warned her about the florid overgrowth at Mount Moriah, as she was dressed appropriately and had even brought her own machete!

We found the general area of the plot in Section 148 (which, according to the map (at right), contained around 204 graves – 17 columns by 12 rows), but finding the actual grave was quite another matter. The obvious obstacle was the dense forest which had grown up in Section 148. In addition, because the paths or roadways indicated on the map surrounding each section are not obvious in the middle of the woods, finding a starting point can be challenging. Section markers have long disappeared (but this is on the Friends’ to-do list). The only bearing I could get was that Section 148 was just north of the nicely manicured Naval Asylum Plot and just east of the G.A.R. plot which had just been identified and cleared that day in Section 142!

G.A.R. Plot, Mount Moriah Cemetery
The search took about forty minutes in an area roughly half the size of a baseball diamond. The woman had driven here from somewhere in New Jersey and was on a quest for her husband, who was unable to make the trip. As she slashed through the vines and ivy, I climbed from plot to plot checking names. There did not appear to be any damaged or fallen headstones in this section, so that was a good thing.

Visitor nearing ancestor's grave in Section 148
After restarting from what I thought was the southwestern section corner a third time, I found the stone in question. Linda was about fifty feet away talking with another member of the Friends group. I couldn’t actually see them, so I made my way out of the thicket and joined them. I told Linda I had found it. She brightened up and followed me into the woods. The plot in question was so thick, you had to be almost right on top of the stone to see it. It wasn’t a large stone, standard-sized about two feet high by two feet wide. As she approached the stone, I held away some vines so she could see the name. On reading the inscription, she said “This is a truly momentous occasion.

Now, I have to admit that other members of the Friends group and even certain volunteers know the lay of the land far better than I. One or more of them may have been able to find the grave more quickly than I did, so I do appreciate Linda's patience. It’s a learning experience, with improvements all the time. Sam Ricks from the Friends joined us momentarily and accessed the GPS app on his cell phone. Anticipating her next question, which was, “How will I find this when I bring my husband back to clear the grave site?” Sam gave her the GPS coordinates.

Masonic symbolism
As Gwen looked down on the stone, she said, “My husband told me there was some sort of strange carving on it.” I examined it and told her he was a Mason. She called her husband and took photos with her iPhone. She told me that her husband’s great uncle (who died in 1913) used to tell all his nephews and children that they each needed to go to school to at least learn a trade.

Linda relayed the information to me from her husband that said this was a family plot and there should be other graves nearby. Without too much difficulty, I pulled back some vines from a larger stone about six feet away to reveal the headstone of her husband’s great-grandfather. Here's a photo of Linda chopping through the vines with her machete to access his headstone. She vowed to return with her husband to not only clear the area, but to keep it clear. The whole idea of "perpetual care" went out the window when Mount Moriah Cemetery was abandoned in 2011, but the fact is, the majority of the cemetery was left to run wild for decades prior to that.

What's past is past, though, and currently the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery is making great strides to bring the grounds under control. Hopefully within a year the cemetery will have an official legal owner and more concerted efforts will be made to make it a viable cemetery one again. Until such time, if you are looking for a grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery, please contact the Friends group at info@fommc.org. Provide us with as much information as you can, and we’ll help you to the extent of the resources available to us.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ghosts in the Receiving Vault?

You know how ghost hunters always say their cameras stopped working when they were trying to take a photograph in some spirit-active location? Well, it finally happened to me. You would think that after fifteen years of photographing in cemeteries, I would have experienced this more often.

Last weekend I was out at Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philly for a cleanup day. About twenty people were working in Section 21. Bright sunny cool spring day, not the kind of ambiance you would think would attract ghosts. The old receiving vault is in this section next to an old mausoleum, unmarked and unassuming. Big pile of dirt in front of the doorless entrance, with about a one-foot opening at the top. You can see the opening in the photo below, beneath the volunteer at the left side. Someone told me the vault is just filled with plastic flowers taken from graves. I figured, hey, may still make an interesting photograph.

Volunteers working above old receiving vault
So I climbed up the bank of dirt and rocks and peered in. Piles of old plastic flowers alright, of the funeral arrangement type - grave blankets, as they say. Set my DSLR to forced flash and pointed it inside. Hit the shutter release and ... nothing. Pulled the camera back out into the light, checked all the settings. The focus-setting strobe wasn't strobing to set the focus, for some reason. So I set the focus and locked it (an auto focus camera will hunt for something on which to focus, and if it doesn't find something, it won't let you click the shutter). Still wouldn't work. Huh.

Road-level view of covered entrance to receiving vault
Inside vault with point-and-shoot
Pulled the camera out of the receiving vault and tried it in the daylight. Worked fine. Buggerall. I know this camera (Canon Rebel XTi) like the back of my hand. Why wouldn't it work? I grabbed my (Canon) G9 point-and-shoot and snapped off a few pix inside the vault with no trouble. As I was leaving the cemetery, I stopped my car and got out. Wanted to get a long view of the receiving vault. That's when my cell phone found its way out of my belt holster and became intimate with the ground.

Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse
I got into my car and drove around to the gatehouse, where I stopped to get out and take a few more photos. A car passed mine going in the opposite direction, driven by no one I recognized. As I came back to my car, I realized my cell phone was gone. Damn. High speed thinking, swearing, then praying - you know how that goes. Ran back to the weeds where I had crouched around the crumbling gatehouse - nothing. Nothing but a deer tick on my pant leg, that is, which I flicked away. Funny, first time I’ve ever seen one. Maybe my luck is changing for the worse. Man, if I had dropped my phone somewhere back in the woods - well, it could be anywhere. That's when it hit me - I just used it to check the time after I shot the road-level view of the receiving vault you see above. Maybe if fell out when I got back into my car?

I turned the car around, drove back down the dirt road and saw my phone lying in two pieces in the road. Either I drove over it or that other car did. I put the phone back together and miraculously, it worked! Got in my car to head home thanking my lucky stars when the brake failure warning light illuminated on my dashboard. Chalk it all up to the multi-planular mysteries of time and space.

Tree-damaged monument
The next day, Sunday, was a nice day as well. I decided to make a solo trip back to Mount Moriah. In the back of my mind, I was curious about whether or not I could get those shots inside the receiving vault. However, the main reason I wanted to go back was because the light was about the same as the previous day and I wanted to get a few wide angle views of the section of the cemetery up behind the receiving vault. There were some large monuments in the woods there which had been knocked off their foundations by huge fallen trees. This was, for me, a previously unexplored portion of the cemetery and I wanted to get back there with my trusty Nikon film camera.

After climbing through the tangle of trees, brush, and newly-thorned rose bushes, I got the photographs I was after. I emerged from the woods to the sound of a chainsaw. Just my friend Ken ripping through some small trees down the hill (that's him in the photo above), giving yet another monument its freedom. So I climbed down the hill to the receiving vault to give it another go. Flash worked every time. Any mode I dialed in, camera worked just fine. Plastic flowers on a hard dirt floor, nothing more.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Titanic 101-Year Anniversary Graves

I’m posting this blog on April 15, the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. With all the death-related stuff I write, it’s about time I jumped aboard the good ship Titanic, that giant floating coffin of humanity.  What spurred my interest, actually, was seeing the “Titanic – The Artifact Exhibition,” at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute last week. (The exhibit actually closed April 7, 2013, but is traveling around the United States – click here for the schedule of locations on the website http://rmstitanic.net.)

Franklin Institute (Philadelphia) banner add for exhibition

Sort of related to that is the fact that Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia has a few Titanic-related graves, and they give educational tours on the subject. I’ve never been on one, but I thank Laurel Hill’s Gwen Kaminski for this NBC video clip, "Titanic Passengers Laid to Rest at Philly Cemetery," in which she is interviewed on the subject.

So, April 15, 2013 is the 101st anniversary of that hideous catastrophe, when on April 15, 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. Of the 2,224 passengers and crew aboard the British ship on its maiden voyage, 1502 people died. Two of them are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, as is one of the survivors.

Dulles mausoleum at Laurel Hill Cemetery
The Dulles' crypt
One of those who died, Philadelphian William Crothers Dulles, lies in a mausoleum in Laurel Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Schuylkill River and Kelly Drive. Ironically, the stained glass window inside depicts Christ calming the sea, so that Peter and the other apostles in their fishing boat will not be afraid. (A close-up photo of this stained glass image is seen at the beginning of this article.) Dulles' body was one of the only 328 bodies recovered of the 1502 that died.

The Titanic exhibition at the Franklin Institute was a theatrical and educational presentation in addition to an extensive display of artifacts salvaged from the wreck (it was discovered in 1985 at a depth of 12, 415 feet (more than two miles!) below the ocean’s surface. I suppose my overall reaction to the exhibit was that it was intensely creepy and reminded me of death – which is why I decided to write this blog.

All my life, I've really had no more than a passing interest in the Titanic. I only paid money to see the exhibit because I took my three-year-old daughter to the Franklin Institute that day, for a spring break jaunt (all her classmates no doubt were in Fort Lauderdale). The first thing that creeped me out was the distribution of the “boarding passes” by hostesses as you entered the exhibit. Being handed a boarding pass to a doomed vessel gave me a weird feeling.

I didn’t know this until after I got home, but printed on the back of the pass was passenger information. I glanced at it when it was handed to me and just assumed all the passes were the same. They were not. If I had paid attention during your tour of the exhibit I would have known that there was a big wall of names at the very end (before you were dumped into the gift shop, a la Disney). You could find the name of the person on your boarding pass to see if they made it out of the disaster alive. I’m kind of glad I missed this aspect of the tour. Even now I get an unsettling feeling just thinking about it.

Widener mausoleum, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
One of the other Titanic people buried at Laurel Hill is Eleanor Widener. She is buried in the large “Widener” mausoleum on “Millionaire’s Row” (a stretch of grand mausoleums of the wealthy), overlooking Hunting Park Avenue and the Schuylkill River. Eleanor survived the disaster, but her husband George and their 27-year-old son Harry did not survive. Their bodies were never recovered .and their George Widener and his 27-year-old son Harry did not survive and their bodies were never recovered. According to the NBC article, "Philly Cemetery Holds Stories of Titanic," Eleanor and her maid boarded life boat #4, the last to leave Titanic. There were only life boats enough for half the passengers. “Eleanor died in 1937 and her body lies in the Widener Mausoleum along with two bronze cenotaphs, or empty tombs, which serve as memorials to husband George and son Harry.

Our two Laurel Hill Titanic people were both buried in expensive mausoleums, you may notice. Many of the passengers aboard the Titanic were extremely wealthy. But wealthy or not, when you walk down  the stateroom hallway in the exhibit, you realize how death is the great leveler. Seeing the doors of the passengers’ rooms gave me the very claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, with nowhere to go. You wonder how the Titanic’s passengers felt as they opened their doors and saw people running down the tilted hallway …  then of course, the whole idea brings to mind the 1972 shipwreck disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure (watch the movie trailer here).

Olive Potter's headstone, Laurel Hill
Most people lost all their belongings, some of which you can see on the RMSTitanic.net website. Money, jewelry, and clothing is very odd to see, knowing it was brought up from the depths of the wreck. There are the ship’s telegraph booths (for the passengers’ convenience), “waterproof” steel doors, gaslight fixtures, and fine china (all Royal Doulton, I noticed). Among the passengers who survived were Lily Potter and her daughter Olive of Mount Airy (Pennsylvania). They boarded a life boat and were among the 705 survivors. Both are buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, in a serene family plot overlooking the Schuylkill River.

Lily Potter's headstone
Funny how all three of the Laurel Hill Titanic-related burials are so near the water. You would think the survivors would not want anything to do with water again, either in life or in death. I mean, I couldn’t even fathom the thought of standing on the light-projected outline of the lifeboat in the exhibit. I wonder how the catastrophe affected the survivors, whenever they saw something that reminded them of that fateful night? Even though the thought of standing in the lifeboat outline totally weirded me out, I playfully urged my daughter Olivia to run over and stand on the light pattern. It scared her, and she refused.

Replica of the Titanic's luxurious central staircase (ref.)

The other odd feeling I got was at the pay-to-have-your-photo-taken opportunity on the ship’s reconstructed grand wooden staircase. It was only $6.50, I think, so I climbed the stairs and the photographer took of photo of me holding daughter Olivia. The idea was that you later pick up and pay for your photo in the gift shop. After having the photo taken next to the angel on the stairway's center post, I thought about how unsavory this whole idea is, to transform the largest civilian maritime disaster of all time into a carnival. This was like getting your family photo taken with Goofy at Disney World. No, more accurately, it was like standing in front of your grandfather’s casket at the viewing, mugging for the camera. The angel, by the way, was actually on display as one of the retrieved artifacts. I never picked up the souvenir photo.

References and Further Information:

Watch the NBC video of Laurel Hill Cemetery, Titanic Passengers Laid to Rest at Philly Cemetery
RMS Titanic, Inc. – The Artifact Exhibition
Titanic on Wikipedia
Franklin Institute website

Monday, April 8, 2013

Anchored Souls in St. David's Cemetery

You know how every once in awhile you can feel “their” presence? In this case, they were those of Revolutionary War-era personages. I had to write this down as soon as I returned from St. David’s churchyard cemetery, with the mud still wet on me boots.

I’d read about this graveyard in Allan Heller’s book, Philadelphia Area Cemeteries (2005), so after years of knowing it was there somewhere on the Main Line, I finally made the trip. No more than an hour’s drive from center city Philadelphia, St. David’s Cemetery is near the Devon Horse Show grounds in Devon, Pennsylvania. You’d never find it without a map (see map here), GPS, or detailed directions. It’s a couple miles south of the Horse Show grounds on Valley Forge Road. The cemetery is nothing you would ever casually drive past. St. David’s is so far into the elite estate grounds of Wayne, PA, that the cemetery keepers probably never have to worry about vandalism (except for the local rich kids who apparently shot holes in the glass rear window of one of the few mausoleums). This is not just an old rich section of suburban Philadelphia, it is colonial. Fields and stone property walls, all in museum condition.

Lichen-covered mausoleums at St. David's Cemetery

Heller's book on Amazon
I was unprepared for the size of the cemetery – it is much larger than I expected. It has 1800s-era mausoleums with slate roofs, 1700s-era headstones as well as burials from 2012. There are many military buried here, from all wars including the War of the Revolution. Washington’s brilliant lunatic General "Mad" Anthony Wayne is buried here. There are giant evergreens shading the majority of the cemetery. Most headstones and monuments, as a result, are moss-covered. Even the stand of five old mausoluems which are built into the hillside like a barrier wall for the graveyard, are green with lichens and moss. (The mausoleums, oddly, had slate roofs!) It wasn’t gloomy, as the sun was setting during my visit on this mid-winter day, but the silence was indeed creepy. You can feel the weight of history here.

General "Mad" Anthony Wayne tomb with St. David's modern church beyond

The parish has a large and active churchyard cemetery, with plots available only to parishioners of St. David’s Episcopal Church (the modern church and associated buildings are across Valley Forge Road from the cemetery and chapel, at 763 S Valley Forge Rd, Wayne, PA).

Welsh dragon and castle engraving on monument
The parish and church originated with Welsh colonists shortly after they settled into the area, dubbed, “Radnor” (after the Welsh county of Radnorshire) in the late 1600s. My Mom’s family being Welsh, I felt a special affinity for this place. Saint David, by the way, is the patron saint of Wales. His famous last words, which today are a common Welsh saying, was, "Do ye the little things in life" ("Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd"), the assumption being that a lot of good smallish acts of kindness add up to a life well-spent.

The cedar shingle-peaked fieldstone wall surrounding the older section of the cemetery was green and moss-covered – you get the idea that the architecture here is exactly the same as it was in 1776, with the exception of indoor plumbing and electricity. In fact, according to St. David’s website, “The church building provided shelter for soldiers of both sides,” referring to the role played by the cemetery’s little chapel during the Revolutionary War. There was certainly much less activity during my visit - this was rush hour on a Tuesday, but I can’t remember more than one car going down the road in the hour or so that I was there. The various gates to the cemetery were all open, but there wasn’t a soul around.

1715 Chapel in background
Everything was impeccably kept up, and Christmas decorations still adorned some of the graves. Traces of snow lingered from a falling earlier this week, but as the weather had turned warmer, the ground was mostly just mud and squishy grass. Many cemeteries in and around Philadelphia have Revolutionary War-era graves, but this place has the most I’ve ever seen.

Wolf-tables abound, as do many well-preserved marble headstones.
Many of the older broken stones had been cemented back together with care. Family plots with well-known Philadelphian surnames are well-maintained. Although the grounds were brightly lit by the setting winter sun, the tall and voluminous evergreens put most everything in deep shadow. Most of the flat slabs were covered with a slick slime of pine needles, mud, and ice. I slipped off one that I should not have been standing on, trying to photograph the epitaph.

 When I noticed a sign on the maintenance shed at the border of the cemetery that said “Bathroom Out of Order,” I realized that I had to use a bathroom. You know how that sort of conditioning goes – you look at your watch and its noon, so all of a sudden you’re hungry? Maybe the chapel had a bathroom, I thought.

The quaint, stone chapel stands at the end of the main walkway as you enter the cemetery. This is the original church building which, according to the St. David’s website, has been in continual use as a church since 1715. As I passed its large side windows, I saw a movement inside of the well-lit interior – possibly a man wearing a long dark waistcoat moving quickly in the direction of Valley Forge Road. I went to the door, opened it and glanced in - I figured it was the sexton and I would ask to use the “room.” It’s a small chapel, one room, but there was no one there. I called out. No answer. I had definitely seen movement inside. Just one of those cemetery things, I guess.

Chapel windows facing Valley Forge Road
You can really feel the age of the building when you’re standing inside, the entire complex being as quiet as a grave. While searching for information on St. David’s Cemetery on the Internet, I was surprised to find that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow actual wrote a poem about this small church building in 1880, entitled Old St. David's Church, Radnor. His description of the chapel and surrounding grounds is very similar to mine, and nearly as eloquent. Perhaps it was an “anchored soul” to which Longfellow refers in the last line that I caught glimpse of through the chapel window?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Old St David's at Radnor

What an image of peace and rest
Is this little church among its graves!
All is so quiet; the troubled breast,
The wounded spirit, the heart oppressed,
Here may find the repose it craves.

See, how the ivy climbs and expands
Over this humble hermitage,
And seems to caress with its little hands
The rough, gray stones, as a child that stands
Caressing the wrinkled cheeks of age!

You cross the threshold; and dim and small
Is the space that serves for the Shepherd's Fold;
The narrow aisle, the bare, white wall,
The pews, and the pulpit quaint and tall,
Whisper and say: "Alas! we are old."

Herbert's chapel at Bemerton
Hardly more spacious is than this;
But Poet and Pastor, blent in one,
Clothed with a splendor, as of the sun,
That lowly and holy edifice.

It is not the wall of stone without
That makes the building small or great
But the soul's light shining round about,
And the faith that overcometh doubt,
And the love that stronger is than hate.

Were I a pilgrim in search of peace,
Were I a pastor of Holy Church,
More than a Bishop's diocese
Should I prize this place of rest, and release
From farther longing and farther search.

Here would I stay, and let the world
With its distant thunder roar and roll;
Storms do not rend the sail that is furled;
Nor like a dead leaf, tossed and whirled
In an eddy of wind, is the anchored soul.

(Reference: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/longfellow/19233)

References and Further Reading

Read about the origin of the Welsh dragon, the symbol of Wales
St. David's Episcopal Church website