Thursday, October 31, 2013

Flesh off the Bone

Some friends of mine were fortunate enough to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York last week. I’ve seen the photos and I must go there! Looks like a fabulous place. Washington Irving’s grave is there, of, course – the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The headless horseman idea got me thinking about another odd, though true Halloween-appropriate tale. While not as riveting as the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it nonetheless involves missing body parts.
I came across this story just a couple years ago when reading Allan Heller’s book, Philadelphia Area Cemeteries. The story concerns Mad Anthony Wayne, one of George Washington’s maniacal generals, a person to whom we owe our independence from Britain. Wayne is buried in St. David’s Cemetery in Radnor, Pennsylvania (near Wayne, PA, out side Philadelphia). Well, actually only half of him is buried there.

General Anthony Wayne (ref.)
Wayne's “fiery temper and battlefield bravado,” says Heller, earned him the title of “Mad,” and there was nothing he would not do to further the cause. His greatest triumph “was the capture of the nearly impregnable British fort of Stony Point, New York, in 1779 - "the beginning of the end of the American Revolution." (ref.). When General George Washington asked the brash general if he would be willing to attack the enemy stronghold, Wayne supposedly replied, ‘Issue the orders, sir, and I will lay siege to Hell.’” Now THAT’s patriotism. Or perhaps insanity. Or both.

American assault on British at Stony Point, NY (ref.)

"Mad" Anthony Wayne monument, Radnor, PA
When you’re standing in a graveyard, it is weird enough knowing that the bones of people are buried beneath your feet. And most of us assume there was flesh on those bones at the time of burial. However, Mad Anthony Wayne only had his bones buried at St. David’s Cemetery in Radnor, Pennsylvania. What happened to the flesh, you may ask? Or you may not think to ask (who would?). Well, this is such a juicy, creepy story that we must not let it go the way of Purgatory and Pluto - we must keep it alive. 

When Wayne died in 1796, his body was buried at Fort Presque Isle near Lake Erie, his final military post. according to, “He was buried in a plain coffin, his initials and date of death driven into the wood using round-headed brass tacks, at the foot of the blockhouse's flagstaff on garrison hill.” Twelve years after his death (1808), Wayne’s son Isaac decided that his father should be buried in the Wayne family plot at St. David’s (this graveyard actually pre-dates the Revolutionary War, having been established in 1715). So he traveled to the military base and paid to have his father’s body exhumed. He was met with a grisly surprise - twelve years after General Anthony Wayne’s death, his body was still intact! Remember, there was no embalming until much later, during the Civil War. (Embalming only became widely popular after Abraham Lincoln's embalmed body traveled from Washington, D.C. to Illinois, where at every train stop, thousands witnessed this new wonder of preservation.)

St. David's Churchyard Cemetery, Radnor, Pennsylvania

Isaac Wayne's "sulky" (ref.)
So an actual body presented a problem, as Isaac had only brought a small horse-drawn cart (known as a sulky) to carry the remains back to Chester County, PA, a 400-mile trek. A local physician, Dr. James Wallace (who had actually been at Wayne’s dying bedside), proposed to boil the flesh off Wayne’s bones, and give the bones to Isaac to be taken away. The flesh and the General’s uniform (along with Wallace’s surgical instruments) were reburied under the flagpole at the military base.

Then Isaac began his return journey, with his father's bones in a box in the back of the carriage. Along the rough road from Erie to Radnor, diagonally across the state of Pennsylvania, the box fell off a few times, supposedly scattering bones here and there. In 1809, the remainder of Mad Anthony Wayne’s bones were buried in the Wayne family plot you see in my photographs here, in Radnor, Pennsylvania. The story goes that every year on New Year’s Day - Mad Anthony Wayne’s birthday – “he rises from his grave at St. David’s and rides all the way across the state, looking this way and that for his missing parts.” (ref.)

Standing in St. David’s Cemetery, you are certainly tempted to believe this. The place has a “Sleepy Hollow” feel to it, and is a bit spooky in many ways. It’s old, it’s surrounded by woods, and seems to be away from civilization. The stone walls separating the nearby farmers' fields were standing while the War was being fought. You feel the spirit of the Revolution here. During a visit to this quite little graveyard last winter, I witnessed a fleeting spectral appearance inside the small church near Wayne's grave. I invite you to read about it in one of my prior blogs, "Anchored Souls in St. David's Cemetery.

Happy Halloween!

References and Further Reading:
Wayne Buried in Two Places

St. David's Episcopal Church website

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Black Cemetery Rain

The heavy cemetery rain hit my convertible top so hard it drowned out the music from the stereo. It was calling attention to itself, pushing everything else away – like the fact that I was here trying to make photographs. Couldn’t even open the window without getting soaked. You don’t want to get those leather seats wet. Shoot through the windows, the rivulets of rain distorting the picture – like the way your mind distorts reality sometimes. The rain is too much with us.

Death and severe illness can be like that too. They push everything else to the side. I can’t remember having an October like this before. My Mom had to have cysts surgically removed, after a several-months-long illness. Just found out they were not cancerous.

I tried to photograph through my car windows, the statues and monuments in the pelting rain, the saturated flags brought to full extension by the hurricane-like wind, or plastered against a granite headstone. May as well be abstract images – reality gets the day off.

My wife’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and will be operated on next week. My Mom said she was praying for her. Amidst all this, a woman I worked with for thirty years died this past week. Retired in June, died in October. So unfair, to make it all that way just to die unexpectedly from cancer. She’ll be put in the ground like all these other people I’m driving over, or she’ll be in the arms of angels, depending on your belief system. 

Everybody in this place had a life, a life that meant something to someone else - even the prostitutes over in the “Home of the Friendless” section. Unless survivors conduct pointed and extensive research, the headstone often remains the only tangible evidence of most people’s existence.

The rain water ran down the steep roadways, flooding the small grave markers and plastic flowers, a river of death, stagnant pools trailing off the main river of flowing life. I drove down the hill, only to come to a flooded portion of the road. Should I drive through? I thought I remembered it being sort of shallow – but then, why would it pool? I heard a story recently about a friend who drove through a small flooded area in another cemetery and got stuck – sunk down into the mud up to his doors. No, I think I’ll back out of here, like when you’ve planned something in life and an obstacle forces you to back off and try another way.

Another fellow I’ve worked with for thirty years had his implantable pacer/defibrillator go on the fritz – had to have it surgically removed to make adjustments. He was shocked five times on the tennis court while playing a match with his daughter; luckily, she is a nurse. Another guy I know has lymphoma. With all these people around me so sick and dying, I’ve never felt so healthy. As you get older, you really feel like that could easily have been you. Why was it NOT you? It’s like taking photographs in a cemetery in the rain – you don’t just drive away without taking a part of the experience with you.

All this at a time when I’m still reeling from my wife’s latest MS attack this past summer. It isn’t easy backing your car up in an unfamiliar area in the pelting rain. I didn’t want to go off the road and sink into the lawn, or hit some sort of analogy. Caught a glimpse of a cemetery worker in a yellow parka watching me from a distance. He moved on, probably thinking, “What’s is that idiot doing here in this rainstorm?

The last time I spoke to Mary was a week before she died. She got such a kick out of buying things for my (now) four-year-old daughter – clothes and toys, mostly. She enjoyed seeing her at the office, where she would let her play with small toys at her desk. The monkey family that sang “The Banana Boat Song” was and still is one of Olivia’s favorites. Mary gave that to her about two years ago. Olivia doesn’t know Mary is gone. The monkey toy kind of provided her memory with immortality, maybe not for Olivia, but certainly for me. A week before she died I offered to bring Olivia by her place soon and Mary said, “I’d like that.” Then she was gone and I hadn’t brought Olivia by.

The rain eventually stopped, but I’ll live with this regret for quite a while. I could once again hear the music. Time to leave this place and head back to the living, as Gram Parsons sings a parting rainsong:

In my hour of darkness, in my time of need,
Oh Lord grant me rhythm, oh Lord grant me speed."

All images made in Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, Pennsylvania

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Christ Church Burial Ground and the Government Shutdown

I’d long thought that Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia was government-run, and therefore I figured it might be closed due to the current government shutdown. Nearby Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are both closed as they are operated by the National Park Service (even the Park Service’s website is down!). Naturally, I was wrong. Turns out that the historic burial ground is run by, surprise, surprise: Christ Church. And it was open today, Columbus Day, a legal holiday. (See link at end for list of what is open and what is closed in Philly during the federal government shutdown.)

Christ Church is the only cemetery I’ve ever visited that charges admission. Yes, two dollars (as of October, 2013) to get in. It’s right across Arch Street from the Philadelphia Mint, so the fact that you have to pay money to see an historic national landmark that’s right across the street from where they make the nation’s money is kind of ironic.

I’d always been put off by the admission fee, but I suppose this is a more palatable way for the Episcopal Church to make money from its cemeteries than to actually LEASE them like the Roman Catholic Church is doing with its cemeteries in the Philadelphia Archdiocese (see link). The saving grace of Christ Church Burial Ground (established in 1719) is that Ben Franklin’s grave is visually accessible through the iron fence near the corner of Fifth and Arch Streets. So you don’t actually have to pay to see Benjamin and Deborah Franklin’s grave marker.  People throw pennies on his large, flat stone (“A penny saved is a penny earned,” Franklin said) and today, I even heard someone saying to his daughter, “Make a wish.

School children tossing pennies on Ben Franklin's grave (Christ Church Burial Ground)

I suppose the Church scoops up all the pennies each day and puts them to good use. The fact that we can see, touch, and walk amidst these historic graves is a tribute to the Church’s commitment to historic preservation. According to its website: “the Burial Ground was closed to the public from 1977 through 2003.  In 2002, The Christ Church Preservation Trust undertook a major program of renovation in order to reopen the Burial Ground.

There’s a tourist booth just inside the entrance gate where they sell books about the cemetery, and about our nation’s history as it relates to the few blocks around this area. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried here, including Dr. Benjamin Rush. Dr. Philip Syng Physick (the “Father of Modern Surgery”) and George Ross (Betsy’s uncle), along with various Biddles, Bainbridges, and other historic names from our nation’s founding. (Wait – one of the Beatles is buried here too...?!) Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to make out any inscriptions on the headstones. Most are smallish marble markers that have been worn smooth by acid rain. Bronze plaques now stand in front of the more famous headstones.

Worn grave markers in Christ Church Burial Ground

Still, everyBODY buried here was significant in his or her own right. The markers mark their lives, their mortal existence. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to transcribe all the engravings from the headstones in 1864, which has been reprinted in the book, A Record of the Inscriptions on the Tablets and Gravestones in the Burial Grounds of Christ Church,Philadelphia!

And speaking of printing, Franklin’s grave is by far the most popular, with people flocking to it with cameras and pennies in hand. A bronze plaque hangs on the brick wall near the grave. On it is the epitaph Frankin’s wrote for himself:

"The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer;
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author."

Once I had backed up and was leaning on a crypt cover in order to get a longer view of the Franklins’ grave, when a guard ran over to me and asked me not to lean on the other monuments. I was a bit annoyed, thinking at the time, “This guy thinks this place is a museum!” But in retrospect, it is. And since that time I have witnessed a headstone falling on someone, so maybe safety was on his mind too.

Supposedly 4,000 people are buried in this 2-acre plot of ground. Interesting number, since an acre today typically holds 1200 to 1500 side-by-side graves. How did they jam in the extra thousand? Did they bury them standing up? Without burial vaults? At various depths? ? AND ….  this is still an active burial ground! My guess is that things have probably disintegrated below ground to the point where there’s probably nothing left of the 300-year-old wooden coffins, allowing room for additional burials. As you walk through the place, you do get the sense that it is rather dense with grave markers and headstones. Still, things were artfully arranged - I like the way these large flat crypt covers in the image below line the walkway from the gate off Fifth Street.

Crypts line walkway of Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia

Outside Christ Church
If you visit, you may notice there’s no church here. So where is Christ Church? It’s actually two blocks away, near Second and Market Streets. It has a tiny graveyard surrounding the church, and the additional land at Fifth and Arch was purchased to expand the burial ground when the church property filled up. The church still has George and Martha Washington’s pew box roped off, where they sat during services. Other early American notables were parishioners of Christ Church, a veritable Who’s Who of the American Revolution:  Betsy Ross, John Adams, Absalom Jones, and the Franklins, to name but a few.

References and Further Reading: 
Christ Church website
National Park Service website
Click here for a list of what is open and what is closed in Philly during the federal government shutdown
U.S. Dept. of the Interior website

Friday, October 11, 2013

Philadelphia Archdiocese Offloads Cemeteries

Initially when I heard about this in August of 2013, I thought the Church was selling its cemeteries! What the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is actually doing is selling off six its nursing homes and outsourcing the management of thirteen of its cemeteries. To be more specific, it is leasing the cemeteries listed below to an outside for-profit corporation called “StoneMor.” According an October 9, 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article entitled Grave Concerns(see link at end), StoneMor Partners, L.P., is one of the largest operators of cemeteries and funeral homes in the U.S. The company operates 277 cemeteries and 92 funeral homes in 28 states and Puerto Rico (ref.).

Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia
Soon to be Outsourced Philadelphia Cemeteries:

All Souls Cemetery, Coatesville (Chester County)
·         Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken (Montgomery County)
·         Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia
·         New Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia
·         Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon (Delaware County)
·         Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Philadelphia
·         Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery, Linwood (Delaware County)
·         Resurrection Cemetery, Bensalem (Bucks County)
·         Saint John Neumann Cemetery, Chalfont (Bucks County)
·         Saint Michael Cemetery, Chester (Delaware County)
·         Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery, Springfield (Delaware County)

(Above list from

"Additionally, All Saints Cemetery, Newtown (Bucks County) and Holy Savior Cemetery, Penn Township (Bucks County) are not currently active cemeteries, but sites designated for future use. They would also be affected." (ref.

Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Philadelphia
So what does this mean to people who have pre-purchased plots? Or to families whose loved ones already reside in these cemeteries? Will they now let just anyone in (the Catholic Church has always given mobsters a hard time)? Will the upkeep of the grounds change? Will prices go up? And I know you’re wondering (well, I am, at least) what this means to the cemetery photographer…. 

My experience photographing in these Catholic cemeteries has been very positive over the past fifteen years and I hope that doesn’t change. Photography is allowed in most of them, though the last time I was in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (Cheltenham Avenue, Philadelphia), I was told that photography was no longer allowed. One thing this brought to mind was an experience I had at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in East Orange, New Jersey, some years ago. I was stopped as I was photographing and told that the Archdiocese (of Newark, NJ) no longer allowed photography in its cemeteries.

All of the Philadelphia cemeteries on the above list are meticulously maintained and secured, so there is very little damage from vandalism. They are just beautiful places and I hope they remain so. One of the cemeteries on the list, Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, has special meaning for me – it was the catalyst for my interest in cemetery photography. Back in the late 1990s, whenever I would drive by it, I would think, “I should really be photographing those angel statues in there…

Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, Pennsylvania

Why is the Catholic Church leasing these cemeteries? To garner much-needed income. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is running at an enormous financial deficit and the current administration sees the sale and lease of some of its major assets as the answer ("the Archdiocese lost $39.2 million for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2012, while hundreds of millions still haunts its future balance sheets” according to

The thirteen-cemetery lease in Philadelphia will net the Archdiocese a few dollars - $89 million, to be exact, over the course of the 60-year lease! And if that seems an astronomical number, realize that StoneMor would not have entered into the deal without the expectation of reasonable profit. And I doubt they’d be happy with a 2% supermarket margin. The company is planning to expand sales dramatically, hiring 75 to 100 salespeople. The Archdiocese currently has only THREE, and does not sell many plots in advance (ref). Such "pre-need" sales are expected to increase once StoneMor takes over.
Nuns' headstones, New Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia

StoneMor it trying to reassure the public (in an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 29, 2013) that the properties “will retain their Catholic character” and that prices will not go up “unless they’re due for their annual price increase.” This increase is typically $50 per year for opening and closing a six-foot grave, and is currently $1550.

References and Further Reading:

Philadelphia Inquirer  article “Grave Concerns