Thursday, March 27, 2014

Do not Go Gently into that Good Night

This week’s blog has to do more with staving off potential cancerous death than it does with actual death, or cemeteries for that matter. But allow me a bit of literary latitude so I can get this out of my system, so to speak. I had my first ever screening colonoscopy today. Being a guy on the wrong side of fifty, they highly recommend such things. If you’ve never had the pleasure, let me just say that I hope I don’t live another ten years, after which time they recommend a second one.

In all fairness, the messy buildup was far worse than the actual “procedure.” The latter is difficult to describe in any delicate manner, so allow me to elucidate:They put a flexible endoscope up your butt and look for polyps and other cancerous evidence. (I swear, when I was “waking up” in the recovery area I thought I heard a nurse answer the phone, “Butt Room ….!”)

I put quotations around the phrase “waking up” because I’m not at all sure I was unconscious. The drug they give you is called Propofol, which, disturbingly, is neither an anesthetic nor a knockout drug. It is, according to Wikipedia, an “intravenously administered hypnotic/amnestic agent.” Does that mean the medical staff was communicating with me and I was responding to requests like “Roll onto your right side?” (or for that matter, “Quack like a duck?”). The drug has a nickname, given because of its milky liquid appearance: “milk of amnesia.” Maybe death is like this? After we die, do we forget that we were ever alive? It would make sense, since we will all spend much more time being dead than we spend being alive. What’s the sense of remembering such a miniscule portion of our existence for an eternity? Personally, I would much rather forget the colonoscopy (as well as a number of other things in my life, for that matter).

Cemetery statuary under a blanket of snow
As I drove in to the hospital on this cold March morning, the radio stated that there was a “Wind Advisory” on for this twenty-degree day. Apropos for a colonoscopy, I might say (as you will later learn). It was very sunny but cold; with all the snow gone, everything looked, well, boring. Also filthy, as the high winds blew everyone’s trash all over the streets. Great. My sister is coming to visit in two days – she’ll think we live in a landfill. Anyway, I figured I wasn’t missing any cemetery photography today, so I may as well get this over with. The cemeteries looked so serene and exotic under all the snow we’ve had this year. Now they look, well, boring.

Death, mixing it up ...
So, about that messy buildup prior to being sent to la-la land. Death would be preferable. With all respect to Dylan Thomas, I did not go gently into that good night.  They have you “cleanse” your bowels for the two days leading up to the procedure. The first day, you ingest only liquids. Clear liquids. I wondered if vodka fell into this category, but I didn’t want to sound like a smartass (pun intended) by asking. The all-liquid diet was extra difficult for me as I was invited to a catered buffet meeting at work. Thank God I can’t smell, or the aroma from all that crispy roast pork and other great Chinese food might have compromised my preparations.

My lovely wife Jill arriving with supplies
The next part of the prep is when you take monster doses of laxatives the day before the procedure. Some are unassuming little pills, the other is in powder form, which you are to mix with a gallon of Gatorade. I hate Gatorade. It gives me intense heartburn. And you can’t take any medicine. Not one TUM. I felt like I poisoned myself. Then the fireworks began. That all lasted about two hours. I wanted to die. As I’ve said, this was the worst of the ordeal. The actual procedure was not nearly as bad, that is, except for all the tricks your mind plays on you. The medical staff is always there to remind you that you might, inadvertently, die. They subtly ask things like, “Do you have a living will?

After the opto-electric colonoscopic procedure was over, the “Wind Advisory” kicked in. The nurse told me in advance that the doctor inflates my colon with gas and afterward, it has to come out. I don’t think I have to paint you a picture here. Suffice it to say that the recovery room sounded like it was staffed by an orchestra of kazoo musicians equipped with naughty noise makers. 

So after the colonoscopy, the doctor who, um, guided the scope on its merry way told me that my colon looked perfect and that I should continue doing whatever I had been doing. I looked at him and the nurse and said, “Eating fried chicken and drinking bourbon?” The nurse let out a gasp and said, “What?! And I’ve been starving myself all this time?!....” I shared the fried chicken and bourbon line with my wife, much to her chagrin, as she insists on shopping at Whole Foods. The other thing that I will continue doing, of course, is writing my “Cemetery Traveler” blog!

Given my habit of falling in odd places while making photographs in various abandoned cemeteries this past winter, I thought it was ironic that they placed this “Fall Risk bracelet on my wrist before I was sent home. Do you suppose they’ve read about some of my exploits …?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

To What Extent Would You Go To Get That Photo?

Trillian Stars, by Kyle Cassidy
To what extent would you go to get that photo? What extreme? In a blog I posted recently, ”Graves Beneath the Snow" (see link at end), I wrote about how I managed, through an arduous process, to make some photographs with which I am quite pleased. They came about serendipitously toward the end of a trying-too-hard shooting day, when I was tired, and my guard was down. These scenes, replete with shadows and fleeting light, appeared  like rabbits at dusk, popping out of their burrows to feed. The image, "Snow Waves," below is one such image. Another is "At Rest," a bit further down the page.

"Snow Waves"

The tombstones in the snow were “found” objects – still-lives, though not set up in a studio. A studio setup is challenging too (see my image, “Skullroses”), but at least with that, you usually know what you’re after. “Found” subjects are much more elusive. I remember when I was dating, I went to a rock concert with a girlfriend. I wanted to smuggle in my camera and so she offered to conceal it in her pants. That worked. This past winter, I’ve put myself through a number of physical challenges to make photographs in abandoned places. The abandoned stuff is dangerous on many levels. As artists, we strive to be original, to be uniquely creative. (The actress Tallulah Bankhead said, “Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”) I like the photographs I’ve been able to make - I surprise myself sometimes, but it's not always easy.

Abandoned railroad car

West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
In the name of art, I went out of my way to make the most of the non-stop snowfall we’ve had this past winter (2013-14, the second snowiest winter in Philadelphia’s recorded history). Make lemonade, and all that, but don’t eat the yellow snow. I’ve avoided winter photography in the past, because it’s so damned inconvenient, cold, and difficult! Having recently done more of this than ever before, I have come to the conclusion that now that it is Spring, everything looks rather boring.

Do I always achieve my photographic goal, my Eureka! shot? Hell no. Actually and usually, no. But I keep trying. Maybe what I should do, instead, is “Don’t Try,” which was writer Charles Bukowski’s approach to creativity: just let the words flow, don’t try to make sense of them. So about those tombstones in the snow (like those below "At Rest"), and how they sort of snuck up on me when I least expected them. Folk/rock musician Neil Young says in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, that he can’t force a song to come out. If he does, its crap. To quote Neil:
Read about Bukowski's grave in California

"At Rest"
“When I write a song, it starts as a feeling. I can hear something in my head or feel it in my heart. It may be that I just picked up the guitar and mindlessly started playing. That’s the way a lot of songs begin. When you do that you are not thinking. Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song. So you start just playing and something new comes out. Where does it come from? Who cares? Just keep it and go with it. That’s what I do. I never judge it. I believe it. It came as a gift when I picked up my musical instrument and it came through me playing with the instrument. The chords and melody just appeared. Now is not the time for interrogation or analysis. Now is the time to get to know the song, not change it before you even know it. It is like a wild animal, a living thing. Be careful not to scare it away.”

Trillian Stars
That last part holds true for cameras, as far as I’m concerned – they’re just different types of instruments through which we photographers channel our creativity. (Incidentally, I too play guitar.) Like Neil Young writing a song, I am seldom looking for something specific when I go shooting. I push my limits, but not too far at any given time. I suck at portrait photography, for instance, so I don’t even try to do that. I leave that to the masters, like my friend Kyle Cassidy. It’s much more enjoyable to admire his work than to try and figure out how to duplicate it. Just look at this portrait he made of his wife, Trillian Stars! Talk about making the most of all the snow we’ve had in Philadelphia – he blends costume, choreography, technical expertise, and a masterful imagination with the radiant beauty of his wife to create a stunning portrait of which I am in total awe. But that’s Kyle. I don’t believe he forces anything to come out. (Incidentally, Kyle, too plays guitar.)

"At the Abandoned Cross," by Ed Snyder
There’s actually a bit of a backstory to Kyle’s photograph, which makes it fit in even more closely with my theme of the seemingly serendipitous capture. When I asked if I could use his image in this blog, he relayed the following information. It ties in with my lemonade-from-lemons approach to creativity and like my tombstone shots in the snowy, abandoned cemetery. His photograph involves making snow work for you instead of letting it impede you. Conceivably this can apply to all sorts of adverse conditions.

On the day Kyle made the photograph, the heat in his house went out and it was freezing inside. He and his wife “went to the thrift store, partly because it was warm, and got that dress and then ran around outside taking photos because there was nothing much else to do, and whenever we'd race back inside from the 21 degree weather to the 36 degrees inside, it felt positively HOT in there. The heat was out for two or three days … our furnace died.”

Abandoned train
So the images you see on this page are serendipitous, quite like me stumbling upon my stolen guitar displayed for sale at Guitar Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey last month. I had an Italian-made 70s-vintage 12-string acoustic for sale on consignment at a guitar shop in Delaware County back in 1985. The store was ransacked and all the instruments stolen. Nearly thirty years later, I walked into the acoustic room at the Guitar Center (always looking for that needle in the haystack, that amazing find!) and there it was, staring me in the face! I bought it, telling the store employee my story afterwards. I really wasn’t interested in how it got there, calling the police, or trying to prove that it was mine (which I couldn’t). It had telltale cracks in the finish and an odd little hole plug near the sound hole. Besides, my worn picks and guitar strap were still in the case! It looked as if no one had touched it in 29 years! A serendipitous find, I must say. What a lovely sound this thing makes – maybe as I mindlessly strum it, a few songs will come out. As with wild animals, I’ll be careful not to scare them away.

I leave you with something that Frank Zappa’s record producer Herb Cohen once said, “If you don’t know where you are going you can never get lost.”

References and Further Reading:
See Kyle Cassidy's work on and/or @kylecassidy on Twitter
"Graves Beneath the Snow," Cemetery Traveler blog posting by Ed Snyder

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Duffy's Cut 57 ... Massacre?

If you drive into Bala Cynwyd’s West Laurel Hill Cemetery (sister cemetery to Historic Laurel Hill in Philadelphia), past the office and funeral home, you’ll drive right toward a ten-foot-high limestone Celtic Cross, which adorns a monument covered in Irish symbolism. Much has been written about Duffy's Cut over the past few years, so I will not go into great detail here (please visit the links at the end if you would like to further educate yourself). The story is worth keeping alive for a number of reasons, like that of the Holocaust. The main reason being how we Americans oppressed the unfortunate during our capitalistic heyday around the Industrial Revolution. No, I’m not talking about how we killed off the natives of the Hawaiian Islands for imperialistic gain, or pressed into service Welsh and German immigrants to work the coal mines. I'm talking about a small select group of Irish immigrants who were brought to America in 1856 to work on building the railroads.

According to Immaculata University’s website (which sponsored the Duffy’s Cut project):
“In 1832, a group of 57 Irish immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone, and Derry arrived in Philadelphia. They were brought to Chester County by a fellow Irishman named Philip Duffy as laborers for the construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, Pennsylvania’s pioneering railroad. Within six weeks, all were dead of cholera and possibly violence, and were buried anonymously in a ditch outside of Malvern.”

Malvern, a western suburb of Philadelphia (in East Whiteland township, as indicated on the memorial), has very hilly terrain and at the time was densely wooded. Immigrant workers were brought in since the work was very dangerous. There was extreme prejudice against any kind of immigrants and so these people were treated as expendable resources by the railroad companies. Some of the 57 workers died of cholera (they would have received no medical care from their employer, the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad) and some were murdered. Phillip Duffy’s blacksmith buried all 57 workers in a shallow ditch beside the railroad bed.

According to the article “The Deaths at Duffy's Cut: Cholera or Cover-up?” (, “Between the summer of 1832 and the spring of 1833 a cholera epidemic ravaged the east coast of the U.S. At its worst, the disease killed as many as 80 people a day in Philadelphia…” Some have hypothesized “that local vigilantes, spurred by a blend of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigotry and fear of a deadly epidemic, may have murdered many of the Irish workers.” Locals have claimed to have seen the workers’ ghosts dancing on their own mass grave and paranormal investigations have even occurred. As far back as 1909 newspapers reported people seeing specters “as if they were a kind of green and blue fire and they were a-hopping and bobbing on their graves...” (ref.

Official records of the deaths at Duffy’s Cut remained locked in the vaults of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the company which evolved from the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. The records were found by accident by Reverend Dr. Frank Watson when the company went bankrupt in 1970. Watson’s brother William was a Professor of History at Immaculata University (which is located near Malvern, PA). Their grandfather had actually worked for the railroad and would tell them stories of the ghosts of Irishmen who danced on the graves alongside the railroad tracks in Malvern. After the grandfather’s death, the Watsons found the original records. Then they went digging – literally.

William Watson at the Duffy's Cut site in Malvern, PA (ref.)
Excavation of the ditch began in 2004 under the direction of William E. Watson, and in 2009 the first human bones were found in the mass grave. Irish pipes and other artifacts were found as well. Blunt trauma was noted on two of the skulls and there is evidence that some of the bones were struck by projectiles such as bullets. It appears to have been a massacre, for whatever reason. The bones of John Ruddy, the youngest of the Duffy’s Cut 57, died there at the age of eighteen. According to the New York Times, he finally received a proper burial in 2013:

“They laid his bones in a bed of Bubble Wrap, with a care beyond what is normally given to fragile things. They double-boxed those bones and carried them last month to the United Parcel Service office on Spruce Street in Philadelphia. Then they printed out the address and paid the fee. With that, the remains of a young man were soon soaring over the Atlantic Ocean he had crossed once in a three-masted ship. His name is believed to have been John Ruddy, and he was being returned to the Ireland he had left as a strapping teenage laborer. In 1832.”

Laid to Rest in West Laurel Hill Cemetery 

Funeral for five of the exploited "Duffy's Cut" railroad laborers
I learned of Duffy’s Cut quite by accident. A friend of mine who works at Philadelphia’s Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery told me about the dedication (in 2012) to the Duffy’s Cut 57 at West Laurel (Belmont Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, PA). I took a ride over and found the flags still lined up around the crypt cover. I missed the memorial service by a day, I think. If you watch this video (link below), you’ll be quite moved, I’m sure, by the serious and heartfelt ceremony, not to mention the small coffins which hold the remains to be buried:
Click here to watch the YouTube video of the memorial ceremony at West Laurel Hill Cemetery: Duffy's Cut viewing, memorial service and burial in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
According to Wikipedia:
“On March 9, 2012, the remains of five men and one woman from those who died at Duffy's Cut Shanty Town were laid to rest in a respectable church burial at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. The men and woman were unearthed by researchers from Immaculata University at the location of the Shanty Town near an Amtrak railroad line in Pennsylvania. A sixth body was recovered and identified as John Ruddy from Inishowen, County Donegal; his remains were returned to Ireland for reburial there. Excavation of the deep burial site was halted when Amtrak, which owns the land, would not issue permits for additional digging because of the site's proximity to the railroad tracks."

Monument at West Laurel Hill, shortly after dedication
(Would not issue PERMITS ...?) Below the huge limestone Celtic cross here at West Laurel Hill lie the buried remains of five men and one woman, all members of that unfortunate lot, possibly the victims of mass murder - the Duffy’s Cut 57. The other names on the crypt cover are from the ship’s roster (the John Stamp), and if excavation under the tracks is someday allowed by Amtrak, their remains may be buried here as well. As Bill Watson, director of the Duffy's cut project puts it: "Every human being deserves to be remembered (ref.)"

Buy from
Never forget what we’ve done to our fellow man in the name of “progress.” The evidence points toward a massacre of these unfortunate people, 57 Irish immigrants who came here in search of the American Dream.

References and Further Reading:

For the most comprehensive account of the Duffy’s Cut deaths: The Deaths at Duffy's Cut: Cholera or Cover-up?
Images from the PBS documentary, "Death on the Railroad"
The Duffy's Cut Project on the Immaculata University website
The Ghosts of Duffy’s cut YouTube video (RTE documentary)
New York Times article: With Shovels and Science, a Grim Story Is Told
West Laurel Hill Cemetery website
West Laurel Hill Cemetery Honors Irish Railroad Workers of Duffy’s Cut with One Year Memorial Service
Long-forgotten dead of Duffy's Cut get proper rites

PBS "Secrets of the Dead: Death on the Railroad" DVD

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Graves Beneath the Snow

The winter of 2013-2014 is one of the snowiest in Philadelphia history. I write this at the end of February, 2014 and we are finally seeing a break from the snow, ice, and cold (though more is expected later this week). Since I have relatively few photographs of cemeteries in the snow, I decided to make the most of the weather – the polar vortex, the clipper systems, the mini-ice age. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great catalyst for the creation of new art, for looking beyond – pushing yourself to handle a new challenge!

On a weekend in mid-February, after a particularly grueling week of shoveling and navigating the near-death experience (as I’ve come to refer to my car, as it has bald tires), I needed a few hours relief. What better way to spend it than languorously strolling a cemetery in the snow, snapping a few photos here and there? Well, as my readers are well aware, I do nothing simply. (Also, I never snap just a few photos!) So I decided to drive out to the abandoned Jewish cemetery in the hilly woods of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania (a northwestern suburb of Philadelphia).

Headstones in the woods in Gladwyne, PA.'s abandoned Jewish cemetery

One thing I realized fairly quickly as I set out this winter to photograph cemeteries in their snowy glory: I do not own a 4-wheel-drive vehicle! Almost got stuck a few times with my car, so my access was usually by foot. Which has been relatively painful with the deep snow, wind and cold! I envy those who can just do a drive-through and shoot out the window! (You can read about some of my trials and tribulations in the Cemetery Traveler blog posting, “Have You Fallen in the Last Week?”)

Anyhow, Gladwyne was no exception. While the roads out to the Main Line (of Philadelphia) were clear of snow, potholes abounded! It was like dodging moon craters on City Avenue. When I finally made it through the twisting, turning roads of Conshohocken State Road into the area of the Har Ha Zetim Cemetery (see this past blog for specific directions as well as a history of the cemetery), I found the hilly private driveway covered in snow. One attempt, made it halfway. Second attempt, made it to the first house and lost momentum on the turn. Bald front tires on my turbo Saab did not help the effort. (“Winter” mode when selected on the traction console warns me that I have lost traction. Indeed, my front wheels are spinning and I’m not moving. I didn’t really need an illuminated dashboard indicator to tell me that.)

Cemetery lies to left of private tennis court off Conshohocken State Road
I backed up in the driveway, parked, and knocked on the door of the first house. Maybe I could park in their driveway, behind the tennis court? No answer. Noticed a car just like mine alongside their house, half covered in a snow bank, like some half-excavated mastodon in the ice. Got in my car and nosed back down the hill, but, as I said, it was snow and ice-covered. I rode the deep snow at the side of the road so as not to slide uncontrollably onto Conshohocken State Road.

Cemetery is up over the hill at left

I drove up the road looking for a place to park, but the plowed snow barricaded any of that. About a quarter mile away was the synagogue, Beth David, which has taken ownership of Har Ha Zetim. Maybe I could park there? No, too far away, and no sidewalks here! I figured I’d give it one more chance: shoot up the driveway to the cemetery and gun it around the bend and try to make it further up the hill. As I was doing this, I kind of figured the pull-off to the overgrown entrance to the cemetery would not be plowed, and I was right. I continued up the hill toward the two houses further up. This is a private drive, but there is an easement for access to the cemetery, which is a holdover from bygone days when there were horseback riding trails here.

I had no choice – I had to circle the last driveway and ask to park there – either that or give up. I knocked at the door of this palatial home that overlooked the wooded eighteen-acre ravine known in other times as Mount of Olives cemetery. A woman came to the glass storm door, but did not open it. I politely shouted my request, to which she nodded her head and walked away. Presumably, not to phone the police. I went to my car and made a production of getting my camera gear out (in case she was watching through a window), then proceeded to walk back down the icy, plowed driveway.

Cemetery entrance off access road
It was only about a five-minute walk to the graveyard entrance; a fallen tree blocked pedestrian entry. As I cut off the plowed drive into the woods, toward the entrance, I was surprised to find that the foot of snow had an icy crust that made every step quite laborious. I would step on the surface, lift my weight onto the surface … then the icy crust would give way and my foot would plunge down a foot into the powdery snow. Arghh. Did I really want to spend an hour doing this? Turns out I spent two. And was I ever exhausted!

With each laborious footfall, however, a new snowy scene presented itself. The shapes and shadows of the grim, abandoned graveyard in the woods greeted me in all directions. It was so difficult breaking through the snow that I probably spent more time than usual photographing each dramatic gravescape. I tried following the jackrabbit tracks so I wouldn’t crash through the snow with every step, but they trailed off into the denser woods. At one point I almost fell over backward as I lost my balance while composing this scene with the old brick crypt!

The lighting was perfect. The old iron plot fencing and gateposts were perfect. The only distraction I had was the thought of the long climb ahead of me, when I ventured back out of this place. Snow usually makes things look prettier, more pure. Not here. It just accentuates the desolation, the forgotten memories, the forgotten people. Rabbits had obviously been here, but I saw none. Saw no animals, in fact, the entire, deathly silent time I was there. But I captured some wonderful images, creating my own memory of this place, this time.

It is a graveyard lost to history, this Har Ha Zetim Cemetery. It is full of the simple art and architecture of its heyday, the late 1800s. Carved doves and flowers can be seen here and there, with names and Hebrew text still visible on many stones. There is even a U.S. military veteran's marker decorated with an American flag sunk in a small gully. This inactive "Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery," aka "Mount of Olives," was supposedly established in 1860, and served the poor Jewish population of Philadelphia and Norristown until the 1920s. It is a community of thousands of Jews, some of whom no doubt emigrated to America from Russia during the pogrom in 1881.Where are the descendants of these people ...?

After about twenty minutes of plodding down the hill into the ravine (where the headstones and cradle graves become more densely crowded), I realized that I was lugging about forty pounds of camera gear with me. If I didn’t have that weight, would I still break through the icy crust? I stripped myself of the camera bags and lo and behold, I could walk on the surface of the snow! It was strong enough to bear my two hundred pounds! Great. Now what? Leave my gear in the snow? That was a failed experiment. I picked up all my cameras and plunged further on down through the woods!

Acres and acres of graves fade into the distant forest

Gaiters would have been nice. Since the foot of snow below the crust was powdery, my socks filled with snow as my pant legs were pulled up by the ice layer with each heavy step. Sigh. Maybe this is why they call it artWORK– because it sometimes takes a lot of WORK to create it! At least it wasn’t cold, about thirty-eight degrees. However, this was way more work than I expected. But it paid off. This trip was worth the effort on so many levels.

In the back of my mind, I had thought maybe if I walked in my own footsteps back up the hill, it would be less work. The reality, though, is that the foot pattern is just the opposite of what I needed for this to work! The only way to reuse the snow holes made by my feet on the way in would be to walk backwards on the way out! Sigh.Well, at least the long, slow plod allowed me to concentrate on my surroundings from the opposite direction. This is a technique of mine that is so basic and effective, it fascinates me. Just walk toward the same thing from different directions and you’ll see things differently!
One of the best images I made here today was done in this manner. The scene with the grave marker that says “At Rest” was invisible to me on the way down the hill. When I came upon this setting, about halfway out of the ravine, I was startled by the shadows made on the snow by the dead leaves still clinging to the branches of a small tree. I automatically went into my black and white mode of thinking, where you “see” in black and white. The ripples of leaf shadows and the snowdrifts gave the impression of headstones afloat on seawaves of snow.

You know how you might spend a period of time on a shoot and then - Eureka! you instantly realize that that was the shot you were after!? Your hard work just paid off with the success of that single image! I regained control from my imagination and set to climbing out of Har Ha Zetim with that thought. I left the memory of the hard work and exhaustion buried back there in snow.

Further Reading:
Read more about Gladwyne's abandoned Jewish cemetery in the Cemetery Traveler blog posting:  Passover and Gladwyne's Abandoned Jewish Cemetery

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why Being Unique is Not Always Your Best Bet

Seven-foot SpongeBob grave marker (
This week's Cemetery Traveler blog was guest-written by my friend Lisa Vaeth. I noticed a comment she made on Facebook in February and was intrigued by her perspective on this unusual situation. I invited her to share it with my readers.

Why Being Unique is Not Always Your Best Bet
by Lisa K. Vaeth

Spring Grove Cemetery in Ohio was the subject of much discussion last fall.  A young woman tragically died and her family erected SpongeBob SquarePants headstones.  Now, they were going to have to come down, just one day after being installed. Comments on social media and news websites across the country showcased opinions on both sides: those who believe that since the cemetery initially signed off on the design, they should leave them as is, and those who are horrified that these giant granite cartoon characters are located next to their own family’s stones.

An employee of the cemetery had originally approved the design; however, it turned out they did not have the authority to do so. Spring Grove has agreed to pay for the refabrication after discovering many community members were offended by the  larger-than-life headstones. You will notice in the photo that there are two markers – one was installed for the deceased’s twin, who is still alive.

Seven-foot tall monuments in Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery (Ref.)

Keep in mind – these monuments are 7 feet tall! Although we all like to believe in our right to self-expression, one should take into consideration that others were buried there long before her.   They no longer have a voice; therefore, the cemetery administrators must be that voice. If these monuments were allowed to stay here, just try to imagine the three-ring-circus that the cemetery would become!   People will travel from everywhere to have their photos taken next to them. In most cases, this is not to honor the deceased.  It’s basically to make a mockery of the stone – and for those with a deep affinity for SpongeBob, it becomes a tourist attraction. news photo

How about the stones that are next to these? Would you want people trudging all over your Mom or Dad’s graves just to be able to see this? Cemeteries are meant for quiet reflection. They should not be treated as party venues. When you give a family this kind of leeway it infringes upon the others buried beforehand.

In this country there are definitely cemeteries that allow for unique self-expression and families who “design” these types of stones should look for one that would not only allow it, but welcome it. Unfortunately, this cemetery was not the right fit.

Then there is the real issue of long term maintenance. What happens when and if they get knocked over, break, etc. in 150 years? Many people don’t realize that the headstones are the responsibility of the family, not the cemetery. So, unless you have young relatives with a great deal of extra money lying around to fix their predecessor’s headstones, you may wish to consider a simpler monument that fits in with the cemetery.

Contrary to what you may believe, having a monument stand out in a cemetery is NOT a good thing. The attention it attracts is generally negative, makes it a target for vandalism and does not give the deceased the respect they deserve. In this case, a small cartoon character on the stone would have honored the person’s admiration just as easily.  Everyone grieves in different ways and wants to honor their loved ones in a dignified manner, however, it is important to think long-term and also about how the impact of your decision will affect others.

Refabricated headstones for deceased Kimberly Walker and twin sister Kara (Ref.)

The stones have since been refabricated and are more in scale with the surrounding stones.  Hopefully this will satisfy the remaining family members who have had loved ones buried there for decades, as well as the recently interred. 


Author Bio:

Lisa Vaeth has overseen 28 Jewish cemeteries in Greater Hartford, Connecticut, for well over a decade.  These cemeteries were abandoned by synagogues that folded and civic organizations that no longer exist.  The Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford stepped in 30 years ago to ensure these sacred burial grounds are properly maintained to show our deep respect to those community members who came before us.  We are funded by Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s annual campaign and through funding from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.  She can be reached at