Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cemetery Lovers: Sex and Death

You were waiting for this, weren’t you? I mean, how could I write a blog about cemetery travels without discussing sex? Well, I have, on occasion, but not as directly as I am now. Whatever could sex and cemeteries have in common? Turns out sex and death are very closely related in our psyches. We seem to be simultaneously death phobic and sexually driven - death and desire seem to conjugate in some fashion in our minds, a philosophy of opposites. But do they conjugate in our cemeteries? That is, does live sex (I mean, between people) occur in our memory gardens? On our hallowed grounds? Sure it does. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard about it, I’ve done it. (There, I finally said it. Happy?)

While teenagers may use our cemeteries as trysting places because it’s the only way they can get privacy, adults do it for many other reasons. Its exciting, its forbidden (sort of, I guess, though I’ve never actually seen any signs posted …), and it is the closest many of us can get to experiencing human nature’s two basic instincts at the same time: Eros and Thanatos. Sure there’s autoerotic asphyxia (strangulation during sex), but that’s going off the deep end. Most people don’t need to go to such extremes to get off. Sigmund Freud theorized that Thanatos, the instinct of death, or aggression, drives us as strongly as Eros, our instinct for life. Eros drives us toward attraction and reproduction while Thanatos drives us to our destruction.

Found in a cemetery
If you accept this, it explains why so much of our entertainment (movies, books, and television) keeps us riveted with a teetering balance of sex and death. We enjoy this, for the most part. Sometimes, real life mimics fiction. Take for instance the couple who shows up at the cemetery’s “night photography” event without cameras. As the group heads off into the cemetery with the instructor, the couple disappears. (Do I need to draw you a picture?)

Doing it in a cemetery must be titillating to a rather small portion of the population. I can’t imagine that hordes of people would WANT to do this, although sometimes, business demands it. Take for instance the prostitute who recently approached several cemetery grounds keepers (separately, but on the same day) while in the course of their duties. This was her line: “Are you single? Because I don’t want any wives involved in this. My apartment has ghosts. Can you come with me to check it out for me?” After her third attempt failed, she left. She was making house calls, so to speak.

Old Camden Cemetery
So while some of my research depends on secondary sources, my primary research corroborates the data. Also, I trust my sources. I’ve written about being solicited by prostitutes in Camden, New Jersey cemeteries, and this is a weird experience, I must say (read more about that at this link). Being solicited, that is. (Happy to say my actual sexual encounters in graveyards did not involve prostitutes! And I was between marriages, for the record.) I realize that prostitution in graveyards is strictly business - the parties are not looking for thrills, its just cheaper than getting a room. (Do you know that some no-tell motels offer rooms by the hour!? If it does not appear to the clerk at check-in that you and your companion will be spending the night, the clerk might actually offer you an hourly rate!)

So, maybe cemeteries should have “No soliciting” signs on their gates? Or “No Engaging” signs …. I know of another cemetery where guys have driven onto the grounds with prostitutes in their cars, found a secluded spot and ….. you may think I’m going for the full Pinocchio on this topic but its true - I’ve seen this. I’ve unfortunately and accidentally, driven by this. Several times. A friend of mine who volunteers at a cemetery saw a taxi parked on the grounds recently, so she approached it, and then noticed that it was bouncing up and down! Two people were on the back seat while the DRIVER sat patiently behind the steering wheel! (No doubt the meter was ticking away.)

The author, photographed by Frank Rausch
But getting away from the business at hand, let us return to the Eros versus Thanatos thrill of sex in a cemetery. Personally, I was too scared of being caught to be, shall we say, effective? A partner and I were actually arrested once in a similar situation, having to pay a fine only for trespassing – they dropped the indecent exposure charge as there were no witnesses other than the cop who caught (and was no doubt watching) us. So while I’m a bit more careful these days, others obviously find the inherent danger of sex in cemeteries to be very stimulating. Not only because of the chance of getting caught, I suppose, but also because of the very real possibility of being eaten by zombies.

Then of course, there is nude cemetery photography. It happens. On occasion, I’ve seen exhibits of such work, though you’d be hard-pressed to find any examples of it were you to actually search (try searching the Internet right now, unless you're at work, that is!). It’s a rather taboo subject, for all the reasons you can possibly imagine.We seem as obsessed with death as we are with sex, but less openly. We fear death, though it fascinates us. These inner drives, as Freud says, both coincide and conflict. I know a guy who works at a cemetery and he occasionally sees a clandestine shoot here and there. He politely asks the photographer and model to pack up and leave, as it may upset other visitors who may be at the cemetery for other reasons. In one instance, he chased a vehicle from spot to spot over the course of a day as a woman dressed only in a cape would throw it over herself, jump into the passenger side of the vehicle and the driver would speed off.

If I was attending a burial ceremony or visiting the grave of a loved one I would not want a photo shoot of any kind happening nearby. Maybe those cemeteries who have signs saying “No Photography” are really trying to stop nude photography. I know of one cemetery in northern New Jersey that has a “No Photography” policy simply because the unauthorized rock band photo shoots and the motion picture crews do damage to the grounds and the monuments.

So obviously, nude cemetery photography is titillating to some, but then what do you do with the photos afterwards? Like I said, you very seldom see any in public. I’ve never done this myself, but then who would want to see photos of me naked in a cemetery?

Psyche, wakened by Cupid, her lover's kiss
So the life force in us is as strong as the death force, and while the drives may not be equal in everyone, they are certainly present, and often intermingle. This was never so prevalent as it was in the Victorian era, when artists had seemingly free reign to sculpt nude or partially nude statues for use as cemetery monuments. I've written about this in the past (see The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries), and while the sculptures aren't exactly arousing, sexually, they are indeed suggestive. Perhaps their intent was to get our minds off dismal death, and to think rather about life and its beauty, and the joys of reproduction.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

She Has Risen

My Mom almost died a few weeks ago. She’s 74. I know I have a knack for being overly dramatic, but not this time. She fell out behind her house and broke her hip. Over the course of three hours, she managed to crawl about fifteen feet to her back door, but could not drag herself up the steps. It was raining and about 45 degrees. She was out there for about five hours.

My sister typically calls her every day, but our Mom did not answer the phone. (She and I live two hours away from Mom.) So my sister called my brother, who lives a few miles from our Mom, and asked if he would drive to her home to check on her. He did, and found her in back of the house lying in the mud, delirious, knees bloody from dragging herself along the rocks. He called 911 and the paramedics arrived and took her to the hospital.
Photo of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital from Hollenback Cemetery, across River Street

It took over 24 hours to get her hypothermia under control and her broken hip was replaced a couple days later. She’s doing fine in a rehab facility now, a week later, and should be home in another week or so. We’re going to get her one of those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” devices. My brother and sister saved her life.

Its brushes with death like this that get you thinking about, well, death. And how to prevent it. And what you would do if it were to happen. Knowing that we’re all going to die doesn’t make it any easier to accept; just like knowing that you must pay the IRS a large portion of your salary doesn’t make it any easier to do. 

Sunrise on the Pennsylvania Turnpike
I made the early morning trip from Philadelphia to Wilkes-Barre, PA (where my Mom was taken to the hospital) the day after her fall. All the while I was driving, I heard death-related news on the radio: Microsoft announced on this day (April 8, 2014) that its XP operating system was being “laid to rest” after twelve years. I also heard that Archie Andrews (b. 1941), of Archie comic book fame, was being killed off this coming July, 2014. It didn’t help when Dylan’s song, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” came on. 

Addition on back of hospital, facing Hollenback Cemetery
I knew my Mom was in the Critical Care Unit, but wasn’t sure of her condition. All this external input was playing on my mind. Better that, though, than being left with my own, much more morbid, thoughts. This next trip was supposed to be where we both went to visit the recently located grave of her long lost uncle (read about that here); here I am now thinking about her own mortality.

Wilkes-Barre General Hospital is where my father worked as a laborer with a construction company doing building expansion, back in maybe 1990. He died here in 2004, from black lung he got while coal mining. While he was working there on that construction project, a patient jumped to her death off a roof. Death all around. It’s weird how the large Hollenback Cemetery is clearly visible out the hospital’s front windows. You wonder what the patients and their visitors are thinking.

Hollenback Cemetery, seen from inside Wilkes-Barre General Hospital

Beverly Snyder, post-hip replacement
My first visit to see my Mom the day after her accident, was scary. She had lots of other problems like borderline kidney function and high blood pressure that delayed her surgery, so those first couple days were an uneasy time. Her doctor, though, told her in front of me that she is a “tough old broad” and she’d do fine. She did, and is well on her way to recovery. It wasn’t until my second visit a few days later, post-surgery, that I ventured into Hollenback Cemetery.

It may seem morbid that I would be walking around in there with my Mom right across the street in a hospital bed. But it was a way of – believe it or not – getting my mind off things! I needed that distraction! I just wanted an hour to myself without someone throwing lingo like “power of attorney” or “life alert” at me. The photos you see throughout this article are from that visit. As I drove out of the cemetery and headed back to Philadelphia, Neil Young’s song “Long May You Run” came on the radio. You GO, Mom!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why do you photograph cemeteries?

Back in mid-winter (oh, maybe January 2014), I started a Facebook Group Page called “Snow in Cemeteries.” The 2013-14 winter saw snow in 49 of the 50 United States – Florida being the only state in which it did not snow! Due mainly to the exuberant response (there were postings from all over the world – Germany, Canada, Brasil, Great Britain, Poland, even Texas!), it occurred to me to make this post:

“Ok, here's a question for everyone: Why do you photograph cemeteries? (People would ask me this, and for years, I did not have an answer.)”
Let’s take a look at why some people make photographs in cemeteries. I believe I had about 75 responses, almost immediately. I wanted to share some with my Cemetery Traveler readers. You may be surprised by some, amazed at others. In all, they are quite inspiring! (I’ve added my own photographs to break up the text.)

Denise MacL. – “As a child, I loved listening to the elderly people telling stories of days gone past...and then I liked to see where these people were buried. After a while, I started visiting cemeteries to read the stones and piece together the history. Then I began to notice the art within and photography became a way for me to capture the beauty found. As well, it fills my 'cup of happiness' to spend a day in such a tranquil place filled with heartwarming 'stories', sentiments and beauty. It is my form of meditation and oddly, I find it exhilarating. I feel more alive after spending the day there.”

Kim P-S: “I began visiting cemeteries with my grandmother when I was a teenager. We mainly went because she shared so much of our family history and visited their graves because these are what remains (seriously no pun intended) of their lives. Their existence is literally written in stone. In the ensuing years as I got older and began soul-searching, I needed to feel as though I belonged in this world, and would visit my ancestors' graves on a regular basis to help me feel grounded. I am not trying to sound cliché by using these words. I mean it very literally. So when digital photography became popular and mainstream, it was just a natural and amazing way for me to carry these images with me. And then I began just visiting cemeteries I encountered wherever I went for the simple peace and beauty of them. I love discovering all the people that have come before me. And I take photos regularly for Find A Grave, and have been able to fill photo requests for people researching their family who do not live near where their ancestors are buried. I derive great joy from "reuniting" family members. It is free and brings me joy and knowledge. I could go on and on, but in a nutshell, that's why I love photographing cemeteries.”

Denise M. – “ It is a passion and an obsession...”
Alexandra M. -  “My interest in photographing --and writing about--cemeteries developed from my career as a funeral director. I must say that I far prefer spending time in cemeteries in an artistic capacity.”

Dave W. -  “For me it began as a genealogical quest. Placing me in cemeteries, recording the information on tombstones. Then taking photos (35mm) for the addition to my charts. All this bringing me to a large cemetery in the town I grew up in. Thus taking me back to redo the photos with my first Polaroid digital camera. Seeing one of my family plots with the grass over grown, I began to take my mower with me to do these plots. In this process I met the board president of the cemetery, he thanked me, told me the struggles of a non-profit cemetery and since having family in the cemetery I could participate at the board meetings so I went. I continued to take photos of family members in cemeteries, but while in this one I began to see carvings, unique t/stones and began taking more. Sometimes just sitting in the peaceful area and reflecting. Then names of others became interesting. So I starting writing down their histories, which led to a Historical Tour held in October each year, which led to a fundraiser. Placing me in cemeteries more and more, particularly in this one. … So due to the peace of the cemetery, the excitement of a new find, to the beauty of nature and the artistic tombstones, I became, a cemetery junkie! … You did show me the art in it. I like the art, and often place my mind into the chipping and cutting to create. However in my mind it is impossible, lol... Peeling was a local carver here, his forte' was lambs, I just cannot imagine creating such art from stone. Now that is what I look for...... Oh a name once in a while too, but never as before!”

John O'B. -  “History written in stone.”
Tina DeM. – “It’s a unique canvas of interesting photos and stories waiting to be told.”

Cheryl F. – “My dad would take me to his family cemeteries in VA when I was a child. He was a photographer and had a darkroom in our basement so I became fascinated with the process. He was more into documentation/genealogy, I was more into the art/landscape in the cemeteries. I began photographing cemetery art when I was in high school and picked it up again when I started teaching pinhole camera design to my sophomore chem students. Now I've published a coffee table book of my cemetery photos so I've really gone over to the darkside LOL.”
Julie E. - “I started doing it back in the 80's when I was taking photography classes. The teacher was horrified by it. But --- it made good black and whites and if I did something I didn't like or didn't get what I wanted I could always go back because those folks -------- weren't going anywhere. They would always be in the same place --- so I could redo till I got what I needed. Unfortunately, I never could have imagined that my life would go the road it did -- and I did not save those photos or negatives. I think maybe only two or three photos survive out of hundreds. Imagine ----- the photographic record I would have had for myself in that cemetery. When it came time for me to show Megan how to work the manual camera - that's where I took her ----- the cemetery.”

Denise J. - “Because they have a beauty, all their own. Time stands still there.”
Andrea W. - “Because I love it.”

James V. – “For some strange reason I've always been attracted to Cemeteries regardless of where I've been. From my hometown in Wisconsin to the one across from my grandmother’s house in Colorado. San Diego to Hollywood to Alexandria Virginia. Always respectful always curious. From the statues and artwork to the names and lives they've lived. I personally found photography late in life. Wish I had then. When I finally came up to Philadelphia from VA, the Forest Hills/Shalom was down the street which I ventured. It wasn't until I moved in Mayfair where I found a person who had similar interests in Cemeteries. I found out she was into photography and would photograph cemeteries and certain stones of interest. She showed me Laurel Hill East and West and we would go there taking photos, she with her camera me with my phone, that is until my wonderful wife bought me the best Christmas gift EVER! A D5100 Nikon with 2 lenses. Now I had a real camera, but a lot to learn. As you know, Ed, when we first met at Laurel Hill on photography night was my first night shoots. I've taught myself much since then yet Cemeteries and Tombstones are still my favorite and always will be!”
“I was up in Easton with a friend, we had spare time and I saw the Easton Cemetery and wanted to stop in and check it out. He was driving and he gave me a look like I was insanely joking and kept driving. I will get up there again one day. … have not had the opportunity to truly investigate it because I'm usually with my family and when I mention stopping in I get the usual uninterested sigh of, ‘Omg, no, please don't make us dad.’ From my family. Lol”

Jacqueline T. - "I've been there [Vandegrift Cemetery] and shot as much as I could because a lot of the stones are unreadable. It's very small and the people at the fire house across the street were looking at me funny lol...they just wouldn't understand lol..."

Patricia K. – “Because there is nobody around to look at me strange when I take 3000 photos of the same object.”

Debra H. - “I Don't Photograph At All. I Don't Even Own A Camera, Unless You Count The One In My IPad, Or My Old Polaroid- I Don't Even Know Where That Is. Anyway - I Really Am Captivated By This Genre. Even The Post-Mortem Photography Is Interesting To Me. I Very Much Enjoy All Of Your Contributions. Thank You For What You Do!”

Tammy G. - “When I was a kid I used to go with my parents to two cemeteries to care for graves of our loved ones. While my parents were busy cutting grass and such my brother and I would wander around the cemetery. I loved doing it, looking at the stones, being careful not to walk on any graves. Later on as a teen we would drive to various cemeteries and talk about local legends. (Every town has them.) (Which inspired me to write my book.) So now, I love the peace, the art and history. I wonder about those buried. I love being able to share and to see what others have to share. That's some of the reasons. … I think my parents did a fine job but what I didn't mention is when we went to cemeteries as teens, we were partying. Even still...we were always respectful.”

Dee M. – “I started photographing cemeteries as an off-shoot of my genealogy. The more time I spent in cemeteries checking out the graves of my ancestors, the more I noticed how peaceful and beautiful they are. I don't think there is anywhere else in this world that you can find such heartfelt, artistic beauty as in a cemetery.”

Joe G. - “Good question, Ed, it made me think.
    1) Most cemeteries are beautiful places, by design, and the landscapes, the architecture, the sculptures all make such wonderful subjects, photographically.
    2) I'm intrigued by the iconography of funereal sculpture and architecture.
    3) The sense of history can be so strong, from the micro level of individual and inter-family relationships and life stories written on the headstones, up to the macro level of our own national history as you visit the graves of historical figures.
    4) Cemeteries are such peaceful places to walk, meditate, see nature, and think about the human condition.”

Susan S. – “I can remember always being afraid of cemeteries as a young girl. I don't know why, but I would hold my breath whenever we drove past a grave yard. Now I find myself drawn to them, finding peace and solace as I walk through those hollowed grounds. As many of you have stated, I too find myself thinking about the lives that once were, and are no more on this earth. Thus bringing to the forefront of my being, my own mortality. The difference between my childhood fears of death and all things related to it, and my peace and serenity of the same, is due to the eventuality of an acceptance of my own mortality. The knowing, in my own soul, that all is not finished when our lives on earth are done. There is more, much more ahead, just over yonder.....”

Anthony S. – “I photograph cemeteries as a form of Memento Mori.”
Teresa R. - “There’s so much peace there, and the beauty of them I feel calm when I’m there and a closeness to my family.”

John O'B. – “In 2005 I went to England. I went to many places including the British museum. To save weight I brought many memory cards instead of a computer. I toured the entire museum and took over 300 pictures. When I finally got home and looked at what I took I found. Gravestones, mummies, tombs and lot of funeral related stuff. So my tastes have been predetermined. I like graveyards and photograph them. Because I like it!”

Johanna C. – “As a kid (Youngest of 8) Cemeteries were my secret hiding spot from my family. Became fascinated by the statuary and the fact that someone took the time to handcarve/etch each one. I'd bring a drawing pad and a thermos of juice with me each day as I rode my bike to the nearest one. As an adult, I still visited the families stones that seemed abandoned and would tidy them up/plant flowers. Many years later I found out about and jumped right into it. They still are my favorite secret solitude away from home.”

Katie K. – “ Simple answer? Even at a young age I appreciated architecture and sculpture, but there is SO much of it. When I opened my eyes, as a teenager, to the sculpture in cemeteries, I discovered a way to narrow the field down and focus on a small subset examples, which represented so many styles. Upon first learning about funerary symbolism, I knew I had found my niche. So, in essence, it was a matter of simply paring down my interests to what interested me the most. That, and, well, cemeteries are reflective of the communities they serve so it's a great way to get a quick local history lesson. … I didn't realize that was my process, Ed, until you asked the question and I really thought long and hard about it. So.... thanks for posing the question!”

Dawn H. – “Visiting a cemetery is like therapy to calm me. I have been doing it since I was a child. Photography came later after I discovered all the treasures that are held within them. I have never been to a cemetery that I didn't find something that was beautiful.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review of a “Ghost” Camera

Cemetery at night, with clouds and full moon above
You might think this is an April Fool’s Day post, but I swear it’s true! Recently I had the opportunity to borrow a ghost camera. My friend Susan Ellis loaned me her Bell and Howell S7, a 12 megapixel (MP) point-and-shoot “night vision” infrared-capable camera. The subject is illuminated by six red LEDs on the front of the camera. So lo and behold, the images look just like those fuzzy black and white videos on the ghosthunters’ television shows! People and objects have sort of an aura around them.

So literally, the ghosts are in the machine - in the camera, that is! Not really sure if I actually photographed any ghosts outside the camera. In the event the camera was indeed able to pick up energy from the netherworld, I took it into some graveyards at night, as well as in the daytime. The spookier images appeared to be those of live people, however. I also shot various other things with it, examples of which you see here.

The pupils of people’s and animals’ eyes glowed white when illuminated by the S7’s LED panel, giving them the demonic look you see in this photo. (That’s not Linda Blair from The Exorcist at left, its my lovely daughter Olivia, smiling sweetly).

One interesting thing about IR is that when shooting in black and white, foliage appears white. In the daylight, the night vision mode registered simply as poor-quality black and white, save for the foliage appearing white. You can see this in the image below, where the pine needles from the evergreen are white. Here’s a color version of the same image. The camera is easily switchable from low-quality monochrome to low-quality color! (The switch manually removes the infrared blocking lens from in front of the image sensor.)

Order from
Low-quality image? I know what you’re thinking (I have that power, you know), “If the Bell and Howell S7 has a 12 megapixel image sensor, then why are the images of such poor quality?” Mainly, that has to do with the bogus sales pitch (and ad campaigns) that would have unwary customers believing that the higher the pixel count, the better the image. Oh, if life could be that simple! Unfortunately, it is not so.

You see, image quality (resolution, color reproduction, etc.) has more to do with the overall size of the image sensor, not the pixel count. The smaller cameras get, the smaller the image sensor needs to be. A DSLR may have a 24 x 35mm image sensor with a total pixel count of 6MP (megapixels), while the average point-and-shoot may have an image sensor whose overall dimensions are only 5 x 7 mm, but with a total pixel count of 12MP.  Guess which one has better image quality? The DSLR, because it has an overall larger image sensor! (In case you’re interested, I cover this in greater detail in Chapter 4 (“Magical Devices for a High-Speed World?”) of my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, available from
"Lone Wolf"
Another reason the black and white infrared images on the Bell and Howell S7 are so grainy could be due to the poor light sensitivity at higher ISO settings, or it could simply be that the camera simulates the traditionally grainy infrared film! I rather like the effect, which is quite cool in this nighttime image of a Mummers’ street party in Philadelphia (above, New Years’ Day, 2014). In this image, there was quite a bit of ambient light, so the camera’s LEDs were not the only light source. When it is the only light source in the dark, you get this vignetting effect (below), which appears simply because the LEDs cannot illuminate the entire field of view.

In color still image mode, the Bell and Howell S7 night vision camera has most of the modes and features of a standard inexpensive digital point and shoot, and you can see them all in this YouTube video. It is also capable of video capture.

Color image made with Bell and Howell S7 camera

I didn’t make any night vision videos, because the LED light source is so weak that it doesn’t illuminate anything more than a few feet away. Even when taking still photos, the shutter speed is so slow, you really have to brace the camera against something solid (like a tombstone, for instance, or a tripod) to keep from getting blurry images. You couldn’t really carry the camera around while trying to capture video in the dark as the sensor is just not very light-sensitive (not sure how ghost-sensitive it is, either) – you just end up with blurriness. Your best bet would be to have the camera on a tripod and let it roll, hoping the ghosts will come to you. (Here’s a YouTube video of an S7 video capture.)

Lastly, and I failed to try this since I didn’t read the Thinkgeek website until after I returned the borrowed camera: “…during the daytime in night vision mode you can see through some types of clothing, paper and other various thin materials. ... Important Note: Respect the privacy of your fellow humans and don't use the … Night Vision Camera for evil." Guess I may have to borrow Susan’s camera again!

Note: To read more about the Bell and Howell S7 (which you can buy for around $100), click here to go to the Bell and Howell website.