Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Nanny's Photographs

"Finding Vivian Maier"
Okay, so unless you’re an avid photographer, well no - a true photo nerd - you probably have not heard of the movie currently making the art house rounds called Finding Vivian Maier

The most succinct introduction to this topic is to quote the website

 “This intriguing documentary shuttles from New York to France to Chicago as it traces the life story of the late Vivian Maier, a career nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs has earned her a posthumous reputation as one of America’s most accomplished and insightful street photographers.”

So why am I writing about this in The Cemetery Traveler? Well, there's a strange connection here if you will allow me. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and it is more than just a documentary – it is almost a psychological thriller. In addition to being an amazingly talented street photographer, Vivian appears to have also been mentally disturbed. But then so was VanGogh. The reason I bring Maier up in this blog is because of a story related to me by an attendee on a photography tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery last year (Mount Moriah is in Southwest Philadelphia). Also because it is now May, and all the Catholic school children are receiving First Holy Communion. Stay with me on this. I’ll eventually tie it all together!

First, you might want to view the trailer of the movie, to get a better idea of what Maier was about. Click this link to view. The photo at the beginning of this blog is one of her many self-portraits; the young girl in the reflection is one of her charges. The image is titled "Self-Portrait, 1953," though Maier never titled her work. In fact she never even printed her negatives. As you will learn from the documentary, she even left thousands of exposed, undeveloped film behind after her death!

So back to the photo tour at Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. The woman on the photo tour (who was in her sixties, as I recall) told me that her family lived across the street (Kingsessing Avenue and Cemetery Road) from Mount Moriah when she was around eight years old. This would have been in the 1960s, I suppose. Her parents had a nanny to take care of her and her brother. The brother was about the same age. Their nanny, it seems, was an avid photographer and would from time to time – I swear I’m not making this up – have the boy and girl dress in their white First Holy Communion outfits and walk over to the cemetery with her. Right in front of the old brownstone gatehouse, she would have the children lie on their backs – on graves – with their hands folded as if praying, and photograph them.

Ed Snyder (in green cap) giving tour of Mount Moriah Gatehouse
The photo above shows some of the headstones in front of the gatehouse, perhaps the same ones the nanny had the children lie near. The woman who relayed the story to me said nothing ever happened beyond that – she and her brother just thought it was a bit weird, but they were not afraid. As I listened to her story with my jaw dropped open, she delivered the knockout punch – she told me she still has the photos! The nanny gave them copies! Unfortunately, I lost contact with her and have never seen the photos, but how bizarre is that!

I thought of this situation while watching the movie Finding Vivian Maier, specifically toward the end of the film when it becomes evident that the quirky nanny may have been slightly deranged. One of Maier’s charges (now in her sixties) is interviewed and says that once she and her brother were with Maier and playing in the street when her brother got hit by a car! When the police and ambulance came, the nanny took pictures of the scene!

Image by Vivian Maier, New York City, 1954 (ref.)
Unlike the nanny who worked near Mount Moriah Cemetery, Vivian Maier never showed anyone her photographs. The work was only discovered after her death (in 2009) when the contents of her storage unit was auctioned off. A fascinating story, which is the origin of the documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier. I quote from the website:

Mount Moriah gatehouse as it appears now (2014)
“Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer born in New York City. Although born in the U.S., it was in France that Maier spent most of her youth. Maier returned to the U.S. in 1951 where she took up work as a nanny and care-giver for the rest of her life. In her leisure however, Maier had begun to venture into the art of photography. Consistently taking photos over the course of five decades, she would ultimately leave over 100,000 negatives, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. Vivian would further indulge in her passionate devotion to documenting the world around her through homemade films, recordings and collections, assembling one of the most fascinating windows into American life in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Thursday, May 22, 2014

4th Anniversary of "The Cemetery Traveler" Blog!

As I write this blog posting, I begin my FIFTH YEAR of writing The Cemetery Traveler! Can you believe that?!). I’ve posted 248 blogs in the past four years and I truly thank you for reading them! There will be a quiz at the end. (Actually, a few have been guest-written by friends, at my invitation, and I thank them for sharing their knowledge and experience!)

A few of the blogs had to do with two new Facebook pages I started, based on my experiences with the varied personalities taken on by cemeteries during the different seasons of the year. The first one I did was called Cemeteries in the Snow which was received with wild enthusiasm the world over! This was quite exciting and produced some amazing images, as well as expanding readers' awareness of the beuaty of a graveyard under a blanket of snow.

The next page I started at a friend's request, Cemeteries in the Rain. I thought it would be an interesting experiment. The page has a whole different feel to it, as the general idea of a cemetery in the rain is rather depressing! The page has had limited upload participation because, well, other than me, who would be in a cemetery during a rainstorm?! still, I am intrigued at how a cemetery landscape changes drastically with the seasons.

As a fairly prolific writer, I can’t help but share an ironic experience with you, which has to do with writing, and with me, specifically. A few months ago my wife and I took our four-year-old daughter to a “play date” at a local (Philadelphia) Quaker school to see if we might send her there for kindergarten. While the kids were off playing (and being evaluated), the parents were gathered in a separate room for chatties and snacks (and most likely also being evaluated, though more discretely). As about thirty of us sat there in comfy chairs listening to the speakers extoll the virtues of the school, the dreaded ice breaker was thrust upon us.

Daughter Olivia learning her "ABCs"
We were each given a slip of paper on which were typed different questions. We were to go up to a stranger and ask them our question. After the person answered, that person would ask you their question. You would then trade slips of paper and go find another stranger to accost. It was a way of learning about each other that was effective and sort of eye-opening. I was asked this question:

“If you found yourself on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?”
Now, dear reader, before you continue, I invite you to jot down three things that first come to your mind – what would YOU take? I’ll go off on some little tangent and then come back with my response. Then we will compare and contrast.

So it has been four years of writing The Cemetery Traveler and I am STILL working on my first book of collected blogs. Its not so much procrastination – life gets in the way when you’re busy planning other things. Occasionally I sit in front of my laptop thinking Jack Kerouac thoughts, having “... an awful realization that I have been fooling myself all my life thinking there was a next thing to do to keep the show going ....” (from his book, Big Sur). But the book has to come out. I want it. I think it would be well received.

Occasionally I get writer’s block, but that only lasts a few days at most. Because as you all know, down every road, there’s one more graveyard! And sometimes, beneath a graveyard lies yet another graveyard - I mean, literally. After all, this was how Rome, Paris, London, Seattle, and San Francisco were built – a layer of a new city on top of its buried predecessor. Still, we don’t think of digging further down into a graveyard and expect to find headstones and monuments. Yet this is exactly what is occurring at Mount Moriah Cemetery, in Southwest Philadelphia.

Face-down, fallen headstone in process of being resurrected

It's interesting how the gravestone excavation is proceeding here at Mount Moriah. The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., in their attempts to locate grave stones for plot holders and descendants, realized that many of the apparent "missing" stones are actually buried! For the past century, stones have fallen and been buried during ground subsidence, soil erosion, under layers of fallen leaves, etc. Stones buried a foot below ground are typically found with a steel poker driven into the ground. In this place of over 80,000 graves, the chances of hitting a buried stone are quite good.

Harry Houdini at Heller's grave (ref)
That's how the headstone of noted nineteenth century magician Robert Heller was located. The photo at the beginning of this article is me standing next to it. Directly above (in an early 1900s photo) is Harry Houdini standing next to it! The stone had been lying in the dirt, face down, for may years. Now it is upright, and the grounds around it have been cleared so people can visit. 

So my point (and sometimes I do indeed have one) is, that since there are stories within stories, graves below graves, I may never run out of subject matter! And as long as I can get around and travel to all these interesting graveyards, I am hopeful that I can do my part to keep the memories of the occupants alive. And I well appreciate you following my blog, if only to avoid being reproached by friends for an uncalled for lack in your graveyard education!

Now then, about the three things I would want with me if I found myself on a desert island - I responded, “A guitar, a very long novel, and my wife.” This in itself may be telling in some way. However, what REALLY got me thinking about my answer was the comparative answers of other people who were asked this same question. Some I asked personally, others I overheard in the room. EVERYONE else included in their list of three items some electronic device with which to communicate with the outside world! That never occurred to me! I found this to be ironic and hilarious at the same time, since normally, I cannot shut up. So I guess if I found myself on a desert island, after reading the book and playing the guitar, I might just talk my wife to death about cemeteries.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery - "Urning" Our Respect

Whenever I’m looking for something to write about, I’ll take a drive out to Mount Moriah Cemetery in southwest Philadelphia to see what’s up. Something always is. Since the weather broke and the insanely snowy winter loosened its grip on the region, The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. has been hosting restoration events every weekend. There are so many volunteer organizations wanting to participate in this effort, that every time I visit, a new previously-forested area seems to be cleared!

The obvious large-scale cleanup has been the inner “Circle of Saint John,” the Masonic plot which can actually now be seen and easily accessed for the first time in ten years. (The lead photo in this article was made in May 2014, after substantial clearing had occurred.) Various groups of people have participated in the restoration of this particular area of the cemetery, including local Masonic lodge members and students from Drexel University. I had seen photos of the cleared area but until you see it in person, you cannot appreciate the magnitude of the job. The photo below shows the same area in 2011.

Circle of St. John at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia, winter 2011

My focus of this article, however, is less on the magnitude of this work than on the meticulous CARE involved. Obviously, the people involved are focused on more than just the brute force work of clearing the area of invasive trees, vines, and knotweed. They’re doing this because they’re interested in what’s under the brush – the graves of our ancestors. This is about respect for the dead and keeping their memory alive.

On walking through the Circle, this granite draped urn (at left) caught my eye. It was placed at the foot of a large memorial, the one it had fallen from. It seems a rather small detail, but it exemplifies the great care that the volunteers take to ensure this statuary continues to exist, and the memories remain strong. The urn can be viewed as a simple design accent on a grand Victorian memorial, but in past times, it was viewed as much more than that.

This particular urn was found embedded in the ground, having fallen about ten feet from the top of the monument behind it, god knows how many years ago. The Friends (Bill Warwick, Bill McDowell, and Ken Smith) dug it out and carefully placed it where you see it in the photo. My estimate of the weight of this thing is three hundred pounds. No small feat. To give you an idea of the size of this objet d’art, take a look at the photo below of me crouched behind a similar urn a few plots away. I weight two hundred pounds and am six foot two.
Author Ed Snyder with fallen granite urn

The urn was a very common piece of Victorian funerary art. However, designers did not use the urn as a literal symbol of a cinerary urn (which holds ashes, or cremated remains), simply because cremation was far less common then.They meant for it to symbolize a container of sorts, like the human body, which holds inside it, the soul.

Douglas Keister, in his book, Stories in Stone,” says:
“The draped cinerary urn is probably the most common nineteenth-century funerary symbol." The drape may symbolize the veil between earth and heaven. Since cremation was seldom practiced in the 1800s, the urn likely does not signify a literal vessel for ashes (or cremains). More likely it symbolizes the human body, a simple vessel for the spirit. Keister goes on to state that the urn and the willow tree “were two of the first funerary motifs to replace death’s head …. effigies when funerary symbolism started to take on a softer air after the [American] Revolutionary War.

Keister tells us that the phrase “gone to pot” may have originated as a reference to a cinerary urn.

Cleared section of the Circle of St. John

Friends' treasurer Ken Smith, with chain saw
So the fallen urns are not just adornments on the larger monuments – they very personally signify the bodies of the deceased. The care with which they are handled and treated by the volunteers who are restoring Mount Moriah Cemetery should not go unnoticed. Another thing that should not go unnoticed is the fact that these incredibly heavy objects are not even attached to the monuments! You can see that the base of the urn I am crouched near is smooth! It was just sitting up there, ten feet off the ground! This one may have fallen 50 years ago when the monument tilted off level due to ground subsidence. I wonder if such things are more securely attached in earthquake-intensive areas like California?

Visit the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website to learn more and find out how you can help! (Click here!)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Spring Blooms in the Cemetery

For many people, flowers and funerals are as natural a pairing as ashes and urns. So while we may think more often of cut flower arrangements in a funeral parlor or a “grave blanket” on a grave, we may not think about all the wonderful live flowers blooming in cemeteries in the spring. The seemingly staid statuary and dismal grey gravestones get dressed up in vivid shades of pinks, violets, reds, and whites – truly a beauty to behold. The azaleas, dogwoods, and magnolias of the northeastern United States add stunningly colorful accents to the magnificently sculpted landscapes of our memory gardens. The Victorians knew a thing or two about creative landscaping, and designed their cemeteries to be cheerful in springtime.

Being native to the northeastern United States, I have no experience with the seasonal changes of flora in other lands. In the general area in which I live, the lively and colorful flowering season of rebirth lasts about a month. Magnolias first burst forth near the end of April, while the others follow in their wake (pun intended). Over the course of the next few weeks and in rapid succession come tulips, dogwoods, lilacs, and the pink and white tufted cherry and crabapple trees that look for all the world like Dr. Seuss’ truffula trees (from The Lorax). Azaleas are the icing on the cake, finally resplendent in bright reds, pinks, lavenders, and whites, until they are gone by mid-May.

Dr. Seuss' pink-tufted truffula tree at Philadelphia's Woodlands Cemetery
I mentioned that all this flora is commonly seen in Victorian cemeteries (which is why they are called “garden” cemeteries), but the sight is far less common in the modern cemetery or memorial park. The main reason being that it is quite labor-intensive to cut the grass around large bushes and trees. Same reason you don’t see a modern cemetery landscaped like a garden cemetery with rolling hills and glens – it is much easier to cut the grass with the riding mowers if you have a large flat lawn with flat-to-the-ground grave markers. Sure, a flowering tree or a hedge may be installed for accent, but it isn’t quite the same as a Victorian cemetery, many of which were, essentially, arboretums.

Example of florid overgrowth in a cemetery

Boxwood of outlandish size
Now, as much as I enjoy buttercream roses on a birthday cake, a rose bush the size of a car can prohibit any access to the actual grave site. This can happen if the rose bush grows wild for decades. So before you plant that rose on Granny’s plot, consider the fact that someone needs to prune it. Perpetual care of a grave seldom includes any horticultural tasks aside from mowing grass and trimming weeds around a headstone. This is why cemeteries have regulations regarding what you adorn a grave with, be it tulip bulbs or a Christmas tree. Consider the diminutive boxwood, a small, slow-growing ornamental shrub sold at many nurseries. This miniscule example of arborvitae can, if left to its own devices for a few decades, grow into a sizable tree!

As an aside, regulations can sometimes go too far, and cemetery owners can change their rules from time to time. Possibly you might not be able to plant any flowers at Granny’s grave at all. A friend of mine, whose parents are buried in a particular cemetery, was recently faced with a rule change that prohibited decorations of any kind at the gravesite. She has had to resort to carrying the small angel statues and other decorations in her car. She takes these to the cemetery and decorates the graves for her visit, after which she collects the decorations and places them back in her car. Sure, it makes cutting the grass easier, but at what cost?

Magnificent flowering magnolia tree in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery

There are many cemetery companies, however, whose efforts must be applauded. Those are the companies that care for the old Victorian garden cemeteries, respecting the wishes of the original landscape architects and continue to tend the exotic trees, the hundred-year-old azaleas, the landscaping in general. We may think this is incidental work, but it is not. A monstrous elm or mighty oak looks very stately, but branches fall, damage can be done to the monuments and headstones around it. 

Damage caused by fallen tree

While imitation tree trunk monuments (example at right) do far less damage than real trees, there are less intrusive options of the living, flowering variety. Smaller, flowering ornamental trees are more practical. Cherry trees with their lovely pink blossoms do not grow to immense proportions, and therefore the roots won’t wreak havoc on those sleeping peaceably below. 
Likewise with small flowering plants. Floral symbolism, rather than the flowers themselves, may be much gentler on our seasonal allergies, entail less maintenance, and last year round, but they are merely a shadow of the life lost. Perennial bulb plants like tulips, crocuses, and daffodils offer us a much more vivid symbol of a memory kept alive. They also take up a very small amount of space and do not spread easily, if at all. Even a small yellow daffodil can add some happiness to the sparest grave site.

So get out there and enjoy the spring flowers – smell them, photograph them, paint them, let your children pick them! And remember to remember those who have gone before us. Maybe plant a flower in their memory. Since I am not a horticulturist, I leave the practical aspects of cemetery plants to the more knowledgeable:

 From the blog, A Grave Interest:
Serene and Evergreen - Cemeteries Allowing Plants and Flowers” and
eHow’s “How to Plant at the Cemetery.