Saturday, June 28, 2014

Summer Shore Cemeteries

Ah, the Jersey shore in summer! I had my family at Long Beach Island for five days in mid-June and the weather was glorious. Beach, sun, pool, everything was perfect (except for the ticket I got for not wearing my seat belt) – the only thing missing was a trip to a graveyard!

I’m sure I’m one of a select few people who think of such things while on vacation. To make it easier on my wife and four-year-old daughter, I usually head out early before they wake up. So I planned a sunrise trip up the island and over to the mainland to hit the Staffordville Cemetery near Tuckerton (across the bay from LBI).

I’ve photographed a few cemeteries in this area but had never been to Staffordville Cemetery. Other than its simple existence on a map, I could find nothing about it on the Internet. So I made the trip on a Monday morning, shortly after sunrise. Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean can be breathtaking, but of course, I missed it. Got to the beach at 6 a.m. and sunrise must have been 5:30. So I jumped into my wife’s Toyota RAV4 and headed north up the island. Cops all over the place here trying to nab speeders and folks not wearing seatbelts, so I really had to crawl the five miles or so to the causeway to Manahawkin.

Manahawkin, New Jersey coastline at dawn
The ride was peaceful, not many people about yet. After crossing onto the mainland, Manahawkin, New Jersey is the first major town you get to. If you head north or south on Route 9, there is a cemetery within a half mile either way of the intersection. I’ve been to both in the past, and they are worth the visit: Manahawkin Baptist Cemetery (north) and Greenwood Cemetery (south). Since I was driving past Greenwood, I figured I might stop there on the way back if I had time. Staffordville was about two miles south of here.

I was on the lookout for “Cemetery Road,” as the Staffordville Cemetery appeared (on the map) to be off Route 9 down this road a few blocks. Found the street sign with no problem, though it was almost hidden by all the other signs around it. I drove down the quiet road alongside a trailer park and saw the cemetery at the end. Very unassuming little place. As my grandmother might have said, “it was a small, sad little graveyard.”

This is the pine barrens, as they call it – pine trees and sand. A cemetery sign made out of timber, no gate or fence. One large marble monument to Rev. Samuel Parker’s wife, the rest regular smaller stones. A fenced-in family plot, veterans markers, flags, weather-worn lawn and garden statues, a penny on a headstone. Someone had placed a few stone fragments together in the sand to spell out the words “FATHER HE.”

The graveyard was only about 150 feet deep and 200 feet wide, clean, no trash, no graffiti. Some old Christmas decorations here and there. Old grave markers from the mid-1800s to a few newish ones, including a Vietnam Vet who died in 2006. Some old sea shells adorned a few of the graves. Weird, yellowish-green plant life covered most of the sand.

I began to wonder how many thousands of these small graveyards must exist, and how many thousands of people drive past them without a second thought. These graveyards house tiny memorials to hundreds of thousands of individual lives that have passed. The lives spent in Staffordville, perhaps, may have been spent fishing, farming, sailing – even being a reverend’s wife in the 1850’s. What must that have been like, I wonder, being a reverend’s wife back then?

On my way back to LBI, I did spend some time in Greenwood, a larger and fancier burial ground. The traffic picked up a bit of volume by then, mostly mainlanders going to work Monday morning in Manahawkin or to LBI to work the tourist trade. I would be following them soon, headed back to life after spending a bit of time here with death. These regular drivers probably all know where Greenwood is because of its large wrought iron sign. By the same token, most of them are probably unaware of the existence of the smaller, Staffordville Cemetery. Out of sight, out of mind. Which is why it seems so important to me to hunt down these small, hidden cemeteries. They exist, after all, to honor - and help us remember - the dead.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Postmortem Group Photo

Though I’ve seen such images as this over the years, the group postmortem photograph is rather unusual. More typically one sees a simple portrait of the deceased, or at most, the deceased surrounded by family members. Also, this particular image is special since I actually own it. Bought it, framed in a vintage gold-tone metal frame (see photo below), at the Punk Rock Flea Market in Philadelphia, June 7, 2014.

This is my first postmortem photograph. Maybe it’s the start of a new obsession, but I doubt it. The main problem with collecting such work is its relative scarcity, and therefore, it’s prohibitive price. The retail value of this mourning art collectible is probably $250. I paid $20. While I have friends who attend estate sales of funeral homes and have greater access to such ephemera, the occasional flea market find is about all I’m capable of.

I originally posted the images you see here on Facebook, proclaiming, with no great authority, that the photograph was from the late 1800s. I only said this because postmortem photography was wildly popular in the Victorian era (1837-1901), and all the people in the photo are dressed in old-style clothing. An astute reader quickly pointed out that the clothes put the image in the 1910s.

The other hint regarding its age that should have jumped out at me is that large, matted, paper photographs were not available until after 1900. Between 1840 and 1900, metal plate (Daguerrotype) and glass plate (ambrotype) images were for the most part the only type of photographic images created for the consumer (the average person did not own a camera). While paper prints were available after 1851, the “cabinet card” (4 x 5 inch photograph pasted on a slightly larger card) was the most popular photographic medium up to about 1900. The photograph I purchased measures 8x10 inches. Therefore, it must have been made after 1900.

By 1910, cameras were becoming quite common and consumers began taking their own photographs. The only way professional portrait photographers could remain in the postmortem business was to produce “large elaborately designed mats for memorial images to be framed and displayed”  (according to Stanley B. Burns, M.D., in his book, Sleeping Beauty III – Memorial Photography, The Children). So my image was probably made around this time. The photograph is mounted on an 11x14 inch mat on which is embossed “E. Stern, Northampton, PA,” presumably a photographic studio in Northampton, Pennsylvania (which is in southeast PA).

I’m curious as to whether the 13x17 inch metal frame dates back to the same era. I'm also curious as to where I might display this dark treasure. A friend of mine who I ran into at the Punk Rock Flea Market saw me on the street a few days later and asked if I had hung it in my house. I replied that the only place that my wife would probably allow it would be in the basement behind the water heater.  

Replica of mourning ribbon
So back to the vintage photograph at hand. We see the deceased in his coffin (nice touch having the coffin lid propped against the fence at right!), surrounded by family and an honor guard, of sorts. By the look of the crowd, and the building they’re posed before, it appears that the deceased was a member of some fraternal or veterans organization. All the men are wearing mourning ribbons on their lapels, similar to the reproduction of one such item I’ve shown here (the replica ribbon says: "Meade Post 1, GAR, Philadelphia." At top, it says "Honor the Noble Dead"). Possibly they were GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) members or Freemasons. The women and children at center are probably family members of the deceased. The deceased himself is holding an official-looking cap, so perhaps he was a leader of some sort in this organization, or maybe a military veteran.

This extraordinary scene is a rare example of group postmortem photography, a memorialization practice that began to die out (no pun intended) by 1940 in the United States (though it continued to be popular for several more decades in Europe). I am interested in knowing what the building is and what the possible fraternal organization was. So if any reader has some idea, please let me know! I assume that since the photographic studio was in Northampton, Pennsylvania  (in the Lehigh Valley, north of Philadelphia), then the building in the photo was in the same geographic area. The photographer "E. Stern," or his studio in its entirety, was involved in postmortem photography on a regular basis. A quick search on the Internet provides a few examples of postmortem photographs made by the "E. Stern Studio." (Click the links at the end of this blog to view them.)

New Orleans woman attends her funeral social! (ref.)

As an aside, it does seem that contemporary postmortem photography may actually be on the rise in the United States. On June 12, 2014, a woman in New Orleans (photo above) was propped up at a table as the guest of honor at her own going-away party (click link for story). Presumably, guests had their pictures taken with her. On January 31, 2014, a family had their dead boxer son propped up in a mock boxing ring (photo below) and posed with him for photographs (click link for story)

Puerto Rican family poses with dead boxer son (ref.)

Further Reading:
Postmortem photographs made by the "E. Stern studio:"

Friday, June 13, 2014

Funeral in the Rain

I arrived at the cemetery half an hour before the service was to begin. I planned my trip this way partly because I had never been to this cemetery (and was not sure how to get there) and partly because I was curious to check it out). My friend’s father died and he was being buried today. It was pouring. The service was to be held at 2:30 pm in Har Nebo, a large Jewish cemetery in northeast Philadelphia.

The green tent was set up over the grave, but the visitors had not yet arrived. I drove around in the hot rain (my air conditioning was not working), taking a few pictures here and there. Landscaping is sparse, a small red azalea bush in bloom here and there. It is spring, a time for rebirth. Old headstones, cracked, lying on the ground. Har Nebo is an expansive cemetery, Philadelphia’s oldest privately-owned Jewish cemetery, which dates back to 1890.

After about ten minutes I saw headlights at the cemetery entrance. The guests (?? attendees? mourners?) and grave attendants began to arrive. Next the silver hearse. As there appeared to be no chapel, I assumed this was to be a graveside ceremony. I parked my car along the road and got out with my coat and umbrella. It was pouring. The grave site was along Shalom Drive in the cemetery. "Shalom" is the Hebrew word meaning "peace." It was far from peaceful here that day, with the wind and the rain.

After saying hello to my friend and his wife, I went under the green tent. The rabbi was the only person there. This would be a small service, with about fifteen people. Small family. Some friends. I said hello to the Rabbi and she said, “The sky is crying.

If you think I took pictures during the ceremony, I am sorry to disappoint you. That would not have been respectful. Some things need to be kept private. People began to come in out of the rain. The wooden casket was brought from the hearse and placed onto the metal support frame over the grave. The wind howled and blew the rain in on the assembled. My friend’s yarmulke blew off and flew out of the tent onto the nearby grass. I retrieved it for him. Rain speckled the casket’s rich wood surface with its Star of David design on top. The prayers began. Oddly, the wind and rain died down for the entire length of the half-hour ceremony.

When the deceased was still alive last month, his son (my friend) gave me his “first alert” type device to try with my Mom, since I felt she could use one after falling and breaking her hip (read more about that here). His Dad had used it for a few months before being admitted to a hospice. So although I did not know the deceased personally, I certainly felt connected to him. Not only because of the “first alert,” but also because, supposedly, he developed a taste for beer during the last few months he was alive!

The rabbi said a few things about the departed, based on sparse facts gained from family and friends. Typical stuff. Then the grandson read a eulogy he had written, a remembrance of his grandfather. He was sorry he hadn’t made more frequent visits to see his grandfather while away at college. Very difficult for him. Regrets. Tears all around. He got through it like a trooper, though. Afterward, the rabbi sang a mournful dirge. She quoted some passage about the departed not being gone, just in “another room,” and that we can all honor his memory when we continue to do the things he enjoyed doing with us. The recurring theme was that this gentleman put everyone’s needs ahead of his own.

The rain began again, almost as heavily as before. Since I was standing near the edge of the tent, my pant legs were soaking wet. The rabbi invited the two relatives closest to the deceased (brother and sister), to drop a scoop of mud onto the casket. It is tradition at Jewish burials to throw a scoop of dirt onto the casket before it is lowered into the grave. My friend and his sister declined. They may have done it, had the dirt not turned to mud, but maybe not. When my wife’s grandmother buried her son, she declined to throw the dirt as well. Sure, its part of the ceremony, and it is symbolic – but not just symbolic. You’re literally helping to bury the person. You’re throwing the first shovelful of dirt onto the casket in the grave. Throwing that scoop of dirt on a loved one’s casket must be an incredibly difficult task. Like Moses descending from Mount Nebo after his final look at the Promised Land, never to see it again in his lifetime.

I drove out of the cemetery in the rain, taking a few pictures here and there.

Further Reading:
Read more about Philadelphia's Har Nebo Cemetery at this link.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Dont Fear the Reaper" - The Story of Jearum Atkins, Inventor

Back in 2011, as I was crawling through the weeds, trawling for interesting gravestones in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, I came upon a most curious monument. It was in the hinterlands of Section 149, which is on the Yeadon (PA) side of the cemetery. (For those readers unfamiliar with this formerly-abandoned 300-acre Victorian cemetery, it actually spans two counties – Philadelphia and Delaware.) The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. has made great strides in the past few years in keeping the grass, weeds, trees, and other foliage cut and maintained over about 25% of the grounds. However, Section 149 is in the 75% that remains overgrown.

The 3-foot high granite square monument upon which I stumbled marks the grave of one "Jearum Atkins, Inventor(1815 - 1897). I had never heard of him, so I photographed the four sides of the marker and looked him up on the Internet. The curious inscriptions seemed to indicate his inventions.

Jearum Atkins is not a household name like that of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. However, he was responsible for important, incremental improvements in engineering technology during the Industrial Revolution. One reason for his lack of fame might be due to the fact that he sold his most potentially profitable invention to Cyrus McCormick. Atkins, in 1852, perfected the design of Cyrus McCormick's original grain reaper, allowing McCormick to build the fully automated harvester, for which McCormick eventually became famous (he bought the "raking" design from Atkins!)

"Atkins Automaton Reaper" (ref.)

 From the book: Cyrus Hall McCormick, by Herbert Newton Casson (1909)"

"Of all the varieties of difficulties that confronted Cyrus H. McCormick during his strenuous life, the most baffling and disconcerting difficulty was when his Reaper began to grow. For fifteen years—from 1845 to 1860—it had remained unchanged except that seats had been added for the raker and the driver. It did no more than cut the grain and leave it on the ground in loose bundles. It had abolished the sickler and the cradler; but there yet remained the raker and the binder. Might it not be possible, thought the restless American brain, to abolish these also and leave no one but the driver?
As early as 1852 a fantastic self-rake Reaper had been invented by a mechanical genius named Jearum Atkins. This man was a bed-ridden cripple, who, to while away the tiresome hours of his confinement, bought a McCormick Reaper, had it placed outside his window, and actually devised an attachment to it which automatically raked off the cut grain in bundles."

Atkins monument, Mount Moriah Cemetery
Atkins lived during the Industrial Revolution – when machines were invented to replace manual labor and automate as many processes as possible.  The device mentioned above, the “Self-Raking Harvester,” was an improvement upon the McCormick reaper – the latter simply cut the grain. This saved the effort exerted by people with sickles, but the greater work was that of raking the cut grain so it could be bundled. Atkins’ redesign was such a success that after production began in 1860, farmers seldom bought any other machine.

Described as “one of the most remarkable men ever born in this country,” which nature endowed with “a phenomenal capacity for mathematical and physical inquiry” (Cassier’s Magazine, Vol. 5, 1893-4), Atkins applied for and received many patents from the U.S. Patent Office. His original inventions did not fare as well as his improvements on other people’s work. For instance, he improved the design for the steering mechanism of steam ships (“Hydraulic Steering Apparatus, patent issued 1890), using an application of hydraulics. Atkins’ list of engineering inventions, patents, and patent applications seems endless. Most of these in fact were contrived as he lay in bed, an invalid for twenty years due to a spinal problem. His fame and fortunes waxed and waned, but he continued to design, redesign, and strove to achieve.

Jearum Atkins’ patented inventions are inscribed on the four sides of his small, granite monument in Mount Moriah Cemetery. They are (followed by their patent award dates):

Self-Raking Harvester  1852 – 1868
Safety Valve Regulator 1868
Smoke Stacks 1868
Hydraulic Steering Apparatus 1890
Calipers 1868

Atkins' caliper improvement (ref.)
Atkins' caliper patent was a simple improvement on the mechanical measurement caliper. His smoke stack design was intended for steam locomotives, to improve the efficiency of the exhaust of steam. The safety valve regulator was intended for steam boilers, through which high-pressure steam could be vented so as to keep the pressure vessel from exploding. If this sounds too technical for the reader, go look in your basement and find the brass safety valve on the side of your water heater – same idea! Back in Atkins’ time, many were killed by accidental explosions of pressure vessels in locomotives and steamships. Possibly, his invention helped prevent such incidents. (Mark Twain’s younger brother, by the way, was killed in 1858 when the boiler blew on the paddlewheel steamboat on which he was a passenger.)

Quite a bit of history there behind an unassuming little grave stone in the weeds. As we consider the contributions of Jearum Atkins to engineering design and technological advance, let us realize that many original inventions are not necessarily all that useful. They are in many cases springboards for further development and improvement, often by people other than the original inventor!

Read more about Jearum Atkins’ inventions here: