Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Cemetery and its Friends

Recently a student from Philadelphia’s Temple University wrote a blog about her experience volunteering to help clean up at Mount Moriah Cemetery (Philadelphia and Yeadon, PA). I was struck by how well-written and on point she was, in explaining what some people find so appealing about volunteering to help maintain cemeteries. I want to share her perspective with you through The Cemetery Traveler. (The link to her blog can be found at the end.)

I’ve been volunteering at Mount Moriah myself for a few years, as part of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI), and I have my own reasons for doing so. Alyssa, the Temple student, volunteered as part of the university’s civic engagement program. I’m not sure she expected the experience to be so profound. Thousands of students have taken part in this sort of community volunteer program since the FOMMCI started it in 2011, and it is obvious that many are affected in the same way Alyssa was. I’ve spoken to a number of them during cleanup events, and many share her experience.

As part of a hard day’s work, she states, “It was amazing to uncover tiny grave stones and large markers and even more thrilling to see the size of the space we helped to bring out from underneath the mess of tangled vegetation. It was also great — after learning more about the context of the cemetery clean-up — to think about the people that were buried there and know that we were helping families rediscover or simply have the ability to locate and visit deceased family members.”

Mount Moriah is at this point still about seventy-five percent overgrown with trees, vines, and other flora. Alyssa describes the situation clearly when she states, "Tombs were entombed again in brush and trees: a layer of time measured in yards of vegetation.” The cemetery is huge, recently abandoned (2011), and more recently put back on track (Sept. 17, 2014) with the legal appointment of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation as receiver of the property (which now has legal custodial responsibility). However, until funding is appropriated as part of the overall plan to maintain the cemetery, Mount Moriah is still greatly dependent on volunteers.

Please check the FOMMCI website for future cleanup and restoration events. You simply cannot foresee how being part of such a community effort can benefit so many – yourself included. Also, now that it is cold out, the vegetation has mostly died and you can see much more of the cemetery than you can in summer. Come and visit! Both the Philadelphia and Yeadon sides are open from 9 a.m. to dusk.

Alyssa's blog, "Mount Moriah: A Cemetery and Its Friends," can be read here.
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery Group on Facebook

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Dying of the Light – Losing Daylight Saving Time

If you’re an outdoor photographer, the letters DST might be your nemesis. In the fall, in the northeast part of the United States, the switch from Daylight Saving Time (DST) back to “standard” time is when you run out of light early, an outdoor photographer’s worst nightmare. Since I photograph cemeteries (and most cemeteries are, for the most part, outdoors), it becomes more challenging to photograph them at this time of the year. Every once in a while I would stop by a cemetery on my way home from work to do some photography. Not so in the winter – its just too dark.

DST is the practice of advancing clocks during summer months by one hour so that light is extended in the evening hours, and sacrificing normal sunrise times. Which is fine, but I’ve always been too lazy to photograph sunrises anyway. (Sunsets, on the other hand, have been more my forte.) Spring forward, fall back, indeed. While it’s a documented fact that more outdoor photography is done during the summer months than in the winter (1), you may need to fall back on an alternate plan if you want to maintain your current outdoor photographic production during the months of waning light.

You notice the “dying of the light” (hats off to Dylan Thomas) around September – the days begin to get shorter. Then during the first week of November we’re off DST and back on standard time, the tripping point. It’s dark when you get up in the morning and its dark when you leave work. From here, there is a steady progression to the winter solstice (mid-December) as we continue losing our precious light. If you’re in the earth’s northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year.

Photography is all about light. We may not think of it that way, but given current imaging technology, photography depends on light to create an image. Film worked that way, and so does digital. The less available daylight, the less able we are to make daylight photographs.
Self-portrait of author at Point Lobos, California

The loss of light never affected me as much as it did during a trip to Point Lobos, near Big Sur on the California coast a few years ago. I took a break from photographing cemeteries and planned a side trip to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Within the park, on the coast below Monterrey, is the area with all the weird rocks where the famous photographer Edward Weston made many of his famous images (read more about Weston and view images here). I arrived late in the day as a fog rolled in. I barely had an hour’s light. As much as I was looking forward to being here, I was ill-prepared for actually making photographs. The beauty of the setting was overpowering. I lamely made some digital and some film images, while taking in the magnificent scenery. Every rock, every dead branch was glorious. It looked like nowhere else on earth. Which, I suppose, is why Weston spent so much time here. He photographed dried seaweed, dead logs, the surf, cypress trees, the beautifully eroded rocks - for years.
Point Lobos, near Big Sur, California

I realized, I think, as the day drew to a close, how Weston may have felt at the end of each day. When nature closes the curtain, it is almost like being robbed of something precious. You want it to last forever, this section of wild ocean shoreline is so captivating. It is also very difficult to describe WHY it is so spellbinding. If you’re an outdoor photographer and you appreciate form and shape, “Weston Beach” can be a wondrous experience.

The experience taught me a lesson, well, a few lessons, which apply to more than just photography:
1. Planning is paramount – too early is way better than too late, in the same way that over-studying for an exam is better than under-studying (if you want a good grade)
2. Be prepared – I was not expecting the very dim conditions, and I had only one roll of film.
3. Appreciate the scarce resources around you, e.g. light.
4. Allow yourself time to appreciate the beauty around you.
5. Nothing lasts forever (even cemeteries).
    Author in a cemetery at night, illuminating with an L.E.D. panel light

So as we face days of limited light, how can we best take advantage of this precious commodity? (And it is just that, as conflicting as it may seem: a commodity we take for granted, like electricity, yet precious in that we would be lost with it. Without light, in fact, we would quite literally be lost!) Must we “rage against the dying of the light?” With all due respect to Dylan Thomas (and his wonderful poem, Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night), there are alternatives.

Fall at Mount Moraih Cemetery, Philadelphia
Rather than be upset about such a situation or allowing Mother Nature to grind your work to a halt, plan to do your photography in a different way. Maybe take a day off work to exercise your skills. As a way of stocking up, I got as much photography in as I could in the past few weeks. I took a bit of time here and there to photograph the autumn leaves at Mount Moriah, Woodlands, and Laurel Hill cemeteries (Philadelphia). If you shoot mostly black and white, this is a good opportunity to capture the colors of the season! Assuming you don’t actually become clinically depressed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), there are steps you can take, like consciously planning to do other types of photography during this time of the year.
Artificially-lit mausoleum at night

What are some other options for photographers, the “painters of light,” when the resource becomes scarce? If you photograph cemeteries, there ARE some that you can enter at dusk, or even night. Too spooky?  Try your hand at night photography in other locations, possibly experimenting with both existing and artificial light. Try taking a day off work just to do photography or maybe  adjust your schedule to accommodate getting more photography done during limited daylight.

Here’s one of the things I did last year when Mother Nature got in the way of my plans:  I let her lead me to places I’d not explored in the past. I began photographing cemeteries in the rain, and the snow. I started two Facebook Group pages called Cemeteries in the Rain, and, you guessed it -  Cemeteries in the Snow, both of with were well-received. People from all over the world posted their photographs on these pages. Cemeteries in the Snow, in particular, struck a powerful chord with many people. Why? Possibly because the time of year it usually snows (winter) is the time of year with – you guessed it – the shortest days! Maybe other photographers benefited from some creative nudging at this low-light time of the year.

I write this blog a week or so into November, back on standard time. The days get progressively shorter as we work our way toward the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice (which will occur on December 21 this year, 2014). For outdoor photographers, its all good news from there on out! The days progressively get longer as the earth continues (hopefully) its elliptical orbit around the sun. So maybe part of our energy now can be spent planning to take full advantage of that greater amount of light in the future. The summer solstice in mid-June will be the longest day of the year! Don’t spend it indoors!

References and Further Reading:

(1)   I made that up about more outdoor photography being done during the summer months than in the winter - just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

 In Point Lobos, Where Edward Weston Saw the World Anew

Saturday, November 1, 2014

“Richmond Cemeteries:" Book Review and Interview with the Authors

In September, 2014, I had the good fortune to be introduced to the newly published book, Richmond Cemeteries. The latest addition to Arcadia Publishing’s popular “Images of America” series, Richmond Cemeteries explores the history buried in and around the graveyards of Richmond, Virginia. As a review of sorts, I spoke with the authors, Christine Stoddard and Misty Thomas.

Arcadia’s “Images of America” books follow a pretty standard format – they focus on local or regional historical topics and are paperback pictorial history books, so they are primarily images. Richmond Cemeteries has a plethora of interesting photographs and a thought-provoking narrative to pull it all together. Don't expect just pictures of cemeteries, but also pictures of lives remembered, vintage images to help us reconnect with our past. (All of the photos in this article are from the book.)

Richmond Cemeteries is truly wonderful, I was really taken by it. Never having visited Richmond, I was quite curious about the city and its famous cemetery, Hollywood. Before I set before you the transcription of my dialog with the authors, let me give you a synopsis of the book based on the Arcadia press release:
Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy and once one of the most prosperous cities in the United States, is home to a range of cemeteries that tell the story of American trends in honoring the dead. The book boasts 200 vintage images, many of which have never been published, and showcases memories of days gone by.

African slaves were interred in Shockoe Bottom’s so-called “burial ground for negroes,” U.S. presidents James Monroe and John Tyler were buried in Hollywood Cemetery, and Civil War soldiers were commemorated throughout the metropolis. During and shortly after the Civil War, Richmond worked to accommodate thousands of new graves. Today, Richmonders work to preserve and celebrate the past while making way for the future.

Highlights of “Richmond Cemeteries” include details of urban legends of Richmond, historical figures buried in Richmond cemeteries, and stories related to Edgar Allan Poe, who was a Richmond resident.  
Ruins after the burning of Richmond, 1865

Interview with authors Christine Stoddard and Misty Thomas

CT: Cemetery Traveler
 A: Authors

CT: Cemeteries focus people’s attention on certain eras, events, or people. Your book has a wealth of information for everyone. I’m especially intrigued by the various entries on American Civil War dead. Readers sometimes only grasp the magnitude of that war when told that there were so many dead bodies (620,000), but few realize there was no planned effort to deal with that or to treat them with dignity. Can you comment on that?
A: The war was so bloody that people back then had no idea how many graves to dig. They dug graves and then they had to dig some more. They just kept digging and digging, often quickly and not very deep. They had to get bodies out of the fields and into the ground. But there were just so many men dying that graves of any kind—let alone proper graves—couldn't be dug fast enough. It must have been horrifying to live then.

As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond was at the heart of the Civil War

CT:  Richmond having been the capital of the Confederate States of America, I was intrigued by the wartime photos of the city in your book. Also, the related wartime history in Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery, such as the Union Army soldiers buried there. Can you comment for our readers on why Union soldiers would be buried south of the Mason-Dixon Line and Confederate soldiers buried in the north? This is something people generally don’t think about.
A:  It was a matter of convenience more often than not. As previously mentioned, they just couldn't dig graves fast enough. After the war, some groups, like the Daughters of the Confederacy, raised funds to get their men reinterred on their land, but often bodies were buried close to where the soldiers had died.

CT:  In your introduction, you talk about the African American Burial Ground that was paved over by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to build a parking lot. A similar situation occurred in Philadelphia in 1956, where Temple University wanted the nearby land occupied by Monument Cemetery for a parking lot. They convinced the city to condemn it. Since I do a lot of research into abandoned cemeteries, I find it wonderful that you would mention that travesty right there in your introduction. Why did you do that?
A:  We mentioned this travesty in the introduction because it remains a controversial topic in Richmond. It's very timely because, last year, Mayor Dwight Jones reintroduced the idea that Richmond should build a baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom. Now that I live in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, D.C., I'm still hearing about Shockoe Bottom because it has become international news. Earlier this month, Actress Lupita N'yong'o of the film Twelve Years a Slave went to social media to voice her opinions about preserving Richmond's slave trade history. This isn't just a Richmond or Virginia matter. It isn't even just an American matter. It's a global matter. It's about social justice and how racial discrimination persists even in death.

Jefferson Davis and family, post-war (1884 or 1885)

CT:  Your stories about famous people related to the stones and monuments in Richmond cemeteries are wonderful. I never saw the document reproduced on page 38, “An Address to the People of the Free States,” by Jefferson Davis. Being a northerner schooled with northern history books, this sort of document makes you realize how biased history books are. What is your take on that?
A:  Definitely! I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. and home to Arlington National Cemetery. It is a strange place in the sense that it is culturally both Northern and Southern. But it's also very multicultural. Arlington attracts people from across the country and the world for its federal government and think tank jobs. My history classes varied from year to year, depending on where my teacher that year was from. Certainly history is biased. Most of what we're taught as Americans (Northern, Southern, Midwestern, West Coast, what have you) was written by older, white, Protestant men. There's nothing wrong with belonging to that demographic, but that's not the only kind of person who should be telling the stories.

Confederate Army Gen. J.E.B. Stuarts's temporary grave
CT:  Other photos in your book are fascinating, such as J.E.B. Stuart’s “temporary” grave (p.28), Edgar Allen Poe’s mother Elizabeth (p. 62), the post-War photos of Jefferson Davis and his family (p. 24). These are images I’ve never seen. Do you feel your book provides a history lesson based on graveyards?
A:  Yes, that was one of the objectives: To show how cemeteries are rich in all kinds of historical clues. They may be the setting of ghost stories and a place you visit for Memorial Day or the anniversary of a loved one's death, but they are also a treasure trove for historians and history enthusiasts.

Poe's grave in Baltimore
CT:  You say that Edgar Allen Poe considered himself a Virginian since he grew up in Richmond. So many cities claim a part of him! Kind of like Mark Twain. How likely is it, do you think, that his body may one day be reinterred (from Baltimore) in Richmond?
A:  I doubt that will happen. I actually made a documentary about Poe's life in Richmond and his claim as a Virginian. It's called The Persistence of Poe ( When I screened it at a bookstore in New York in 2013, your very question became of the focus of the Q&A session. The fact remains that Poe died in Baltimore and the Poe Society there is a passionate group. Since Poe doesn't have any descendants clamoring for him to be reinterred, I suspect he will stay right where he is. Reinterment is an expensive process and, even as a Virginian, I believe that money is better spent operating the Poe Museum and its many programs.

CT:  I have friend who is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization and his current project is documenting (with GPS positioning and database entry) the locations of Jewish Confederate Civil War Veterans buried in Philadelphia. I believe he has so far documented about 200, which were not previously in the database. I will loan him your book and point out the photo of the “Hebrew Confederate Soldiers Cemetery” (p. 119). How did you find out this is the only Jewish military cemetery located outside Israel?
A:  In all honesty, we went with what Beth Ahabah, the synagogue that maintains the cemetery, said. The Confederate section is reportedly the only Jewish military cemetery in the United States.

Walkers at family plot (around 1903)
CT:  I have to say, your book is filled with certain things that I find personally gratifying. For instance, the several vintage photos of Maggie Walker and family tending family grave plots in Evergreen Cemetery (pps. 46-48). This is unusual in many ways. Obviously people have made photographs of their own family in cemeteries since the dawn of photography, but the public rarely sees them! When Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia was abandoned, and then rescued (in 2011) by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., it was discovered that there existed only a handful of vintage institutional photographs to document the cemetery’s history (est. 1855). As a member of the Friends, we relied on descendants sharing their personal family photographs with us to supplement our documentation of Mount Moriah. Can you comment on the historic value you see in the Walker photographs? 
A:   I like the Walker photographs because they show that cemeteries are places that can and should be enjoyed, not feared and avoided. My mother is from Central America where they celebrate el Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead. This two-day holiday coincides with All Souls' and All Saints' Days in early November. I mention it because I love the spirit of el Día de los muertos. It asks us to be happy, not sad, when thinking of death and to uphold it as a natural part of life. It asks us to remember and respect our ancestors. It even asks us to dance and picnic in cemeteries. That's an attitude I wish more Americans had. I think maybe the Walker family did.

CT:   Was Hollywood your initial focus for the book? You could obviously write an entire book on just that cemetery, but you gave it equal time with the other Richmond cemeteries. Comment?
U.S. President James Monroe's cast iron tomb in Hollywood Cemetery

A: One of the reasons I decided to pitch and pursue the project was because I had noticed so many books and articles about Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, Shockoe Hill and St. John's Church graveyard, with comparatively little attention paid to Richmond's other cemeteries. I wanted to put Hollywood in geographic and cultural context. It may be the city's most popular cemetery, but I wanted readers to know that it is not the only notable burial ground. Other cemeteries, especially ones established for or by Richmond's African-American community, have too often been neglected from public memory and basic care. Perhaps by raising awareness of these other cemeteries, the public will feel compelled to better maintain their graves and grounds.

Memorial Day, the tradition of remembering our American armed forces dead, began at Hollywood Cemetery

CT:   Do you have any advice for people who want to visit these wonderful Richmond cemeteries? A starting point, perhaps?
A: Richmond offers a wealth of historic sites for anyone interested in American history. My recommendation is to choose your focus. I suspect that most of our tourists are Civil War buffs, in which case Hollywood, Oakwood, the national cemeteries, etc. are musts. But if you're an Edgar Allan Poe fan, then Shockoe Hill and St. John's can't be missed. If you're into African-American history, then you have to see Evergreen, Barton Heights, Woodlawn, and the slave burial grounds. Know that there are battlefields, museums and archives, such as the Valentine History Center and the Library of Virginia, that may appeal to your senses, too. 

During my time as a VCU student, I often explored Richmond's historic sites with my then-boyfriend, now-fiancé, on the weekends. I moved to Alexandria, Virginia for a year and came back to Richmond for a year to work on this book and a couple of other media projects, only to discover that there was still so much I hadn't seen. Now that I live in Falls Church, Virginia, I'm still learning of new places. Here's an example: Despite having written about it, I saw Arthur Ashe's grave for the first time today.

CT:  I thank you for introducing me (and hopefully many other readers) to the cemeteries of Richmond besides Hollywood Cemetery! That is the one everyone talks about. A couple I know used to live near there and have taunted me with stories of its grandeur, and how they enjoyed strolling its grounds. I have another friend who has done restoration work there. Unfortunately I’ve never been to Hollywood Cemetery or Richmond itself. Your book has whetted my appetite! Thank you!
A: Thank you, too! We're very proud of the book and the forthcoming documentary and appreciate your support.


Christine Stoddard, the co-author of Images of America: Richmond Cemeteries, is also the director of the new documentary, Richmond's Dead and Buried (, which premieres Nov. 8 at the James River Filmmakers Forum in Richmond. Please check this Facebook event page for more information on the documentary screening.

Additional screening dates will be listed on as the events are scheduled.

The book, Images of America: Richmond Cemeteries is available at bookstores, independent retailers, and online retailers (click for Amazon link), or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or online.