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!)