Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunrise in the Atlantic City Cemetery

What can I say about the Atlantic City Cemetery that I haven’t already said? A lot, probably, since I really don’t know anything about it. I’ve visited a few times, but I’ve never done any actual research. I just like going there when I’m in the area. I was in Ventnor (next to AC) with my family a couple weekends ago (mid August, 2014) so I got up early and drove inland to the cemetery.

I’m in the habit of heading out at sunrise before my wife and daughter are awake. I jumped in the car and drove the approximate five miles to Pleasantville, NJ, the town in which the cemetery actually resides. Not much going on at the shore at that time of day, though it did look a bit like rain. That was the actual prediction, and I was kind of hoping it would. I started the Facebook page “Cemeteries in the Rain” this past year (2014) so I’ve actually been trying to capture some images of, well, that.

Mausoleum glass in Greenwood
The rain threatened all morning, and there was some odd lighting. I photographed a few statues in the cemetery against the partly cloudy, but bright sunrise. I suppose statues and monuments all face one direction for a reason (the Victorian version of feng shui?), but it seems like that is never the direction I want them to be facing! You would also assume that mausoleum stained glass faces east or west, so the glass gets as much sunrise and sunset light as possible. Wrong! Over the course of the two hours I spent here and in the neighboring Greenwood Cemetery, it got headlight-dark a couple times, but then brightened up.

Mausoleum, Atlantic City Cemetery
Actually, my feng shui comment was not really a joke. Feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing things with the surrounding environment has actually been around since 4000 B.C. The practice originated with the ancient Chinese Book of Burial's principles relating the flow of qi (pronounced “chi”), an invisible life force, to the appropriateness of a tomb's location (ref.). So feng shui, the practice of positioning your lawn furniture in a certain way, actually originated with burial practice! According to Wikipedia, “Historically, feng shui was widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures—in a manner meant to … bind the universe, earth, and humanity together.

Memorial sculpture in the Atlantic City Cemetery, sunrise

Death certainly binds humanity together, and the western world Victorians were as serious about death as the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. One look at the grand monuments and mausoleums will tell you that. Maybe "serious" is not exactly the right word, perhaps "accepting" is a better choice. And accepting is what I needed to be this morning, when the early rays of the sun were dramatic and golden. I experimented with this angel statue (below) - shooting her frontally into the sunrise (with fill flash) and from the rear illuminated by the sun, her white marble wings temporarily gilded, auriferous.

Mangled grating
You can enter both of these Victorian-era Pleasantville cemeteries any time of day or night as most of the gates are either broken or missing. That said, the grounds and monuments are in surprisingly fine condition. I suppose there is little vandalism here, though I did see some mangled bronze window grating on the largest mausoleum in Greenwood. The grating was there to protect the stained glass window, but it appeared that someone tried to remove the grating, probably to sell it for scrap. But generally, no one seems to venture into either cemetery to cause much mischief. None of the other (albeit less valuable) metal decorative objects have been stolen, the mausoleum stained glass is all intact, the statues are not broken. Even these forlorn and loosely-placed baby blocks (below) remain in their (I assume) original positions.

Child's grave, Atlantic City Cemetery, NJ
If you saw these cemeteries from the air, they would appear as three large rectangles. Atlantic City Cemetery makes up the two left rectangles (separated by an old set of railroad tracks) and the right rectangle, Greenwood, is separated from the AC Cemetery by West Washington Avenue. (Click link for aerial view.) The center portion of the trinity looks like the older original AC Cemetery, which began in 1865. While they may have originally been two distinct cemetery companies, they are now listed on the Internet as the “Atlantic City Cemetery and Greenwood Cemetery Associations.”

I like exploring these places when no one else is awake. Their little mysteries are usually solved in my mind by conjecture. For instance, why is this lone monument shrouded by tall weeds when everything else in the Atlantic City Cemetery is meticulously maintained? How incongruous it seemed to have a freshly-dug grave marked with a simple wooden cross right next to the elaborate mausoleum below. I drove to various parts of the cemeteries when it looked like rain, so as not to be caught in it. Did I want it to rain or didn’t I? I suppose I felt strongly both ways. I was prepared to get some good photographs either way.

It never did rain during my walk through the cemeteries, although it did drizzle later in the day as I lay on the beach. A strange feeling, lying there in the hot sun, waves lapping at your feet, while the cool rain sprinkles down on you. Like dreaming too close to the surface. One thing’s for sure – the dead don’t care whether it rains or shines. They also don't care if their graves are desecrated - but we should.