Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What a Blanket of Cemetery Snow Can Reveal

There is something very intimate about being in a snow-covered cemetery by yourself. Especially if you’re driving up and down snow-covered hilly roads and can potentially get stuck. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s Hollenback Cemetery in the snow should be part of a driver’s education program. Seriously – a seventeen-year-old passes a driver’s test – big deal – he or she can perform a K-turn. Why is winter driving, driving under the MOST DANGEROUS of conditions, left to on-the-job training?

Hollenback Cemetery Gatehouse on River Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA
But I digress. On this frigid (17 degree) day in early February, I was carefully maneuvering my car up the partially-plowed slope leading to the mausoleums and monuments you see in the photo at top, being careful to keep my drive wheel on the plowed asphalt. One swath of all the roads had been plowed the night before, it seemed, but wind had drifted the snow onto both sides of the swath. Maybe five feet of asphalt was exposed. And they don’t salt cemetery roads.

Hollenback was open this morning – wrought iron gates open, utility vehicles parked near the quaint gatehouse, so if I got stuck, there would almost certainly be people around to laugh. As you’re navigating the uphills and downhills here, the possibility exists that your car can just slide off a steep embankment and get hung up on headstones. Not good. So I was pretty careful. Sometimes, when the drifting snow totally covered the (assumed) roadway, I had to back up and turn around. I spent just an hour there, driving around slowly and taking in the snow-capped beauty. The cemetery overlooks the Susquehanna River, which seemed a mere frozen stream, from this high above its banks.

Within five minutes of arriving, I stopped on a steep uphill grade so I could make this photo (above) of the contemplative old man statue, hoping that I could later regain enough traction to continue my ascent or back down the hill without sliding off! The light was gorgeous, just after sunrise, so that shadows, shapes, and silhouettes were plentiful.

Very rarely did I get out of my car, preferring to make photos from my car’s windows. However, at one point when I saw this small, familiar headless angel (below), I knew my zooms wouldn’t reach. I parked the car in the middle of the road (I mean, who would be fool enough to be driving in a snow-covered cemetery? I didn’t think I’d be blocking traffic) and climbed uphill through fifteen-inch crusty drifts to get to the headstone angel. I’d photographed seriously here at Hollenback a few times, so the angel, as well as a few other sights, were familiar to me. One of my habits is to return to familiar areas in different weather conditions, and snow just makes everything look different.

Headless Angel
Some sights were not familiar. If you’re walking through a graveyard, your line of sight is different from when you are scanning the scenery from a car window. You wouldn’t think a couple feet difference would be so critical, but it often is – almost as critical as walking in the opposite direction. Things just look way different in a cemetery from different directions. In a basic way, mostly all the fronts of headstones, monuments, and statues will be facing the same direction! Why is that? The subject of another blog, I suppose.

The Empty Bed
Snow draws your attention to certain things that may be overlooked otherwise. Like this little marble bed sculpture – no doubt a child’s grave – I would never have noticed it but for the snow and my low car-window vantage point. The entire monument only about a foot square, with the remnant of a flower on its pillow. We think that a blanket of snow would just cover up detail – and it does, to a degree. But unless you’re in a memorial park with all flush-to-the-ground grave markers, a walk (or drive) through a snow-covered cemetery can reward you with some interesting photographs.

Hollenback Cemetery, out my car's side passenger window

I photographed the headless angel on the headstone, but was not terribly thrilled with the result, as this particular grave marker is in the shadow of some large trees. But then – and I would have totally missed this if I had stayed in the car – I noticed the nearby snow-covered crypt with this amazing epitaph carved into its base:

 I had seen this crypt a number of times and have never been satisfied with the images I’d made of it. But the snow provided such contrast that the words jumped out. If you’re serious about your art, its easy to get so carried away with the scene you’re photographing that you don’t pay attention to anything else. However, every one of those 17 degrees was beginning to numb the tips of my gloved fingers. Just a couple more images with my other camera before I lose feeling in my fingertips ….

Not paying attention to my surroundings almost killed me some years ago. I was standing on the summit of Aspen Mountain in Colorado, with my camera, photographing the awesome sight of an airplane flying between two mountain peaks – below me! The top of the mountain where I was skiing is 11,242 feet above sea level. I stepped backward to change my angle of view and stepped right off the hard-packed "Snow-Cat" track on which I had been standing! I found myself floundering in a snow drift up to my neck! I grabbed onto the Sno-Cat track and hauled myself up on to terra firma (or actually, just packed snow). You only have to do that once to be forever vigilant in such situations.

A Hollenback mausoleum's forbidding doors

Granted, a jaunt through a cold and snowy cemetery is not as life-threatening as being buried alive, suffocating in a snow drift, but there is the threat of frostbite to the face and fingers. Art is one thing, but to live on the edge while you’re making it brings a natural, well, edginess, to one's work!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Escape from an Abandoned Cemetery

As I pulled my blood-filled gloves off my hands, I contemplated the folly of jumping off the fence rather than climbing down the other side. Also, why I did this before my sprained back had completely healed will forever puzzle historians. It all started with the notion that no one would be around the abandoned cemetery on the day after Christmas. We certainly never expected to get mauled like this.

We got in with little difficulty. A very controlled climb up and over the fence, easy as a ghost leaving a man. Would anyone care that we were in here, with the main gates locked up tight and the high fencing and stone walls thwarting all but the most intrepid and curious? Hard to say. We spent about an hour or so on the grounds, photographing the brilliant decay. Fallen angels and busted mausoleums, everything overgrown with weeds and trees. The invasive and even domesticated foliage had grown so dense and with such aggression, that choking vines had pulled statues off their pedestals. There is beauty in entropy, to be sure, but when actual damage is done, the picture is quite sad.

Nature is simply reclaiming its own, as it does in abandoned amusement parks and the lands once occupied by Olympic Games. However, when a cemetery occupies the land, we consider that land more sacred. These people and their families tried in vain to preserve their memory. I don’t believe that it is enough that the occasional voyeur gets to see their monuments and statuary, to read the inscriptions on the stones in their family plots. But in the quest of making abandoned site photographs, at least some attention is being paid.

Sometimes we need to hold a mirror up to ourselves to realize how much we really don’t care about certain things. Memories forsaken – all these people were once alive, and these monuments were intended to memorialize them, so future generations would remember. We might be that "future" generation.

After exploring much of this once grand Victorian graveyard together, Rick and I temporarily went our separate photographic ways. As I was scrambling through a wilderness that was filled with monuments and tombstones, I realized a car was driving around the access road inside the cemetery! I never expected this. I threw myself to the ground and hoped the occupant (s) wouldn’t see me. The car slowly circled the dirt road and disappeared. I quietly got up, half expecting it to be parked there, but it had gone.  I saw my cohort and motioned to him to get down.

I moved through the weeds toward Rick and said, “It’s go time.” We made our way across the dirt road the car had just traversed and climbed the embankment to the denser weed cover and ultimately, the fence blocking our escape. Exactly why we were afraid of being caught is open for interpretation. We were just a couple of old guys taking pictures in an abandoned cemetery.

As we peered through the thicket of dead “mile-a-minute” weeds for a glimpse of my car, I got a glimpse of something else – a white car, sporting what appeared to be a roof rack. My guess was that it was a police cruiser. With pulses quickening, we scrambled through the high brush along the abandoned cemetery side of the fence so we could get a better look at the car parked on the opposite side – the opposite side happened to be an active and open cemetery. It is ironic that the only way to get into an abandoned place is to climb in from the adjoining active place. Again, would anyone working here have cared if they saw two guys go over the fence?

So, the white car had police lights on its roof. We needed another exit strategy. I had a “Plan B,” but it was not well thought out.

Quietly (well, as quietly as we could), we made our way through the tangle of vines and weeds and crackling tinder along the fence to a place where an old oak tree and its thick vines seemed to offer a way over the fence. I wasn’t really thinking of the way down the other side – gravity would help in that respect. The first tree didn’t have any low branches, so off we scrambled to the next one. Although vines grew up and through the old cyclone fence, they did not offer any protection at the top, where the barbed wire lay.

I climbed the tree and fence, using vines as footholds - that is, until the last vine near the top snapped under my weight. "Power through this," I thought to myself. I pulled my two hundred pounds to the point where I was balancing on top of the fence, looking out over the active cemetery next door. Not a living soul in sight and no way to climb down. Ah, my kingdom for a rope ladder …

Six feet does not seem a great height from which to jump. But it is – especially if you’re on the wrong side of fifty and not in the greatest physical shape. I hung my cameras on the barbed wire for later retrieval and threw myself off into space. I would love to see a video of this graceless act. (Maybe after we die, God will show us home movies of stupid stuff we did.) I suppose when you’re falling you subconsciously, automatically, reach out for something to hold on to. The something in my case was, unfortunately, barbed wire.

I landed it pretty poorly, falling backwards onto the ground. Rick asked if I was okay. I got up and grabbed my cameras off the barbed wire. My wife, who is always at the gym, would appreciate the fact that this experience was great cardio exercise. My heart was racing, muscles burning, etc. My inner thigh hurt as did my feet. I told Rick to hand me his cameras and find a way over the fence. I would walk over to the other side of the cemetery to draw people’s attention. Godspeed! 

It wasn’t really cold, forty-ish, and my black leather gloves felt sweaty. Upon removing them, I saw that they were squishy with blood. The barbed wire had ripped through the leather in a number of spots. I quickly put them back on – I would not want to have to explain bloody hands to a police officer in a cemetery. (Note to self: pick up bottle of spray hydrogen peroxide on way home.) It took Rick about half an hour to finally find a tree he could climb, with vines that would facilitate his descent on the other side of the fence. I kept checking back every few minutes to see if he was making any progress. He finally did it, methodically and with relative safety. He tore his clothes to shreds, but did not hurt himself and did not have to jump!

We walked as casually as two injured and exhausted men could across the clean-cut cemetery. Our intent was to approach my car from the direction opposite the fence we had just climbed. There was the cop cruiser on the roadway a little below my car. Nonchalantly, we got into my car and drove off. I don’t think either of us took a breath until we made it through the exit gate onto the highway!

The Unanswered Questions:

So was the cop just there killing time eating his lunch? Would he have cared if he had seen two old guys climbing the fence? And what was up with the driver of the car inside the abandoned cemetery? He must have had access through the locked gates. Did the driver see me? Us? It almost seems that he must have, he was so close, as he circled slowly around us. Did he call the police? Is that why the cruiser was parked near my car? If the driver saw us, perhaps he was more afraid of us than we were of him. Or maybe he was just there to toss a Christmas wreath on a grave, a wreath purchased long distance by a descendant of someone interred in this mess of a place. There always are one or two Christmas floral arrangements on the odd grave here. So I guess there are some people who do remember and respect their ancestors who were long ago buried in this overgrown jumble of a cemetery. My guess is that they have no idea that this beautifully laid out Victorian-era garden cemetery is locked up tight and has been left to grow wild and crumble.

I understand changing societal tastes, people being more mobile, less focused on the material extravagance of the wealthier ancestral plane, but don’t people want tangible reminders of their past? Perhaps, but maybe not if they have to pay for their upkeep. An abandoned cemetery is clear evidence of people wanting to escape from the whole idea of death.

You know how people conveniently “forget” things when the things are, well, inconvenient for them to address? An abandoned cemetery is a good example of “An Inconvenient Truth” - as former United States Vice President Al Gore called his campaign to educate people about global warming. There is an an inconvenient truth buried in the act of discarding, abandoning, things. Maybe abandoned-site exploration and photography are so popular because these acts attempt to get to the heart of the matter. They hold a mirror up to us, showing a reflection of something we may not necessarily want to see.

There is always a reason things are abandoned. Ghost towns sometimes became such after the gold mines had been tapped out. There are many reasons why cemeteries become abandoned. I learn about some of them as my cemetery travels take me down strange roads, and over strange fences. Although I have yet to understand the situation with the cemetery in question, there is learning to be had if you're willing to venture to the edge, and occasionally, even, to jump off.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

“Angel in the House” - The Female Victorian Ideal?

For Valentine’s Day, let’s talk a bit about sex, or more specifically, “sensual” cemetery sculpture. I’ve written in past blogs (see link below) about how Victorian artists – painters and sculptors mainly – took liberties with the human form with regard to cemetery figure studies. So I’m used to seeing anonymous mourning art female figures clothed in diaphanous veils. The image you see at left is a life-sized bronze figure that is the door to a mausoleum.

According to the article, "Western Beauty Picture Perfect:" (

"Idealized" Victorian woman (ref.)
"Femininity and frailness were characteristics that made women beautiful in the Victorian Era, such characteristics were often categorized by the woman's hourglass frame with an extremely small waist. However, the idea of beautiful was seemingly impossible to achieve because a woman with more fat symbolized wealth which was also seen as beautiful. Therefore, women were supposed to be frail, feminine, have curvacious hips and a large bosom yet have impossibly small waist. In order to achieve this virtually impossible figure, women relied heavily upon hoop skirts and more importantly, a corset." (Ref.)

Angel Gabriel (photo by Krista Baker)
Commonly seen in cemeteries are the female cemetery angels or other female mourning figures. We also see Adonis-like male angel statues, though they are quite rare. More common are Michael the Archangel and Gabriel with his horn. Anonymous male cemetery statues are far less common than anonymous female statues - females being the "designated mourners" in Victorian mourning art. The male figure or bas-relief we see more typically bears the actual likenesses of the deceased male in that particular grave. (See my blog post "The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries" for further information on this topic.)

The faces of many angels and other mourning figures often appear androgynous; however, the body tells another story. It is typically an idealized female body, such as the one you see at right. Carved from a variety of materials – granite, marble, bronze – these sensual  figures walk the tightrope between spiritual purity and earthly desire. Undeniably conflicting, yet totally human forces of nature. In Western artistic tradition, the ability to accurately depict the female figure is what most defined artistic talent. Most professional Victorian-era sculptors were male, and sensual statues provided an opportunity for them to bring their artistic fantasies to life for a noble purpose.

When in Long Beach California in 2012, I found a rather interesting angel. This human-sized marble sculpture in Sunnyside Cemetery stands before a cross, her hands crossed over her chest. But wait – is it a her? On second glance, it appeared to be male. Long hair yes, but Michael the Archangel is typically depicted with long hair. Androgynous face, yes, but what about the body? Feminine? Difficult to say! Certainly not the curvaceous Victorian ideal. Upon closer examination, there appeared to be female breasts (as you can see in my photo below). One might say "normal-sized" breasts, as opposed to the genetic mutations typically sculpted.

Sculptor Julian Abele (Mural Arts Program)
The statue is highly unusual in this respect. Why is the artist’s rendering like this? She is certainly not the idealized bosomy, shapely Victorian female angel that one normally sees (see full body photo with red flowers, below). The sculptor obviously did this intentionally, but why? Is the angel supposed to bear an actual likeness to the deceased, the "angel in the house?" Let's take a look at how women were viewed in Victorian times.

From the Wikipedia entry, "Women in the Victorian era:"

"The status of women in the Victorian era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between the United Kingdom's national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions. During the era symbolized by the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria, women did not have suffrage rights, the right to sue, or the right to own property.
Representations of ideal wives were abundant in Victorian culture, providing women with their role models. The Victorian ideal of the tirelessly patient, sacrificing wife is depicted in The Angel in the House, a popular poem by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854."

Sunnyside Angel
‘My memory of Heaven awakes!
   She’s not of the earth, although her light,
As lantern’d by her body, makes
   A piece of it past bearing bright.

And though her charms are a strong law
   Compelling all men to admire,
They go so clad with lovely awe
   None but the noble dares desire.'

 -Excerpts from Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House  

"Following the publication of Patmore's poem, the term “angel in the house” came to be used in reference to women who embodied the Victorian feminine ideal: a wife and mother who was selflessly devoted to her children and submissive to her husband." (Ref.)

Victorian wife "submissive" to her husband?
So perhaps the Sunnyside Cemetery angel is a more accurate representation of the Victorian "angel in the house," a woman suppressed, whose wings of stone prevent her from rising to a higher social station.

References and Further Reading:
Read the entire Coventry Patmore poem The Angel in the House  
The Art of Sensual Statues in Cemeteries - Cemetery Traveler blog posting by Ed Snyder
Sunnyside Cemetery, Long Beach, California

Saturday, February 7, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Metal Theft in Cemeteries

I can just tell February is going to be a scrappy month. I don’t feel like going out into the bitter cold to photograph any cemeteries, so I’ll just write about their scrappiness.

Their what? Theft of metal to be sold for scrap. Metal is disappearing from cemeteries nationwide at an alarming rate. I see it personally almost every day. You might think this is two-bit stuff, but if I told you that you could just pry the memorial bronze plate off the monument above and a scrap dealer would give you twenty dollars for it, you’d quickly realize why thieves see cemeteries as such easy targets.

According to USA Today:
“Grave robbers, a curse of burial grounds for centuries, are back for new valuables: metal ornaments that can be melted down for quick cash as copper and other metal prices climb.” 

Stealing from the dead is downright sickening. As someone recently wrote on Facebook about such thieves: “I think there is a special level of hell for those who steal metal for scrap purposes from a cemetery.” The crime is so rampant that many states (among them, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Ohio) have enacted “Scrap Metal” laws in an attempt to reign in the nefarious activities of thieves and dealers.

Cemeteries' new problem: metal theft (USA Today)“… with copper currently selling for about $3.75 per 1 pound— close to historic highs of over $4 a pound in 2006 — thieves are carrying off brass and bronze items that can be melted down for the copper they contain. 'I don't know what could be more sacred than protecting our cemeteries,' said West Virginia state legislator Kevin Craig, who co-sponsored a law against scrap metal theft after a bronze door was stolen from a tomb at a cemetery in his district in 2006.”

Granted, that was in 2008. Now, in 2015, even with metal prices down, copper scrap purchased by junk dealers – I’m sorry – “recycling centers” – still brings $2.50 per pound. The second most valuable scrap metal is bronze, an alloy of copper (88% copper and 12% tin), commands $1.50 per pound on the scrap - sorry - "recycling" market (click link for current market prices of such metals).

Vandalized grave markers, Philadelphia's Mt. Sinai Cemetery
In early January (2015) I was driving through Philadelphia’s Mount Sinai Cemetery and I was startled to see that the bronze nameplates and some bronze letters were missing from grave markers near the entrance. I’d been there a few times, and was always struck by how neat and orderly everything looked. The missing bronze was very obvious, and must have disappeared since the summer of 2014, the last time I visited.

The problem is not uniquely American, by the way. Similar theft has been reported in England and Scotland (see links at end).

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In the fall of 2014, the bronze bell mounted behind the office of Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery disappeared. Someone probably brought a ladder and tools into the cemetery near the main entrance, and removed the bell from its mount on a steel girder about fifteen feet off the ground. Police and local scrap dealers were notified by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., but the bell never surfaced.

Before and after the bell disappeared from Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Who would steal a giant bell? A bell collector? Someone who thought that a bell forged in 1862 would be a cool historic artifact? More likely, someone who wanted the cash for booze or drugs. How much would a junk dealer, I’m sorry, a “metal reclamation consultant,” pay for such a thing? I’m guessing the bell weighed two hundred pounds. With dealers currently paying $1.50 for bronze scrap, that bell probably brought ($1.50 x 200) $300. Not bad for an hour’s work (I’m guessing).

You can buy three grams of heroin with three hundred dollars (in the U.S., at current prices). For relative value purposes, the current price of heroin is THREE TIMES that of gold, $120 versus $40 per gram!

Mount Moriah Cemetery's bronze bell
As I mentioned above, many states have enacted laws making it more difficult for scrap metal dealers to accept stolen merchandise. Connecticut law states specifically in its “Requirements for scrap metal processors” that:

“A scrap metal processor, junk dealer or junk yard owner or operator shall immediately notify a municipal law enforcement authority in the municipality in which such scrap metal processor, junk dealer or junk yard is located of the name, if known, and motor vehicle license plate number, if available, of any person offering to sell a bronze statue, plaque, historical marker, cannon, cannon ball, bell, lamp, lighting fixture, lamp post, architectural artifact or similar item to such scrap metal processor, junk dealer or junk yard owner or operator.”

The statement above is fairly typical of the various state laws; however, I thought it interesting that Connecticut’s law actually singles out bells!

Mount Moriah bell inscription: "Meneelys' West Troy, NY 1862"

The inscription on the Mount Moriah Cemetery bell reads "Meneelys' West Troy, NY 1862." Meneely's was a Bell Foundry that was in business from 1826 to 1952. After I posted photos of the bell on Facebook, an astute reader of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page searched auction sites online and found that in 2013, a similar bell (“Large metal bell, Meneelys, West Troy, New York; 20"h x 22”) sold at an online auction for $550.00 (ref).
Granted there are all these news stories about how junk dealers are all of a sudden very careful about buying seemingly stolen merchandise. After all, there is a Pennsylvania State Law called the “Scrap Material Theft Prevention Act“ (read it here) which specifies that dealers are supposed to report anyone trying to sell such things as “historical markers, statue plaques, grave markers, funeral vases…” However, I will tell you that there are two makeshift, roadside scrap dealers that set up shop in South Philly a year or so ago who probably take anything, no questions asked. Or would they? I was curious. Would a fly-by-night metal "recycling" place care if you brought in stolen cemetery statuary? I decided to stop and ask. I said to the guy, "I have a few of these bronze statues about a foot high, maybe twenty pounds each. Would you take them?" The guy said "Sure - a dollar-fifty a pound.

Scrap dealer, South Philadelphia

Bell behind office building at Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery
Since the Mount Moriah bell was stolen, new fencing has been installed along the front (Kingsessing Avenue) of the property. Hopefully, this will keep thieves out. If anyone has information on the bell's whereabouts, please contact Philadelphia Police at (215) 686-3120.