Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mount Moriah Cemetery - A Winter Wonderland

For most people, a walk through a winter wonderland would not involve an old graveyard. Luckily for you, I’m not most people. When it snowed ten inches in Philadelphia in early March, the first place I wanted to see under a blanket of snowy-white frosting was Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Straddling Philadelphia and Delaware counties in the cities of Yeadon and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mount Moriah is a previously neglected and abandoned, several-hundred acre Victorian-era cemetery. It has been recently adopted by the volunteer group Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. and is presently being maintained and restored through the herculean effort of thousands of volunteers. The legal entity Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation has even more recently (2014) been appointed the legal responsible party for business operations. (You can read more about this at the link at the end, but for now, back to the snow. 

Yeadon, PA side of Mount Moriah Cemetery
At ten inches deep, walking through the cemetery was not a walk in the park (although in Victorian times, cemeteries were the only parks available to the public!). This was going to be a challenge, as the roads are not plowed and walkways are not shoveled. (Although the property is now the legal responsibility of the court-appointed and newly-formed
Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation, funds have yet to be identified for ongoing routine maintenance, security, and regular staffing.) In order to not exhaust myself and my limited time, I had to decide what area of the cemetery would provide me with the most picturesque results with the least amount of hiking. I chose the Yeadon side, as it has a circle of grand old mausoleums up on a hill.  

Mausoleum rooftop beyond the snow

I trudged through the snow in the torrential sunshine (though it was only about twenty-three degrees), thinking how much the landscape reminded me of Aspen, Colorado in the winter. With light puffy snow on all the tree branches, it all looked bucolic indeed. My super literary abilities failed me and I was rendered speechless (but fear not – I have retained my acerbic wit and power to forget peoples’ names!). The beauty of this place created for me as spiritual an experience as may indeed be possible at this late date. 

The sky was blue and cloud-free. On a day like this, attention is riveted to detail: detail as audacious as the bright sun playing on the glistening ice that hangs from the roofs of the grand Victorian mausoleums; detail as subtle as the swirls made by this flag as the breeze blew it around. I spent about an hour climbing over the drifts and buried granite coping behind the mausoleums, making photographs of the brilliant decay. Yes, the mausoleums are in this condition because of years of neglect and vandalism. Graffiti defaces a few, while all have their doors and windows bricked up. However, like most other things, snow tends to cover up a multitude of sins and makes everything look clean and pure. I decided to walk around the hill behind the mausolea to one of my favorite spots.

There were some people tracks heading toward the area in which I was interested, so perhaps others recently had the same idea. The snow was a nuisance to walk through, but I’d much rather be walking through it making photographs than shoveling it – which is what I had been doing recently. This was a welcome respite from the last two dreary days during which schools were closed due to all the snow that fell during a 24-hour period.

Footprints in front of the Maull family plot, Section 141, Mount Moriah Cemetery

The road along the front of the mausolea takes you up the hill to an area replete with elaborate granite monuments, obelisks, and family plots - many of them in the woods. One of my favorite sites (and sights) at Mount Moriah is the Maull family plot. It is relatively easy to get to, as the roadways, though overgrown and grassy (no vehicular access), are perfectly walkable. That said, it is quite off the beaten path and not usually seen by casual visitors. If you read my blog, you know full well that I am not a casual visitor!

Maull plot after a snow, early March, 2015

The Maull plot is singular in that it has two Japanese maple trees growing in it. Their twisting branches are covered with flaming red and orange leaves in the fall. The scene is made quite picturesque as the leaves frame the headstones and monuments in the plot. In winter, all these shapes, covered with snow, provide a myriad of photographic choices. You just cannot take a bad photograph here – it’s like shooting a supermodel! Well, it is now, anyway. Not quite a supermodel up until recently. In addition to clearing the plot so visitors can have better access, the Friends volunteers have also removed the unsightly graffiti from the back of the plot's large central monument!

Graffiti removed from monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Japanese maple tree
I walked around and finally through the plot, making photos from various vantage points, with different cameras. I was careful to work my way into the plot slowly, to ensure I did not deface the snowscape with my footprints until I exhausted all possibilities before me. I walked out of the plot onto the main road and was a bit startled to see a gentleman walking toward me. He had two cameras around his neck. After hellos and introductions, it turned out that he was none other than local photographer David Huisken, who has posted many of his photos of the Maull plot on Facebook. It was great to meet someone with common interests, even if one is as seemingly bizarre as sharing a “favorite” spot in a cemetery!

I must say, however, that as I left David, I felt a bit guilty that I made all those footprints in the area he came to photograph! He had, however, already made some wonderful images down near Cobbs Creek, which separates the cemetery's Yeadon side from its Philadelphia side. This image below (which David graciously let me publish here) captures the beauty of Mount Moriah with no grave stones in the scene at all - a novel approach! This area along Cobbs Creek Parkway is part of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (at over 9,200 acres, Fairmount Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in the United States).

Cobbs Creek at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia (photo by David Huisken)

I write this a few days after my walk through Mount Moriah. It is fifty degrees and the snow is gone. It has turned to water which will serve to boost plant growth and swell Cobbs Creek. Looking at David Huskein’s wonderful image of the creek and the Philadelphia side of Mount Moriah, you’d hardly guess that he was standing at the mangled rusty guardrail alongside the gritty, grimy parkway when he made his photograph. Snow does cover a multitude of sins and offers us beauty, if just for a short while.

So if you’ve ever wanted to visit the stunning beauty that is Mount Moriah Cemetery, now is the time to go. Winter is great since all the foliage is dead and you can see the monuments and gravestones through the trees. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, you now have much greater access to all parts of the cemetery. However, since only about thirty percent of this hundred-acre wood has been cleared and is regularly maintained, the greater portion of the grounds will quickly be overgrown with greenery come spring. 

References and Further Reading:
The  Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
The  Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page

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