Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nisky Hill Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA

On a bitterly cold and windy day in January, I met up with some friends to tour and make photographs in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Nisky Hill Cemetery. Great art comes from great pain. Fifteen degrees with a wind chill right off the Lehigh River that can numb gloved fingers in fifteen minutes. Some snow and ice remained on the ground from a prior time, much as the monstrous and rusting hulks of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces sat dormant across the river. These “steel stacks” can easily be seen through the leafless trees at the edge of the cemetery. Looking toward them makes you assume that many of the graves here must have belonged to steel workers.
Dormant blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel lurk across the Lehigh River

Or not. This was more likely an elite cemetery, with the actual immigrant steel workers buried in rude churchyard cemeteries like St. Michael's on the south (opposite) side of the river. Nisky Hill Cemetery appears to be in an affluent neighborhood of Bethlehem (check out this Christmas house across the street).

From what little I’ve been able to ascertain, Nisky Hill Cemetery was founded in 1864 as a Moravian burial ground. The original “Union Cemetery” (having nothing to do with the Grand Army of the Republic) at the eastern end of this large rectangular property, appears to have been annexed to Nisky Hill at some point in time.  The old gates along the front of the cemetery (East Church Street) offer the words “UNION CEMETERY” spelled out on them in wrought iron. I will assume Bethlehem Union Cemetery predates Nisky Hill.

Office at main entrance, Nisky Hill Cemetery
 The main entrance here is a bit odd. The entire cemetery is essentially build into the river bank, and slopes down toward it. Nisky Hill Cemetery is owned by the Bethlehem Area Moravians, Inc., a privately-held corporation which, it seems, has been in the local cemetery business since 1823 (ref.). Why, I’m not sure. I could fill a book with what I don’t know about the Moravians, so I’ll save that research for another time. Suffice it to say that “Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was founded in 1741 by a group of Moravians, members of a church that traces its heritage to pre-Reformation fifteenth-century central Europe”(ref.).

Interesting example of a "pre-need" cemetery monument

While it was a bit uncomfortable being out in the elements on this bright chilly winter’s day, it was actually kind of a cake walk. After some recent visits to abandoned cemeteries where I had to climb over fences and fall out of trees, this visit to Nisky Hill was so easy it seemed like I was getting away with something! While there was snow on the ground, the roads were plowed – in fact, the gates were wide open and we drove right in! Sometimes you take such conveniences for granted. There are in fact many cemeteries I’ve visited in winter where they don’t even plow the snow off the roads or even unlock the gate! Nisky Hill Cemetery is well-maintained and safe. I would guess that the caretaker lives on site in the old office building (there was a swing set behind it).

As we made our way methodically from one mausoleum to the next, I kept thinking about the heating packets for my gloves that I left in the trunk of my car. Oh well, cold fingers are better than the bloody ones ripped up by barbed wire a few weeks ago as a result of my last cemetery exploration! Today, we had a warm running vehicle to which we could adjourn about every fifteen minutes. Pampered.

Zinc ("White Bronze") memorial
As photographers, my friends and I ran off in our separate directions, pursuing our personal visions. Sometimes these interact, sometimes they are at odds with each other. While it can be interesting to see how different people photograph the same scene (like we did with the Civil War cannon above), I rather enjoy totally missing some awesome detail that a friend points out! In the case at Nisky Hill, I would have totally missed a few things, wrapped up in my own world of zinc monuments and snow. My friend Jonathan pointed out the disembodied heads (photos above) and the color photographic mausoleum glass window shown below.

The what? A photographic image about two by three feet, in color, of children in a boat, playing near a small waterfall. Trees crowd the sunny sky, while a hole from a bullet or stone mars the idyllic scene. What exactly is this? It is not stained glass nor painted glass, done in the usual fashion. A photograph printed on glass, then hand-painted? A type of 1860s lantern slide or an early 1900s autochrome? This is a positive image, like a color slide transparency. I am totally curious about this, so if anyone can offer a clue as to how this was done, please comment!
Author at William H. Thomas monument

Perhaps the most unusual monument in the entire cemetery was the one at the main entrance. Before we met up at Nisky Hill, my friends texted me about their impending arrival. This was about fifteen minutes after I arrived. I texted them back, “Meet you at the giant phallus.” I took a selfie before they got there, to help gauge the size - I am six foot two inches tall. Imagine. What would possess someone to install such a thing on one’s grave is beyond me, but apparently William H. Thomas was possessed by exactly that prior to his death in 1928. Maybe he wanted his monument to be higher than the steel stacks across the river? This sixteen-foot high tan (I swear) granite testament to the male ego stands out like a witty analogy amidst the much smaller, normal-sized grave markers that surround it. 

According to, “Moravians focus on the simplicity of burial grounds. They believe in uniform, plain grave markers and inscriptions to emphasize the equality of all human beings.” Oddly, the phallus is right next to the office building so no one can ever miss it. "Equality" aside, whoever all there people were, the residents of Nisky Hill and Union Cemetery in Bethlehem, their choice of how to be remembered was personal. These markers and monuments represent their lives, their community, their collective soul. It is a varied collection.
Older Moravian grave markers

Although Nisky Hill was originally restricted to Moravian burials, at some point this changed. Older Moravian cemeteries have smallish, low to the ground grave markers, almost like a memorial park or a Quaker burial ground with no high tombstones or monuments. There are a number of Moravian stones in this cemetery, made of white marble – perhaps twenty inches long, fourteen inches wide, and four inches high. However, Nisky Hill/Union Cemetery evolved for the most part into a classic American Victorian-era cemetery, replete with angels, zinc monuments, mausolea, and other decorative details from that era of mourning art.