Sunday, December 27, 2020

"I Returned Your Skulls."

Image by Michael Kauffman
“What the world needs right now is another endless musing on staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic; the C.D.C. has declared these pieces to be a symptom of COVID-19 that can be treated only by gentle snoring.” -  Libby Gelman-Waxner in her New Yorker article “If You Ask Me: The Last Quarantine Think Piece” (May 18, 2020)

While I agree with the above statement, I’m still going to write this blog. As my friend Mike Spak would say, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

This past summer I was walking up the street toward my house, end of the day, coming home from work. A few neighbors were outside their homes chatting (from an appropriate COVID social distance) – I live on a tiny street of row homes in an old nineteenth-century Philadelphia neighborhood. My neighbor Michael, who lives around the block, addressed me in a relatively loud voice, “Hey Ed, I returned your skulls … left them with your wife.” Ok, that’s a wee bit embarrassing – but in a good way, lol.

I am very selective when it comes to my choice of friends – they have to be anything but normal and boring. And they say the darndest things. One time a few years back I got together after work with a friend to have a beer. We were walking down the street on a Friday evening, lots of people on the sidewalks, summer. I asked him how his day went, as he appeared to be tired out. He sighed and said, “Well, we got all six bodies out of the ground.”  Couldn’t help notice the startled looks we got from those around us! Frank worked in a graveyard, and I knew he was working on a project to move some graves.

Michael, my neighbor, is an artist. He appreciates Caravaggio, a Baroque era painter who seemed to rather enjoy painting people getting their heads chopped off. Some of his art evokes Caravaggio. Over the course of the last few years, Michael and I have each learned a bit about each others’ art. As an aside, I shared with him the fact that I pick up skulls in abandoned graveyards – everyone needs a hobby, right? 

Just to be clear, my skulls are not human skulls. You just don’t run across those as often as you do skulls of other animals - even in abandoned graveyards! 

During the spring/summer 2020 coronavirus lockdown, Michael had been stuck in the house, so he’d spent some of that time creating art. Either he asked to borrow some of my skulls, or I offered them to him, I don’t remember exactly how that went, but he created some startlingly gorgeous photographs with them, which he planned to use as components of larger digitally collaged art work. Michael has a glorious light tent in his garage in which he does digital macrophotography. I was jealous so I had Amazon send me one. Not a garage, a light tent. An inexpensive version of his (mine is shown below).

It was probably in May that I lent Michael my skulls. May was an absurd month, full of fear and coronavirus. Lockdowns and masking. A lot of artists spent this time holed up, creating. In November, Michael shared some of the final results with me, one of which you can see at the top of this blog.

My skulls formerly belonged to an assortment of animals – fox, pitbull, deer, cat, bird, groundhog, etc. They were all found in abandoned cemeteries. I never spent much time photographing them, but after I got my skulls back and saw some of Michael’s preliminary results, I decided to take a stab at it myself. 

Here you see one of my first experiments. This one at left is based on the rainbows everyone had hanging from their homes during the Summer of COVID. Finding and counting rainbows seemed apropos of the time – a way to pretend that you again had some control over your life, and that there was eventually going to be a positive outcome. This image represents both possible outcomes. 

During the lockdown, I was one of the few people allowed on the roads, being a healthcare worker. Every once in a while, I’d stop by a local graveyard to do some photography. Graveyards were one of the only public areas people could visit during lockdown - you were lucky if there was one within walking distance of your home. I wasn’t confined to my house, like most people, but when I was home, I decided to use the time wisely and creatively. Actually, more experimentally and experientially. 

I’m writing this at the tail end of December, 2020. Since March, artists have been lamenting their situation. No galleries or public spaces to display or sell their work. For those who depend on this for income, for a livelihood, this has been devastating. But wait – we all create art in private anyway, right? During lockdown (when was that, mid-March to June?), we were FORCED to work in private, and forced to use whatever we had on hand to create. Hopefully, artists had supplies (yet another advantage of digital over film photography, huh? Otherwise we’d all be stuck with bags of undeveloped film).

COVID is like an entropy puzzle, a puzzle we have to assemble without the benefit of having a picture on the box showing the end result. And just when some of the pieces seem to fit together, they magically change, so they no longer fit. Who knew the pandemic would continue into August, when I began writing this blog? That was two weeks before virtual school began for the world’s children. Distance learning, two words that I am now convinced are mutually exclusive. Now it’s the end of December, 2020, and we don’t even have the border of the puzzle completed. The new normal, life in a pandemic.

As artists, we sometimes need to get out of our old wheelhouse – we need a kick in the ass to get those creative juices flowing. For some artists, COVID is that KITA. It seemed to influence Michael Kauffman’s work – see his gorgeous tombstone image below!

I intended to close this piece by bookending the opening New Yorker quote with these lyrics from the band Cracker’s song, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now):”

“…what the world needs now

Is a new kind of tension, …

'Cause the old one just bores me to death…”

So that’s good for artists (and maybe others) who needed the COVID KITA to move their art (or their lives) to the next level. However, I watched musician Devin Townsend’s Christmas Concert performance the other day, and this quote from his song “My Life,” is a kinder, gentler way to say goodbye to 2020:

“How long can this life go on? Who we are, what we are. See you on the other side."
- (Devin Townsend - Acoustic Christmas Special (Live 12-23-2020) - YouTube

Further Adventures:

See Michael Kauffman’s artwork on Flickr: Michael Kauffman | Flickr

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Nanny

Mount Moriah gatehouse, by Frank Rausch

Here’s a creepy little story for your Halloween/Day of the Dead enjoyment. Back around 2014, I was leading a photo tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia (that's me in the green hat). Around the time these photographs were taken (by my friend Frank Rausch), a woman around my age (in her fifties) came up to me and shared a fascinating piece of her personal history. I’ll paraphrase:

“When I was growing up, I used to live in that house across the street,” she said, pointing to a house on the corner of Kingsessing Avenue and Cemetery Road. “We had a nanny who used to bring us over to the cemetery. A few days after my First Holy Communion, our nanny had my brother and I dress in our church clothes and she brought us over here to take our pictures. I was maybe eight, and my brother five. I had on a white dress and he had on a little dark suit. She had us lie down in the grass on our backs, right here on the graves in front of the gatehouse. We were holding flowers in our folded hands and she had us close our eyes while she photographed us.”

I was speechless. Especially as I had recently seen the 2013 film documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” ( It’s a glimpse into the life of Vivian Maier, a loner who worked as a nanny decades ago; she was also an amateur street photographer.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

I quickly researched Maier’s history, thinking that she may have left Chicago and came to Philadelphia! Having the children play dead seemed like something she might have done. 

Maier was a nanny who cared for children for about 4 decades from the late 1950s through the 1990s. She was an odd loner who photographed urban life - a street photographer. She often photographed her charges, while she took them on outings and for walks through the not-so-nice parts of Chicago. She traveled a bit, so I was rather curious if the woman on my tour had come into contact with her. The woman at Mount Moriah did not remember her nanny’s name. However - she told me she still has the photos! The nanny gave her copies! (If you're out there reading this, I would SO love to see them!)

Vivian Maier’s story was far from normal. Maier was an avid amateur photographer, shooting three rolls of film most days with her Rolleiflex camera. She did this for decades while walking around the cities of first New York, then Chicago. She rarely printed her images, and seemed to have had a compulsive need to document the people around her, doing their everyday things. She caught people in candid, somewhat unflattering poses. She processed her film and hoarded the negatives that she made. At the time of her death in 2009, her life’s work, and most of her belongings, was sold at auction for unpaid rent of a storage facility. 

In 2007, a real estate agent named John Maloof bought the trunk of her film and negatives at auction for $380.  He was intrigued at the vast amount of work, and thought it might prove interesting. Turned out to be a treasure trove of 100,000 negatives and 700 rolls of undeveloped film! As Maloof pored over the work, he quickly realized it was the work of a master photographer. A great artist whom no one would ever have known existed, if not for Maloof’s research, archiving, printing, and documenting Maier’s work in the aforementioned film documentary. Maier was a master of her art, a street photographer extraordinaire with very few equals. Her work is easily on par with that of famous professional street photographers such as Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark. Her posed portraiture (including self-portraits) reminds one of Diane Arbus’ work.

The film Maloof made, “Finding Vivian Maier,” is rather amazing. I highly recommend it. This compelling, haunting, and captivating story shows Maier as a sort of memory hoarder, documenting urban American streetlife as no one else had in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent notoriety of Maier’s work sparked a renaissance in street photography. 

Photograph by Frank Rausch

Maloof never found Maier, who died around the time he attempted to locate her. Chances are she never would have approved of the world making such a fuss over her work. Like the glimpse of life revealed to me by the woman on my photo tour, Maier gives us a glimpse of how life appeared to her. Turns out Vivian Maier never came to Philadelphia, so the nanny in the Mount Moriah story was some other … person. I almost wrote “oddball,” because, as my dearly departed father used to say, “Edward, we’re all a little bit crazy.”


Saturday, August 8, 2020

New Devils Require New Gods

During the Corona spring and summer of 2020, I felt compelled to mask cemetery statues. A flaw in my personality, I suppose. I didn’t leave the masks on and I did no damage in the act. Initially, I don’t know why I did it. I published a few images and received a handful of comments from upset people. 

Comments like “I was saddened by our beautiful Angels with paper masks covering their exquisite faces - the angels should not be weighted down by human error.”

Exquisite faces, indeed. After months of people wearing masks, I miss all your exquisite faces. I meant no disrespect by masking angels. We created them in our own image, after all. Or more accurately, we created them in our idealized, Western world Christian image. Angels – both male and female, are the supermodels, the Barbie and Ken perfect versions of our white selves. Since we must now mask ourselves and hide our beautiful faces, I wanted to see what these icons looked like, masked. If we must mask, why shouldn’t they? But you know, if we all end up wearing masks for the next year, maybe we NEED unmasked, beautiful statues to remind us of the way things were? Of the goal, the way things should be? Are they a sign of hope? Optimism? Maybe I’m taking this away from people by masking them. 

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”― Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

I suppose I need to be careful, though - blasphemy and heresy are no laughing matter. In past centuries, such an act could get you killed, defacing statues or paintings of the gods, or public figures. But as Louise Erdrich says in her novel, Tracks, (1989, Harper & Row), “new devils require new gods.” I’m not going to define this statement for you right now. Take from it what you will. Perhaps its about our response to the coronavirus pandemic. When I create art, I want the viewer to take what they can from it. Most likely it speaks to them differently than it speaks to me. I have always defined my art as minimally as possible – I want the viewer to find their own meaning in it. I don’t even like to title my photographic images. Even that narrows things down too much.

Erdrich’s novel, Tracks, is about Indian (yes, she uses that proper name) tribes “struggling to keep what remained of their lands” in last century America. Native American land and all other freedoms were slowly taken from them very much like our present freedoms are slowly being taken from us by coronavirus. We are struggling to keep what remains of our world. Big difference, however, is that while the white settlers of this “new” land benefitted greatly from the indigenous peoples’ loss, no one benefits from the loss due to COVID-19. Unless, of course, it is some evil plot hatched by the spotted lanternfly.

Would George Washington Wear a Face Mask in 2020? No!

People thought I would have more respect for angels and other works of art - I might just as well have “purchased a can of spray paint & had [my] way with these historic & immortal figures!” (“Immortal,” let’s come back to that thought later.) One could say the same of the person who doctored up this painting of George Washington, I suppose. But its all about having the freedom to express oneself, to make a point. Here’s an image below that should really rile up the masses. Old folks need to protect them selves from their kids, who may be asymptomatic COVID-carriers. 

One of the problems with freedom is that people are free to believe anything they like. For months, there was no consistent, insistent decree from our nation’s leaders that we should wear face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. Should we or shouldn’t we? We were free to believe whatever suited us. Now, of course, it is becoming quite clear that face masks should have been worn all this time. (Wait – shouldn’t our guardian angels have appeared in masks to carry us to salvation? Sorry, getting a bit sarky there.) 

Tensions Mount 

The raw emotion that has surfaced over my masked statuary is a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Make you think? Make you emote? Maybe you love it, hate it, or are indifferent. Maybe that’s how you also view the whole face mask thing in general. 

The issues people have with wearing masks are multitudinous. George Hofmann in his Psych Central article, The Fight Over Facemasks, mentions a few of these. “The science behind wearing a mask seems pretty simple, and among scientists and doctors there’s near universal agreement that wearing masks will prevent transmission and greatly reduce the number of people who contract the virus.” If you don’t believe this, go watch movies about hospitals and research labs.

Hofmann adds, “That’s why I think there’s a lot more to the anger over masks than respect for the health of others or individual liberties.” People’s anger and rage is evident by the almost daily reports like this, an incident that occurred on July 31, 2020. A customer of a cigar store in Bethlehem, PA, shot at the clerk with a handgun when the customer got upset over the store’s masking policy (link to story).

In this chaotic time - new devils require new gods. New problems require new solutions (one interpretation of this statement). The masking quarrel reminds me of the story of Dr. Charles Meigs, a nationally recognized Philadelphia obstetrician, who in the 1850s singlehandedly transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of his patients. Why? He didn’t believe in washing his hands! He didn’t believe he needed to clean his surgical instruments. He didn’t believe there were such things as infectious diseases. He felt that God was on his side, and he could do no wrong! God, can you believe that? Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that a basic way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene.  (Read the whole Meigs story in my blog post, “Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.”)

Dr. Charles Meigs's grave, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

As I write this in August 2020, we are really still in the discovery phase of this disease, coronavirus. We don’t know how to control it yet, so why argue about face masks? Why not just err on the side of caution? How many of our politicians remind you of Dr. Meigs? How much of our general population reminds you of Dr. Meigs?

George Hofmann offers that the real source of anger is usually hidden behind what we’re fighting over. He opines that “people have felt disaffected and forgotten by the society they see portrayed in the media for a long time.” Sound familiar? As average citizens, we just don’t measure up to the media ideal of ourselves. We are not, nor ever will be, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Hofmann feels that people generally feel ignored, mere background noise. Proles. He says that putting a mask over their faces, “making them anonymous and unheard [literally], can be a source of great anger.”

We created angels in our ideal image – maybe that’s one reason its so hard to see them masked. The goals of purity, perfection, and escape (perhaps only attainable in the afterlife?) all of a sudden may not seem possible. “Immortality,” as mentioned earlier, may now seem impossible. By masking angels, am I symbolically closing the Heavenly Gates on the viewer? Am I suggesting, as John Cale does in his song, Fear, that “we’re already dead, just not yet in the ground…?” 

But I want to end this missive on a high note, something optimistic. How about this: new devils require new gods. Think about that. 

Further Reading:

George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis (2020, Changemakers Books), is available here.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Irishman’s Grave – “I Heard You Paint Houses”

My wife and I watched the 2019 movie, “The Irishman,” a few months ago. We watched it during our local coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, when most Philadelphians were binge-watching television. Quite intriguing, this film. About Jimmy Hoffa’s mob bodyguard, Philadelphian Frank Sheeran (aka The Irishman) and his life of crime (he was mainly a hitman for the Bufalino organized crime Family in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s). Its historical fiction in that it suggests how Hoffa disappeared – a mystery that has never been solved. The movie is adapted from the book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. In Brandt’s book, Sheeran, interviewed in an old age home, supposedly confessed to killing Hoffa. Robert DeNiro does an astounding job in the lead role of the Irishman.

Friendly Lounge today in South Philly
I felt a closeness to this movie, for odd reasons. My Dad was a union man in the 1960s and 70s, when Hoffa was president of the Teamsters. My friend Ted tends bar at the Friendly Lounge, the South Philly bar where some of the movie was filmed, which is the actual bar where a lot of the real action took place when Sheeran was just getting his start in the 1960s. Ted told me about the movie before it was released. I live about six blocks from the bar. 

Another reason I felt some attraction for the film is because of crime family mob boss Russell Bufalino. As a kid growing up in the sixties, in northeast Pennsylvania, his name was always in the papers. He controlled northeast PA for the Mafia. I never paid much attention, but I remember my parents talking about him frequently. Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman,” seems to have been the mob boss who got the Irishman, whose name was actually Frank Sheeran, into Bufalino's crime “Family.” Up to that point,  Sheeran was just a small town crook. 

Robert DeNiro as "The Irishman" choosing a final resting place in the movie (ref.)

At the end of the movie, Sheeran goes coffin and crypt hunting. He’s living in an old age home and wants to choose his final resting place. As Brett McCracken says in The Gospel Coalition article, “How ‘The Irishman’ Prepares for Death,” (Nov. 20, 2019) “He wants to be buried above ground in a mausoleum because it feels “less final” than burial in the ground or cremation—like maybe his body could be resurrected more easily that way.” This article shows a photo of him, a still from the movie, in a simple community mausoleum choosing a spot.

At some point after seeing the film, it occurred to me that Frank Sheeran might in fact be buried for real somewhere near my home in Philadelphia. Fairly easy to find with the Internet at my disposal. Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA, is a suburb of Philadelphia on the southwest side. The website tells me he’s buried in a mausoleum there and someone even uploaded a photo of the crypt cover you see at the beginning of my essay, with Frank and wife Mary’s names engraved on it. Not tremendously helpful, this information, as I had no idea whether he was buried in a community mausoleum like in the movie or in one of the many private mausoleums at Holy Cross. 

“Are you family?”

So one spring afternoon in April I drove out to Holy Cross in search of The Irishman. The cemetery is only about ten miles from where I live so in the early weeks of the pandemic, I donned my mask and took a Saturday drive.
Holy Cross is a cemetery I’ve written about a number of times. One of my blog posts, “Graves of the Mob Bosses,” details several underworld characters who are buried here. They’ve all got elegant headstones or mausoleums, surrounded by Christian statuary – Jesus, angels, saints. Some Catholic cemeteries have a problem burying criminals within their gates. Holy Cross apparently does not. Gangsters like Philip Testa and Angelo Bruno, serial killers like H.H. Holmes, are but a few who reside on or in these consecrated grounds.

Masked myself, I asked the masked office worker if he could tell me where Frank Sheeran is buried. He seemed a little nervous and a bit hurried. He told me specifically which community mausoleum Sheeran was in (he pointed out the window to the large modern structure up on the hill), and he described to me on which side Sheeran’s crypt was. I thanked him and as I turned to leave, he asked, “Are you family?” I took this to mean a blood relative, so I simply responded, “No.” It wasn’t until much later that I thought, maybe he meant “Family…..” That was a bit sobering.

I had little trouble finding The Irishman’s crypt in the mausoleum. It was all rather peaceful and quiet. So unlike his life, as it is depicted in the movie. According to Charles Brandt’s book, Sheeran supposedly admitted that he painted between twenty-five and thirty houses. That is, he killed that many people, many of whom were Hoffa’s enemies and rivals. Many secrets are buried with Frank Sheeran. His mausoleum is not the one shown in the movie; they filmed that scene with DeNiro elsewhere. 

Community mausoleum where Sheeran is buried (rear at right)

References and Further Reading:
Link to Ed Snyder's blog post  “Graves of the Mob Bosses” 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Cemetery Restoration at the Jersey Shore

Summer 2020. COVID-19 summer. Vacation with the fam. Brigantine, New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City. Cemetery visitation plans: Atlantic City Cemetery and maybe another. Maybe Winslow Junction – train graveyard, or Fleming’s Junkyard, last resting place of all other modes of transportation. Except the rental condo was infested with bugs that bored into my skin and drew blood. The pool was also closed for the season, which was not mentioned on their website. Sweet. 

I’m a high-functioning individual with good insight and a positive outlook. Therefore, we packed up the plantation and moved further north. On to the Coral Seas Motel in Beach Haven, New Jersey, on LBI, i.e., Long Beach Island - my go-to Jersey Shore vacation spot for about 35 years. Coral Seas tells us their pool is open and they have no bugs. Ambrosia. No wait, that’s food, isn’t it? No matter, the custard is better on LBI anyway. Beach Haven is only about fourteen miles north as the crow flies from Brigantine. As the car drives, however, it is a sixty-mile inland journey up the coast. 

Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Once we were settled, pooled, and availed ourselves of a bug-free night, I planned a new cemetery jaunt. About ten miles north toward Barnegat Bay, there are a few cemeteries on Route 9 shown on the Internet.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and headed north. (“Up, Sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1741.) Passed my favorite church graveyard, Manahawkin Baptist Church in Manahawkin, NJ (where I swear I saw Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde a few years ago, walking around with a guy who was carrying a guitar case). Even though the sunrise light was AWESOME, I figured I’d catch it on the way back (always NEVER do this! You can never set foot in the same river twice). 

I hit the Barnegat Masonic Cemetery after passing an amazing looking outdoor nautical antique dealer which I didn’t stop at. Drove around the cemetery for a few minutes and realized I’d been there before. Locale wasn’t familiar, but the headstones and monuments were. I’m kind of freewheeling this blog while I’m drinking “Spirits of the Apocalypse” bourbon, trying to drain the bottle so I don’t have to use valuable storage space in the Saab on tomorrow’s trip home (my ten-year-old daughter won all kinds of arcade toys that will take up precious cargo space). 

So I sped off up Route 9 to the next graveyard on the eMap, something called Old Waretown Cemetery. Had a heck of a time finding this. The eMap on my iPhone showed the cemetery plain as eDay, but all I actually saw was a patch of woods with a vacant lot next door. I drove around the lot thinking the cemetery was forgotten in the woods, when it occurred to me that it might be accessible from the other side of the patch of woods, the road less traveled. That’s when I saw the green sign you see at the beginning of this essay.

"Olde" Waretown Cemetery on Barnegat Bay, New Jersey

The cemetery, penned in on three sides by pine forest, was at the end of a short street. Houses lined one side of the street and an industrial garage on the other. A garage worker was starting his day and paid me no mind. I docked the Pequod at the end of the street and got out. The pine-sheltered graveyard was only about a quarter of a city block in size, and had many old headstones, Revolutionary War Veteran medallions, and U.S. flags on some graves. The only thing that really stood out was the restoration setup in the middle of the graveyard – and the moss. The property was so shaded by the tall trees that moss grew thick on the sandy ground. It was like walking on a thick soft carpet.

Repair and restoration of headstones

Revolutionary War veteran's grave marker

Soldiers, sailors, and early settlers of the area are buried here. Some stones date to the early 1800s. Many were just moss-covered nubs of stone, they were so weatherbeaten. The snow, rain, wind, and sandblasting caused by the latter, all work to erode these marble, slate, and brownstone gravemarkers. 

Many were broken, but someone, or perhaps a group of people are trying to save them from being buried like the people whose graves they mark. The restoration of two of the stones here is being conducted in a highly professional manner. Clamps, epoxy, supporting structure, binding straps, etc. A laborious enterprise, to be sure, and without a doubt, a labor of love.

Headstone with matching footstone
Another repaired stone, this one recently reattached to its base, was accompanied by a matching footstone! This may be old news to many of my readers, but I just learned of this custom in June, 2020 at the Life and Death Event created by Tania Kirkman. This was a mostly online three-day event with dozens of lectures (with this one given by me) related to death and all its trappings. 

At Life and Death, a friend of mine, Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girlsgave a presentation entiltled, “Welcome to the Graveyard: A Tour of Cemetery Art and History.” She covered American burial practices and cemeteries from the 1600s to the present day. Brenda explained that for a certain period of time, it was popular practice to mark both the head as well as the foot of one’s grave, with both stones facing east. The thought being that on Judgement Day, when Christians emerge from their graves they emerge headfirst in the proper direction to face their maker! Also, the two stones effectively mark the boundary of the grave, to prevent accidental excavation. 

The head and footstone in above photo are about six feet apart. On a nearby child’s grave, the stones were about three feet apart. Footstones typically have the initials of the deceased engraved on them. As you can see in the photo above of William N. Smith’s headstone, his footstone bears the initials, “WNS.” I had seen these small stones many times over the years and naively thought they were simply inexpensive grave markers. The obvious has a way of eluding me at times!

Broken headstone epoxied back onto its base

It was getting to be about 8:30 a.m. and I needed to be back in Beach Haven to pick up pancakes for my daughter from Uncle Will’s Restaurant, so I headed back to my car. As I drove out to the main street to leave, I stopped to photograph “The Olde Cemetery” sign. Two men were standing in the adjoining yard. I said hi and asked them if they knew who has been repairing the grave markers. With facemasks on (this being the Summer of COVID-19), I could barely make out what they said. Sounded like “Bill Watt, and he had volunteers helping from the local VFW.” So Bill, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your story. Great work.

Sheetrock grave markers at Manahawkin Baptist Church graveyard 

On the way back, I did stop at the Manahawkin Baptist Church to do some photography, but as they say about the past, it had passed. The early sun was no longer early enough. I walked around a bit, spooking rabbits at silflay that tore across the open spaces. Something new to my eyes was this family plot with five of what appeared to be gravemarkers made of sheetrock! Obviously, someone went to a lot of trouble to make them – and to attach wooden letters spelling out the names of the deceased. However, I cannot imagine they will weather very well.

Many of the graves in these Jersey shore cemeteries could be anywhere - Missouri, Montana, Minnesota. However, there are some occasional concrete, or maybe granite, reminders that they are close to the ocean. As I left, I walked by the maritime version of Potter’s Field, a square area roughly 150 feet on a side, with a large granite central monument to the "Unknown From The Sea.”

Read more about the history of Old Waretown Cemetery here.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags after the Flood

Now there’s a catchy title, don’t you think? Read on and you will learn all. This week is the anniversary of an incident that poisoned the well for me - the week in 1972 when I explored the cemetery in Forty-Fort, PA, after Hurricane Agnes destroyed it. If you'd like to read this chilling account of what (I believe) led to my lifelong interest in dead things, the full account serves (I think appropriately) as the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” It is available on Amazon. Not for the faint of heart, I might add. Graveyards are not always fun. Sometimes they're a true horror story.

When I was fourteen (1972), Hurricane Agnes caused major flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania. After sandbagging the Susquehanna River dike all day in front of my grandmother’s house, the rising river water blew out of the street storm drains like geysers. This caused some minor flooding, but it wasn't enough to equalize the water pressure--the dike at the cemetery in the town of Forty-Fort blew out. Not only was the Wyoming Valley under sixteen feet of water for days, but the cemetery was gutted.

Forty-Fort Cemetery after the 1972 flood (ref.)

When the flood waters receded, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made some major repairs, facilitated a massive cleanup, and boarded up the cemetery. Rumors had it there were coffins everywhere! As a teenage boy, this is exactly the cool stuff you want to hear. Later, there were photos published in newspapers showing coffins lodged on the front porches of homes in my neighborhood. 

Street cleaning, post-flood 1972 (ref.)

Most of this memento mori was removed before people were allowed back to their homes (after about ten days, I think). Until recently, I never knew exactly where they reinterred the human remains and coffins that were collected. You can read a grim account of the collection of caskets and bodies here.

So after a couple weeks, when residents were allowed back to their homes to facilitate their own massive cleanup, my cousin Albert and I wandered down to the cemetery, only to find 8-foot sheets of plywood attached to the existing wrought iron fencing. Hardly a deterrent, we went exploring. In not much time, we found a washed out space under one of the plywood sheets that was big enough for a boy to crawl under. Needless to say, that's what we did. 

Nothing … could have prepared me for the … stench! Was it the bodies? The dead fish? The river mud baking in the hot summer sun? Probably a combination of both.

As we walked around the grounds that day in the late June heat, who would have thought the experience would affect me for a lifetime? You had to mouth-breathe just to keep from passing out from the assault on the nasal passages. The fetid aroma was no doubt accentuated by the heat, but oddly, you couldn't smell it from outside the plywood fencing.

I’d visited Forty-Fort Cemetery 
in 2016 - the first time since 1972. I’ve been there a few times since then. The tree in this photo is the very same tree I mention in the story – the one the object was propped up against. (You have to read the intro chapter of my book for further details.)

As a memorial to the 2700 bodies that were unearthed, a large monument was erected in the Forty-Fort Cemetery (shown above). The bodies that were found (one has to assume that many were washed away down river) were reburied elsewhere. The news and published accounts have always been scarce on details. Enter my friend Dorothy Loney! 

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Back in May 2020, Dorothy sent me some photos she took in Carverton, PA, a town in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. It was a cemetery called Memorial Shrine Cemetery, about ten miles north of Forty-Fort. Apparently, this monument marks the mass grave where the collected remains for the Forty-Fort Cemetery were reburied. Back around 2010, I spoke with the caretaker of the Forty-Fort Cemetery, who I believe is the son of the gentleman who was the caretaker in 1972. He told me that he can remember his dad running from the office meeting house to his car, carrying armloads of burial records, as the river approached flood stage. As the water rose in the streets, but before the dike gave way, he said he remembered his Dad in knee-deep water carrying as many of the records as he could out of the office in an attempt to save them. I’m guessing some records were lost.

Memorial Shrine Cemetery monument (photo by Dorothy Loney)

So the end of June will always bring to mind visions of my parents’ home with water up to the second floor, living with dried flood mud for the next year, the dust, the smell of dead fish, living in trailers, and the widespread devastation from which many of the flooded towns never recovered. The Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area where I live is one of those. As the National Weather Service states: “The widespread flooding from this storm caused Agnes to be called the most destructive hurricane in United States history, claiming 117 lives and causing damage estimated at $3.1 billion in 12 States. Damage was particularly high in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia." (Ref.

And as I look back on my years of cemetery traveling, photography, and writing, I suppose Hurricane Agnes was a muse, of sorts. If I hadn’t had that traumatic experience in the Forty-Forty Cemetery, you would not be reading this blog.

I leave you with a marvelous photograph, one Dorothy Loney made of the chapel at the Memorial Shrine Cemetery. Deliciously creepy, is it not?

Memorial Shrine Cemetery chapel (photo by Dorothy Loney)

Further reading:

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Life and Death - the Event

Tania Kirkman organized a three-day conference called “Life and Death” in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, that was held June 19-21, 2020. I was to attend, physically, as a presenter, and make the presentation you see above, 
Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery. Then coronavirus hit town, and life as we knew it was either cancelled or virtualized. Tania chose the latter, and worked with all the presenters over the past month to create Zoom versions of their presentations. This in turn benefitted not only the expected attendees (who faced cancellation of the event), but also the wider masses who would not have been able to physically attend the event. Over a thousand people were following her social media posts (

There were many virtual presentations given over the three days – I caught two. Extremely well done by extremely knowledgeable people, and thoroughly enjoyable! Hayden Peters ( discussed Mourning Art jewelry in his talk, “In Memory of” and Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girls ( gave a wonderful presentation entitled “Welcome to the Graveyard – Cemetery Art, History, and Symbolism.” She covered American cemetery evolution from the 1600s to the present day. 

In addition to the virtualized sessions, there were some physical gatherings in Shepherdstown – a cemetery tour, a night movie, and some physical vending by artists and craftspeople. Hopefully, next year we can all get mortal again. Virtualization can allow more people to participate, for sure, but there is a tangible aspect of our interactions that is irreplaceable. 

So I did my presentation on June 20, at 10 a.m. on a sunny summer day, actually the first day of summer. Not exactly the witching hour. Still, there was information I presented that would make your skin crawl, no matter what time, day, or weather. It was about the gravestones on the shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, under the Betsy Ross Bridge. If you’ve read my Cemetery Traveler blog or read the posts reproduced in my book of the same name (link to purchase), you know that this is about how the City of Philadelphia destroyed Monument Cemetery in 1956 – obliterated it in order that Temple University could acquire that land to build a parking lot. Progress. 

Thank you to my 34 attendees and I do apologize to the several who I could not admit after the presentation began. I had figured I would admit people manually – wrong! Always never do this! Set your controls to admit latecomers automatically! Each of the three times I admitted latecomers, my slides froze and would not advance! To make matters worse, my in-house IT consultant (a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia) was not yet awake!

But, I powered through. As did all the other presenters. For most, this was their first rodeo. It was only my second. Here, for your enjoyment, ad infinitum, is my presentation, stored somewhere in the cloud. It’s free to access, so you can watch it anew or relive the moment if you were there with me in my living room last Saturday morning. 

(Recorded presentation) “Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery”

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