Thursday, May 7, 2020

Cemetery Photography and the “Stay at Home” Order

I have a post-Coronavirus graveyard bucket list (what, don’t you?). My friend Loren Rhodes published a wonderful book in 2017 called, “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die” which has been on my mind recently. I have been reading and writing more since the “Stay-at-Home” order was issued across the United States in March of 2020. Here it is, the beginning of May, and we’re still at home. Things are s-l-o-w-l-y starting to reopen, albeit very tentatively. Other than explore your local cemetery (hopefully you have one) by walking or biking to it, there’s not much else to do outside your domicile. Everything is closed. Cemeteries are open - just not for funerals (see my previous blog post on that).

“The future is no more uncertain than the present.” – Walt Whitman

Photo by Olivia Snyder
My bucket list right now is not so much comprised of specific cemeteries as it is of specific people. I miss you guys. While its true that cemetery photography is typically a solo sport (like skiing, surfing, or skateboarding), I do miss the interaction with other photographers. There are people I’ve become closer to, virtually, during Corona-times, and I look forward to meeting up with them in person. Also, there are many others to whom I’ve said in the past, “Let’s go do a shoot together!” – and it never happened. I want to hang out with those people too, once this is over. I miss you all.

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” – Walt Whitman

I have been tentatively invited to give a few virtual cemetery lectures in place of my cancelled events, and I don’t know if those will happen. Not really sure how my sparkling personality and natural prolixity will come across in a Zoom session (although I have figured out how to use the “mute” feature better than most). We’re all coping the best we can. “OODA” loops, however, don’t necessarily come to your aid when you have zero control over a situation. OODA, by the way, stands for “Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.

“Be curious, not judgmental.” – Walt Whitman

As Derek Thompson explains in his book, Hit Makers (2017, a wonderfully insightful treatise on marketing given to me by my son, Chris Snyder), OODA is “a strategic approach in which information was constantly funneled back to the decision maker to construct a new theory of attack.” This was devised by air force pilot John Boyd, to provide fighter pilots with “a facility for learning and changing strategy quickly … the speed of adaptation was the key factor in whether you could win or lose in a dogfight.” As of this writing, 76,000 U.S. citizens have died in this COVID dogfight (and 265,000 worldwide).

Rainy spring day at the Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

While instant feedback has helped me navigate the “mute” feature on Skype, I’m not sure its that helpful in combating Coronavirus. Think about how difficult it is trying to correct a skateboard position error in mid-air just as you drop into the bowl. At least in that case, you may KNOW how to correct it, but you just don’t have the ability or the time. With the pandemic, we don’t have any IDEA what we need to do to correct our course – but we know enough now that we must avoid dropping into the bowl until we know more about our situation. This is a dogfight in slow motion – after two months in the “Observation” stage, we’re now just trying to attempt “Orientation.” Years from now, maybe we'll be able to put this all in perspective, but it will probably end up like Calvin says below in Bill Watterson's comic strip. (This is why its important to document what's REALLY happening now.)

“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.” – Walt Whitman

But more to the subject of death and dying - Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of grieving and loss may be more useful in our current situation than OODA loops. COVID-19 is all about loss, isn’t it? Some have lost more than others. Some have lost a paycheck, some have lost a loved one. Beginning with denial, we proceed through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’ll hazard a guess that we’re between anger and bargaining right now, as the world contemplates reopening businesses and relaxing the social distance rules. So keep calm, and explore a cemetery, as my Facebook friend Mark Morton suggests.

Springtime in a graveyard near my house, Old Swedes' Church, Philadelphia

“Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?” – Walt Whitman

So is the Cemetery Traveler traveling to cemeteries during the Coronavirus global pandemic? Well, yes, he says sheepishly. Local ones. I have traveled a good deal around Philly, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau.

There is a stay-at-home order and while my wife and ten-year-old daughter are in fact staying home, I have been deemed an essential healthcare worker (my car is placarded a South Jersey “ESF - #8 Healthcare Worker/Essential Employee Vehicle”). So what this allows me to do every few days, is stop on the way home (to Philadelphia) from work (in New Jersey) to visit a cemetery or two. A far cry from my original spring plan, which was to visit the magnificent cemeteries of New Orleans while there for a conference (which has been cancelled). I am luckier than most cemetery photographers, who don’t even have the option of using public transit (which has been scaled back to bare bones scheduling). On the road, I even get to eat free greasy McDonald's healthcare worker meals - just kidding - I drink the coffee that comes with it and discard the food (do they really expect healthcare workers to eat that food? LOL!)

Turns out you don't have to travel far to find beauty and wonder - its everywhere (though maybe not in homeschooling – now that’s gotten to be downright ugly). On my way home from work last week I stopped in Harleigh Cemetery, in Camden, New Jersey. Harleigh is home to America’s greatest poet – Walt Whitman. Its a quiet, serene place, and it can be very contemplative to be standing in front of Walt’s family mausoleum, peering at his burial vault. A lot of his writing came back to me as I walked under the nearby blooming pink dogwood trees. I’ve sprinkled some Whitman quotes throughout this essay. This one I think is especially apropos of our Corona-times:

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.” – Walt Whitman