Monday, July 12, 2021

The Unmarked Grave

Allow me to introduce to you my guest author for this post, 
George Hofmann. 

The Unmarked Grave

There’s a small plot of grass on a gently sloping field dotted with granite markers; memorials to people who were loved and too soon lost. But this plot, wedged between black stones with etchings of people now passed, sits unmarked, barren though covered with lush, freshly cut grass, anonymous. Beneath it, for nearly five years, has lain the remains of an eight-year-old girl. She was in the news once. Now you can’t find her.

I work in the shop that made many of the monuments and grave markers that radiate out in rows from this lonely place. Some of the stones are carved in other plants, but a lot of them we carve ourselves. I draw the inscription on tracing paper on a drafting table, cover a stone with a stencil pad, transfer the image from the drafting paper to the stencil, and carefully, with a steady and respectful hand, cut out each letter and number. We sandblast the stone, so that the name and dates will last longer than the very people who remember the deceased. The stencil pad keeps the stone unscarred. Only the exposed memorial inscription speaks. Then a crew takes the marker to the cemetery and sets it at the grave. Most of the time.

When I first started the job I walked around the stones in the yard, all of them waiting to be set. I noticed some of them were old, with death dates of 2017, 2007, 2003. I asked my boss why they were still there, and he told me they weren’t paid for yet.

There was one marker, a medium-sized one, crammed between several others. It was covered with stained and weather-beaten cardboard and wrapped in steel bands. The cardboard was torn in the center, so I stepped over another stone and bent down to see what was there. Through the frayed and tattered hole gazed a very young girl on a porcelain badge, her face a shy smile, her hands held in front of her in the shape of a heart.

I pulled apart a bit of the cardboard. It was old and wet and it nearly disintegrated. I saw that the girl died in 2016, and in 2021 the red granite meant to keep her memory alive sat hidden on boards like a cenotaph while a mother, a mother surely still grieving, made monthly payments meant to turn that small plot of grass in the cemetery across the street into a proper memorial.

And so she sits there. When working in the yard I walk to her and think of my daughter and thank God… After a few months of glimpsing the photo of the girl silently straining to be seen the stone was moved to another part of the yard, the cardboard and steel cut off, and she finally saw the sun. But there she remains, still a receivable, not scheduled to be set.

A few days ago I Googled her name and saw the news articles. She was killed in a hit and run. At the sentencing of the driver, in 2018, the mother cried that her baby was buried in the ground while the driver could still hug his child. But today when the mother visits the ground where her baby is buried she finds only grass. Grass that grows unaware of what it covers. Grass, green and damp with dew, that lives.

When I’m moving markers in the yard with the two-ton crane and it starts to rain I have to bring the electric crane inside. I stand in the plant and look out at the downpour. The yard becomes muddy around the stones set aside waiting for payment. Over time grass grows up around the splattered granite. You’d think the people that work here would be full of gallows humor, but they’re not. They’re reverent, and I clean the dirty stones and trim the grass pushing up between them.

The girl waits behind a couple to be remembered together and in front of a young man also taken early in a life that surely held promise. She will, eventually, stand on the grass plot where her body lay. People will come to see her and remember, finally. Her monument with her image will join the rows of stones laid out for mourning that declare that a life passed is worth clinging to and never really ends. Those left behind never fully move on. Her small plot a place of reverence for the living covered with grass that will always grow as she will in her mother’s memory - the girl’s picture looking out over the field to stand there longer than any of us will ever be.

******************************************

George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

Cemetery in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey

What’s a Jersey shore vacation without a trip to a local graveyard? As my family frequents the area around Long Beach Island, I’ve visited most of the local cemeteries. On this trip, I thought I’d see what’s up with the “closed” pet cemetery, noted on my iPhone’s Google Maps. Looked to be in Manahawkin between the on ramp to the Garden State Parkway and Whispering Oak Circle. So I left Beach Haven about 7:30 a.m. on an overcast Saturday morning, drove the seven miles north up the island, over the causeway and onto the mainland. About five miles west on Route 72 is where the Garden State Parkway crosses it. I cut off 72 toward Whispering Oak Circle. 

Try as I might, back and forth on this small residential street, and I just could not find the place. It was woods on one side, residences on the other. The woods just looked like they butted up to the parkway. Maybe Google Maps was in error. Ah well, good fail, as the skateboarders say.

Even though it was a further drive than I wanted to make on this early Saturday morning, I thought I might finally check out Reevestown cemetery, about an eight-mile drive north on Route 72. 

For several years, I had known about this remnant of the Pinelands, but had never visited. One reason being the inherent spookiness of the pine barrens. People living off the grid, down sand roads deep in the forest. Makes you feel a bit like Hansel and Gretel with the Jersey Devil playing the part of the wicked old witch. Especially after seeing mailboxes like this one along the road.

The pineys, as they are called, rather cultivate this mystique, in order to maintain their isolation from the masses, and probably especially from tourists. 

"WARNING..."
Google maps showed me where the Reevestown Cem was supposed to be. Passes a crumbled roadside memorial at the intersection of 72 and Warren Grove Road, where I made a left. I got to where Google Maps said the cemetery was, but …. Damn. Just a patch of woods. Oh well, maybe there’s something in there. So I pulled over, got out of my SUV, sprayed my shoes, socks (damn! Forgot to wear socks!), and pant legs with tick spray, and took one last look at Google Maps before venturing into the thicket. What? Now it shows the cemetery off an access road up ahead! Jump into the vehicle and head up the road a piece. And there it was off to the right, a sand road leading into the woods, with a rain puddle at the entrance to greet me. A very weathered “Warning” sign was nailed to a tree where the road led into the trees.

Sand road entrance to Reevestown Cemetery

As I write this, I’m sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay, cappuccino and raspberry scone in hand. Yesterday at this time, however, I was in full explorer mode. And truth be told, I was a bit uncomfortable there, having recently read the book, “The Pine Barrens,” by John McPhee (1978). All the legends, all the history, all the fables of the pine barrens – including the pineys, are covered in the book.

Reevestown Cemetery


I drove into the woods. The road took a few twists and then opened up onto a perfectly maintained small cemetery with old graves (starting around 1862) on the left, newer graves on the right. I imagine people continue to be buried here, even though there is no town for miles. Reevestown itself is no more – not even a ghost town. 

Reevestown Cemetery in Stafford Township, New Jersey, is deep in the heart of the pine barrens – just a few miles from the Pinelands unofficial “capital city,” Chatsworth. Reevestown is not exactly a ghost town - it’s actually no longer there. Destroyed by a massive forest fire in 1936, this small sawmill settlement (which I assume was called Reevestown, there really is no evidence of this that I could find) consisted of the mill, some houses, and a schoolhouse. The fire was the worst forest fire up to that point in the history of the Pinelands - it left five firefighters dead and 20,000 acres of forest, dwellings, and businesses burned (ref.). Reevestown was destroyed but the cemetery remained, and continues to be used, by locals I assume. There have been burials here in the past decade.


See the clipping below from “Union Township,” a report written by the Barnegat Historical Committee: (https://www.state.nj.us/dep/hpo/hrrcn_sandy_OCE_GB_147_148_PDF/OCE_GB_148_v34.pdf)

"A small sawmill settlement once was located near Reevestown Cemetery [which I assume was called Reevestown]. Today only cellar holes mark where buildings once stood. Only the cemetery remains intact. Saw mill, dwellings, and a schoolhouse were located here prior to a fire in 1936." 

Lone sentinel at sand road exit of cemetery

Somewhere online I read that if you live in the general area, you can be buried here. The cemetery has maybe a hundred plots, with many more people than that residing below. It seems to be kept up, but then, there is no grass or weeds to cut. Its all sand. The rules posted on the sign at the entrance to the property suggest a governing body of some sort, mentioning a Cemetery committee with officers and trustees, but there is no contact information. 

Grave decor


Note tree stand at top left.
Some graves here are recent, with lots of kitschy mementos. One even had deer antlers nailed to a nearby tree, with a hunter’s tree stand attached to the tree next to it! Deer hunting for food has long been a standard activity of the people who live in the pine barrens. They are for the most part isolated and self-reliant. Many of them work in the local cranberry bog and blueberry farms, and have for decades since the region’s main industries, glass making, lumber, and iron forging went bust.

Reevestown Cemetery is a serene place, that is, if you can get over your fear. Its just a little too quiet. That guy’s shotgun shell mailbox made me think of the scene from the Sopranos where they take the guy out to the pine barrens to kill him, where they try to get him to dig his own grave first. Out here, no trace would ever be found of you. But that’s Hollywood; whereas the pine barrens – and its inhabitants - are real.

Entrance to Reevestown Cemetery



Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Winter of Our Discontent (Shakespeare, not Steinbeck)

My artistic experiences this winter (it is still technically winter here in Philadelphia – Feb. 2021 as I write this) have not been one of discontent. Rather, reckless winter has allowed me the opportunity to photograph cemeteries and their statues under a blanket of snow. Standing in a blizzard with an umbrella and camera may seem ridiculous, but I assure you, it is anything but a fool’s errand. Numb fingers are simply a sign of weakness leaving the body.

Tintype Hipstamatic App image

The zeitgeist of a Victorian snowfall creates a mood of singular isolation. And freedom, of sorts - it takes one out of the literal social isolation forced on us by the current pandemic. And Paul Simon was wrong – everything does NOT look worse in black and white.

Why Shakespeare and not Steinbeck? Shakespeare’s lines from Richard III are lines of opportunity, versus Steinbeck’s, which are pure misery. Granted, the euphoria of photographing a snowfallen cemetery in below-freezing temperatures can be quickly replaced by misery if you mistakenly lock yourself out of your warm, running vehicle (which I have been known to do). However, Shakespeare is optimistic about the future. As am I. The playwright is saying that even though we may now be miserable (‘Now is the winter of our discontent’), better days are coming (’Made glorious summer by this sun …’).  (Cue the song, "Better Things" by the Kinks.)

But I digress (which is one of the qualities you find most endearing about me). My limerence with cemeteries is boosted when it snows. It just is. I have to get out there fast, while it is still snowing, if possible. Primae noctis, as it were. Not than anyone else is even considering doing the same thing, but it does give me the feeling of being first in, a unique time in a place where I can be ultimately alone with my passion. And in the middle of a pandemic, its rather liberating to not concern myself with social distancing or wearing a mask.

So would I recommend this nostrum of shooting angels in the snow? Well, it is certainly easier if you live in a polar climate zone. Its not something I can easily demonstrate to you, however. You just need to get out there in your gloves, boots, and hand warmers, and let the snow muses guide you. Helps to have an SUV, too, so you don’t get stuck. 


I photographed graveyards in the snow quite often this winter. The Snow Demons were appeased last year – they made no appearance. Apparently, COVID must have royally pissed them off, because they have been out in full force, whiting out my world since even BEFORE winter began (our first snowfall was on December 16, 2020)!

Please realize that cemeteries are places of respect - an obvious consideration when you are photographing in them. While there may be no one else around you there in the snowstorm, burial grounds and monuments mean many things to many people. Be respectful as you work. And be careful. Don’t climb on the monuments. Don’t lean on them. I’ve seen a person who had a large gravestone fall on her. She nearly lost her leg. It was crushed, but was later saved. Luckily there were several people around to lift the thousand-pound granite grave marker off her. So consider the possibility of a monument falling on you in a snowstorm. Think anyone would find you before you died of exposure or trauma?

Defunct crematorium in a snow squall

The Gear
So if I have not scared you off the topic at this point, let’s talk about the gear. Obviously, you want your equipment to be either waterproof or well-protected. I own neither. Which is why I typically carry only one camera with me, protected by a snow umbrella. I leave the rest of the photographic arsenal in the car, running back to swap them as needed. This way, I’m guaranteed to lose such things as lens caps and filters in the snow.

Cross-processed E6 image

Do I use real cameras or the camera in my cell phone? As time goes on, this distinction becomes less relevant. I do have an old iPhone 6 which I use quite a bit. Not bad images except the battery peters out in the cold. If I use it outdoors in winter, I have to keep it connected to an external battery. The apps are interesting as well, I use basic Hipstamatic and Hipstamatic Tintype in addition to straight shooting. I do drag conventional cameras out in the snow with me as well. Certainly, digitals are easiest to use. However, I’ve been shooting quite a bit lately with a 120mm (film) Holga and running outdated slide film through a Nikon F3 35mm film camera, then cross-processing the E-6 film as C-41 (which is kind of standard practice now, since E-6 chemistry is no longer widely available). I like to surprise myself. Digital can be too exacting. At right, you can see an example of a cross-processed image.

Hipstamatic Tintype App image 

It has not, historically, snowed often in the Philadelphia area (at least during the current geological epoch). So when it does, I attempt to make the most of it. It helps to have a plan. Which cemeteries are easiest to access? Are the roads plowed? Luckily for me, the graveyard at left is within walking distance of my house! I have some go-to locations and some go-to statues that I like to check in with during a snowfall – some take on the white cloak better than others...

You can see the same cemetery angel dozens of times, but there might be this one time, as you approach it in the hush of a snowfall, bootfalls crunching, that you seem to be seeing it as it had looked long ago. The more modern mass-produced gravestones mostly hidden, the bespoke, Victorian statuary gently “shrouded in white, allowing the outlines of something older to emerge.” The quote is from science fiction writer William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition. A strange book to be reading during a pandemic, when old patterns are nowhere to be found, new ones emerging all around us.

Actual lychgate shot with Hipstamatic Tintype App

So if this seems to be a winter of discontent for you because of the new patterns that life has assumed, consider COVID-19 as a sort of lychgate, a gateway to another world. I wrote a blog for the website of New York’s Absynthe Gallery recently, entitled "Artist in Residence," which is about creating art during lockdown in a pandemic. Challenging, to make art in the Time of COVID. But as Gibson says in Pattern Recognition, "There are times when you can only take the next step. And then another.” If you’re interested in seeing how other artists are adapting, the gallery is hosting an online “Drink and Draw” Zoom meeting with many of its artists on March 6, 2021 (5 to 7 pm). I am in their corral of artists, but I don’t draw (I do drink, however, so I meet half the criteria). Demonstrating how I make photographs or how I write blogs would be about as entertaining as watching gesso dry; therefore, I will be in attendance solely drinking and learning. Here’s the link to register: https://absynthegallery.com/drink-draw/



Learning, you ask? Well yes. One of the best ways for an artist to progress and improve is by expanding boundaries - watching other artists create in mediums other than your own. I leave you with an old image (all that you’ve seen so far in this blog, I created in the past ten months), the Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse. This is in Philadelphia. I was truly honored to have it chosen to represent February in the 2021 fund-raising calendar published by The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Being on the Board of Directors of this volunteer organization and helping to save a formerly abandoned cemetery from total ruin has also been a learning experience.