Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Day of the Cemetery Flood – 50 Years Ago


Well, its been 50 years this year, 2022, since Hurricane Agnes caused a massive flood in my hometown near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The swollen Susquehanna River broke through the dike in Forty-Fort, PA, and gutted the Forty-Fort Cemetery on June 23, 1972. My parents, along with my younger brother and sister, lived a few miles from there. Our house was flooded to the second floor. The flood level was officially recorded as sixteen feet. Imagine that.

I always think of death in the summer – as well as during the other seasons of course – but especially in the summer, because of what I saw in this cemetery. 


Sometime in July, 1972, maybe during the second week, the National Guard allowed us, along with thousands of other residents, back to our homes, to begin the cleanup. This was after then President Richard Nixon famously choppered over the devastation, which resulted in millions of dollars of disaster relief aid. You can read all about those trying times in the links at the end. A cinematographer has created a new video documentary called “Agnes 50th Anniversary,” a 90-minute film, which premiered at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre on June 23, 2022 – the fiftieth anniversary of the day of the flood. (DVD can be purchased at this link: https://www.wbpreservation.org/store/p/agnes-50th-anniversary-documentary-dvd”)

At the time, the Hurricane Agnes flood was considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Though like the Hurricane Katrina flood of New Orleans in 2005, it was really a disaster exacerbated by poor engineering. Yes, the hurricanes started the process, but it was the flood control systems built by humans that failed. In 1972, Wilkes-Barre, in the Wyoming Valley of northeast Pennsylvania, was the hardest hit of all areas affected on the east coast. I’ve not seen the new documentary yet, but it no doubt avoids the cemetery carnage. That part of the story is not for the faint of heart. Books and photographs rarely depict any detail of it, but you can see some photos on the blog I posted in 2020, “Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags” (link at end).

It is true that the living were more concerned about their own plight, that of the living, than about the dead, during that disaster - at least at the time we all had to evacuate. But after it was made public that Forty-Fort Cemetery had been decimated, I would imagine that many people who had loved ones buried there were crushed. Did they go to the cemetery after the flood waters receded to see the devastation? Did they want to know – and see – that their family plot had been spared? What of then recent burials like the one below? They wouldn't know until the day break, and the shadows flee.

For many weeks – maybe months – after the waters went down, sheets of plywood blocked the view of the cemetery from the roadway. Behind that barricade, the Army Corps of Engineers filled in the chasm left by the raging Susquehanna River. Whatever grave markers were left in that area of 2,500 unearthed burials were likely buried. THOUSANDS of bodies and coffins that were torn out of Forty-Fort Cemetery and deposited in various locations throughout the region had to be collected. This was done, for the most part, before the public was allowed back into the many affected cities and towns – Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Forty-Fort, Plymouth, Nanticoke, Swoyersville, and so on. There were coffins lodged on peoples’ porches.

If any of my readers were involved in the cemetery cleanup and reinterment at Memorial Shrine Cemetery in Carverton, PA, please get in touch. I’d like to hear your story (I can be reached privately at mourningarts@yahoo.com). 

Forty-Fort Cemetery office, Forty-Fort, PA.

Four acres of land (including burials) were torn from the center of Forty-Fort Cemetery and washed away. The chasm was about ten feet deep. I doubt anyone was around at the time to see this occur. Supposedly before the dike broke apart, the caretaker was wading through knee-deep water carrying books of burial records from the office to somewhere safe. There were people sandbagging on the dike (myself and my father included), but we all ran when the flood waters started shooting out of the storm drains in the streets. As the river rose over the dike, the dike gave way. Think about the Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks” and think about what occurred in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (which occurred in August of that year).  

Cenotaph inscription
“Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good

No, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good

When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move …” 

- From the Led Zeppelin song, “When the Levee Breaks

Sometime toward the end of July, I believe, my cousin Albert and I explored the gutted cemetery (we slithered under the plywood in a washed out area). You can read about what we saw in the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” I won’t go into those details here, but suffice it to say that you don’t want to read that right before bedtime. In the photo below, you can see the area of fence at the Wyoming Avenue side of the cemetery under which we gained access. (You may purchase the book from Amazon, if you are interested: https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Traveler-Selections-blog/dp/1717885950)


Fence we climbed under, on Wyoming Ave.
Albert died on November 15, 2021. He was 64. We grew up together and I do regret not discussing these events with him later in his life. Different people have different ways of looking at things and I should have asked his perspective on our experience. During and after the flood, my family stayed for several weeks with his family, on the high ground outside the flood zone. While this was all going on, my closest friend George, who lived a few blocks from us, was having his own adventures with his family. George wrote me recently suggesting that I ask him about what he went through the day the flood hit. Maybe I never knew this. It dawned on me, that of course each and every one of the thousands of people who were displaced and affected by the flood had their own unique story. I am looking forward to hearing his soon.

August was spent clearing out the house, trying to figure out how to move forward, and not really wanting to begin my freshman year in high school at a new school. It’s August now, fifty years later. Its surprising how one can remember details of events this long after.

I visited my Mom and brother a few weeks ago, they both still live in the area, Kingston, PA, in an apartment building that was built in the flood zone, after the flood. Yes, people rebuilt and moved right back into the previously flooded areas. How much prescience was involved in THOSE decisions is a mystery. My parents fixed their house up as best they could and then sold it. We moved to higher ground. 

Memorial to the displaced, in Forty-Fort Cemetery

In the photo above, you can see the rebuilt green grassy dike in the background, keeping the river out of the Forty-Fort Cemetery. You can see a faint blue horizontal line following the top of the dike – this line is the tops of vertical steel piles that were driven into the ground through the miles of dike to provide support and additional height. That process took years. I took a drive and a walk through the Forty-Fort Cemetery, retracing the steps my cousin Albert and I took as we walked through it after the waters had receded. At left you see the tree that I refer to in the introduction to my book - the tree that had that object propped against. A woman who introduced herself as the caretaker of the property was busy cutting back bushes around gravestones. She obviously took great pride in her work. She didn’t look quite old enough to have been alive in 1972, so I just told her that I lived in the area back then and stopped by to visit.

Fifty people died in that flood in Pennsylvania alone (neighboring states were also affected), and 220,000 PA homes were flooded, including those of my parents, grandmother, and school friends. As I write this at the beginning of August, 2022, I’m listening to a radio interview with a victim of current flooding in Tennessee, in which 25 people died. He said something that struck me: “When the flood comes, there’s no talkin’ to it.” Having lived through such a catastrophe, I know what he means. There’s no stopping it. Whenever I hear about a flood somewhere, I know firsthand what those people went through. 

Cenotaph with dike in background - the Susquehanna River flows beyond

Humans can pretend they’re in control, but nature knows better. The cenotaph monument on the circular platform in the center of Forty-Fort Cemetery is a stark reminder of nature’s force. It commemorates the rude disinterments of those 2,500 bodies in 1972. What is now an unadorned grassy field, was once acres of graves and grave markers of all types. Now they’re gone. I imagine the markers that had not been washed away were simply buried here. The bodies and other remains were moved to a mass grave, miles away on much higher ground.

Further Reading:

My last blog about Forty-Fort Cemetery: https://thecemeterytraveler.blogspot.com/2020/06/corpse-recovery-and-cadaver-bags-after.html

https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20220607/reflecting-hurricane-agnes-50-years-later 

Ed Snyder's book, "The Cemetery Traveler:" https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Traveler-Selections-blog/dp/1717885950

Agnes 50th Anniversary Documentary DVD — Wilkes-BarrĂ© Preservation Society (wbpreservation.org):

https://www.wvia.org/tv/agnes-50/

Tennessee Flooding, July 2022 https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2022/07/31/Drenching-downpours-renew-flood-threat/9821659287913/

https://www.nucorskyline.com/globalnav/applications/levees-storm-protection

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

All the City Cemeteries of San Antonio in One Day!


Thirty-one cemeteries across 103 contiguous acres, in five hours. That was the goal, anyway. However, I only hit twenty-seven cemeteries before I hit the wall of exhaustion. I totally ran out of steam toward the end of this marathon, 95-degree afternoon in San Antonio, Texas. It was so hot that my iPhone 12 was intermittently fading in and out because of the heat. Just needed it to keep enough juice to call an Uber for the ride back to the hotel later that afternoon.

St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery
Of the four days I expected to be in San Antone, this first day, Friday, was forecast to be the coolest, at 95 degrees. Temperature was expected to slowly rise in subsequent days so that by Monday, it would be 108! Certainly not going on a long explore in that heat. And those people who say, ”Well, it’s a DRY heat…” Well, no, its not. Relative humidity was 80 per cent. San Antonio is like a tropical rain forest (and it did actually rain Friday night into Saturday). 

The only other time I did a cemetery excursion of this magnitude was when a friend and I spent a day visiting about a dozen cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens, NY. We drove from one to the next, all day long. In retrospect, having a car here in Texas would’ve made life easier. Even though the 31 cemeteries are contiguous (see map), it isn’t like you can easily leave one and enter the other at will. 

St. John's Lutheran Cemetery, San Antonio (stjohnssa.org)

Why is that? Well, when I was here about ten years ago I was driving a rental car. I did not recall the fact that all the individual cemeteries are either walled or fenced off from each other. Very rarely is the exit of one lined up with the entrance to the one next door. This, unfortunately, required much unproductive walking (sometimes as much as two city blocks) just to FIND the entrance! I did not have the luxury of having a map or photos showing WHERE the entrance and exits were located. Under normal circumstances, this would be no big deal. But with such unbearable heat that the ice in my thermos of ice water melted almost immediately upon arrival, it was quite aggravating. My suggestion? Drive. Even with gas prices over $5.00 per gallon for regular, drive. (By the way, there is a link at the end if you would like to read my 2012 blog, "The Cemeteries of Old San Antonio.")

That said, my Uber dropoff was at the San Antonio National Cemetery – I figured that actually had an address that the driver could find, as opposed to say, the Harmonia Lodge No. 1 Cemetery. So he found it with no problem, stating that no one ever asked him to drive to a cemetery before. (At some point in the future, I must get some rideshare driver to take me to some cemetery at NIGHT, just to see the driver’s reaction. Maybe I’ll carry a mallet and a wooden stake with me.)

Woodmen of the World gravemarker in the National Cemetery

I walked through a bit of the National Cemetery first, thinking that if any of the 31 would be locked up at the end of the day, this would be the first. Most of the gravemarkers were regulation-size government-issue marble headstones, but I could see a few monuments off in the distance. I exited the cemetery thinking I’d investigate these few pieces later on. The two large Woodmen of the World marble tree sculptures were rather unusual, for any cemetery. Typically such monuments are carved from granite.

Iron crosses in St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery 
It is interesting how the city created its cemetery district in 1853 (Texas only became a state seven years earlier, in 1846). According to the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, new entities – fraternal organizations, churches, etc. - created their own cemeteries here on Powder House Hill, adding to it up until 1904 (ref.). After that, new cemeteries were established in various areas outside the city center, beginning with San Jose Cemetery in 1922. These are all much larger, Victorian-type sculpture gardens (which you can read about in my 2012 blog post, link at the end).

I was as prepared as I thought I needed to be for the day’s excursion – sunblock, insulated water bottle with ice, baseball cap, shoulder bag with two real cameras in addition to my iPhone 12. I’m just going to give you a general overview of my day here, with specific experiences in certain cemeteries written up in future blogs. I will touch on some highlights, however. On the map above, you’ll see in red numbers the sequence of cemeteries I visited, starting with the National Cemetery. I did sort of plan this as far as seeing a few specific sites, some of which I found, others that I did not.

Bare spot at lower right is where Sandra West is buried in her Ferrari

One of the first graves that I successfully located belongs to Sandra West - in which she is buried, behind the driver’s seat, of her 1964 Ferrari 330 America. In the photo below, you can see the concrete vault holding the car and body being lowered into her grave.

Sandra West: The Woman Who Was Buried in Her Ferrari (cultofweird.com)

West, a wealthy Beverly Hills socialite, died in 1977. You’d never guess by looking at the barren ground in this photo that a car is buried beneath, now would you? There is a large open area at the foot of her headstone that is about the size of a car. Here's a selfie of me standing above that half-million dollar sports car. This is in the Masonic Cemetery, Alamo Lodge. Oddly, this is the only cemetery in San Antonio's Eastside Cemetery Historic District that does not have a fence around it - but more on that later.

Fractured zinc Jesus on an iron cross

One of the things I did not locate was the large zinc, or “white bronze” angel with the wing broken off, which I had photographed on my last visit (see photos in my 2012 blog post, link at end). It was near the zinc Jesus on the iron cross in the Old German Lutheran Cemetery. Alas, the angel had flown. Stolen, maybe? It did adorn a grave on the ground, and was about four feet high. I’d like to think it was spirited away for safe keeping somewhere, possibly by the same person who did the body work on the zinc cradle crave a short distance away.

Zinc cradle grave, with body work
But let’s talk about the map for a bit. You can find it at this link, which is the site for St. John’s Lutheran Church (https://stjohnssa.org/archives/). St. John’s “Old Lutheran Cemetery,” which was Stop #20 on the map, was established in 1866. The map seems to have been created by the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, but I cannot find it on their website. They receive credit for its creation, I suppose, and if it is copyrighted, I will gladly remove it.

There is a great variety of grave markers throughout these 31 cemeteries. From simple handmade concrete slabs to giant granite Victorian-era obelisks and other sculpture, there is just about everything you can imagine. There are tiny carved angels and large, finely sculpted marble and granite statuary. The different cemeteries have different styles of grave markers, for example the large iron crosses in the Old German Lutheran Cemetery and St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery. 


There were also some pleasant surprises, like the German-inscribed white marble stones in German Lutheran. These were beautifully preserved and lovely to see. 

Spell jar at the foot of a grave
I also came across two graves (in two separate cemeteries) which had jelly jars half buried in the dirt in front of the headstone. These were not new jars of Smuckers jelly, but repurposed jelly jars, sealed, with some sort of unguent inside. Hoodoo offerings - ritual spell jars - I assume. One was in City Cemetery No. 1 and one in the Anchor Masonic Lodge Cemetery.

For a fascinating look at such practices, do check out Sharon Moses’ paper, “Cemetery hoodoo: Culture, ritual crime and forensic archaeology” in the publication, Forensic Science International: Synergy (Volume 2, 2020, Pages 17-23 by Sharon K. Moses).

Below you see the portrait from Jack Harris' grave in City Cemetery No. 1. Harris was an entrepreneur who was shot to death in 1882 by the City Marshal of Austin, Texas, as a result of a gambling debt. In 1875, he had changed the name of his San Antonio saloon to the "Jack Harris Vaudeville Theater and Saloon," and is credited with popularizing the term "vaudeville" for variety theaters in the United States.

D.A. "Jack" Harris, 1834 - 1882

You can see from the map that these 31 cemeteries are all different shapes and sizes. Some were several city blocks in magnitude, some were only maybe ten by twenty feet. Most were in reasonably good condition, although a couple were trashed – broken walls, graffiti, garbage strewn about. The Dullnig Family Plot – stop #4 for me, was by far in the worst condition. Headstones were pushed over and broken, the stone walls were smashed and covered with graffiti. Not sure who, if anyone, maintains the cemeteries that are not owned by the city. Cutting grass is probably a non-issue, since in this heat, it doesn’t really look like any flora proliferates beside the palm trees and cacti.

Mausoleum in City Cemetery No. 5

City Cemetery No. 5 (again, at my stop #4) was tiny, with a few headstones and one graffiti-covered mausoleum. It was quite secluded, shaded with palm trees and walled-in with a locked gate. There appeared to be bedding laid in the shaded grass next to it. The two Jewish cemeteries, Temple Beth-El and Agudas Achim, along with the National Cemetery, were the best kept properties.

The magnificent Landa mausoleum, Temple Beth-El Cemetery

When I left St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery (stop #9) on my way to the IOOF (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) Cemetery, I hopped the wall at Center Street to cut through the National Cemetery. There were a few things I wanted to see in here that I noticed from outside the wall as I walked up Paso Hondo earlier. I found a large tree near the wall and took a water break in the shade. In retrospect, I should’ve rented a burro and thrown all my gear into a panier strapped across its back. But hey, that’s why there are erasers at the end of pencils – people make mistakes.

Angel in the National Cemetery

There can be many translations for “paso hondo.” The one I like is “warrior passage.” Certainly, this seems appropriate for the veterans of the many wars interred in this National Cemetery. One of these warriors had an angel standing guard over his grave, or accompanying him through the passage to the great beyond. Unusual to see such a sculpture in a military, National Cemetery. Around this time I entered No. 4, with the Confederate Cemetery at its center. Curious why this is separate from the National Cemetery, and I suppose there’s a story there. 

Marble statuary atop the Winn monument

The Winn monument greeted me, which was one of my planned destinations. This is a life-sized white marble statue on a pedestal, of a woman with three children. Last time I was here, I remember this being my last stop. I had snapped a photo of it, but didn’t examine it thoroughly. I don’t believe I had a map with me at that time, and I remember being so overwhelmed with the vast quantities of cemeteries that I think I got to this point and thought, “OMG – ANOTHER cemetery!” I never went in. 

Detail of the "Spirit of Sacrifice" memorial in front of the Alamo

The Winn monument was created by the famous San Antonio sculptor, Pompeo Coppini. I really have no idea about the significance of the Winn sculpture – another bit of research for the future. That’s why they make tomorrows, right? Coppini’s most well-known work in this city is the sixty-foot high sculpture, “Spirit of Sacrifice,” a cenotaph in front of the Alamo honoring those who perished at the Battle of the Alamo (ref.).

Coppini's burning bodies
A cenotaph, if you’ve not seen that word, is a monument to the deceased, who is/are buried elsewhere. In this case, the 200 men who died in 1836, defending the Alamo against Mexican General Santa Anna and his army of 4,000. The side facing the Alamo itself has bas reliefs of such Alamo heroes as Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, while the sloped west side features a riveting marble relief of bodies on fire, their spirits ascending to the heavens. Bodies of the dead Alamo defenders were actually piled up and burned by Santa Anna’s army a few blocks from the Alamo. An historic marker currently indicates the site of that funeral pyre.

And speaking of battles, I also explored the Confederate Cemetery, which is sandwiched between City Cemeteries No.’s 6 and 4. With its high-flying Confederate flag at center, bordered by roadways named after military heroes of the Confederacy, this relatively large plot is the final resting place of many Texan soldiers who fought in the “War Between The States,” as they call it in the South. So the high-flying flag is not actually the official flag of the Confederacy. Did you know that? 

What is commonly thought to be the official flag of the Confederacy is actually the Confederate battle flag. The battle flag design was adopted early on in the war because the original design of the flag of the Confederacy posed a problem on the battlefield. Due to its similarity to the "stars and stripes" flag used by the United States, it was difficult to tell the two apart unless the flags were unfurled in the wind! (Ref.) You can see the First National Confederate Flag in the photo below over a veteran's grave.

First National Confederate Flag

Community mausoleum in City Cemetery No. 4.

As I made my way through this block of three cemeteries on my stop #14, I entered City Cemetery No. 4. There was a community mausoleum ahead which proved interesting. The entrance gates were closed, but I could see two crypt covers propped against their openings at the far end. There was a window at that end, so I went around to the other side of the building, thinking I could peer inside and see what was in those open crypts. Unfortunately, there was a large bush below the window, blocking my access. I went back around to the front, and realized that the gated doors were only held closed by a stick! They were not locked. So I ventured inside (cue up creepy music...).

Community mausoleum lock

I reached the open crypts, their marble covers ajar, bent down and peeked inside. Nothing. Empty. Speaking of ajar, I noticed this empty peanut butter jar in the maw of a vacant crypt as I was leaving. (In comedian Jim Gaffigan's whispery voice: "He's going on and on about jars - what's his problem...?")

Peanut butter crypt

The shade in the mausoleum did my phone a world of good. It was so hot and bright, this torrential Texas sun, and as a result I was dripping with sweat. It was rather difficult to make a photo, to hit the right button on the iPhone. Half the time I accidentally put it in “Live View” when trying to take a still photo. When I would try to make a short video, I ended up with the display upside down! The ambient temperature was so hot that my phone would overheat if I kept it in my pocket. I had to carry it in my hand and try to walk in the few shady spots I could find. As you can see from the image at left, it was expected to get hotter as the days progressed, although the humidity mercifully would drop. Funny how my first iPhone, a model 7, would lose battery power outside if I was using it in the cold; this iPhone 12 is just fine in the cold, but flakes out if it gets too hot. I did have real cameras with me, so that was not an issue. What WAS concerning was losing battery power to the phone and not being able to get an Uber back to the hotel. While it was only about three miles away, it would’ve been a death march in this scorching heat.

Entrance into one of several African American cemeteries 
Greeter at the gates of City Cemetery No. 3
I crossed Montana Street into City Cemetery No. 3. One of several African-American burial grounds within this cemetery is The Old United Brothers of Friendship. It's metal entrance sign, and those like it, are always interesting to me, for both style and content. You probably get the idea that most of these cemeteries are easy to maintain, with regard to grass-cutting. Not sure what time of year the grass grows, if at all. 

Plaque at entrance to United Brothers of Friendship Cemetery
About four hours after I began my adventure, I was shuffling my way through The Knights of Pythias Cemetery, thinking how the parched cowboys (knights, of a sort) might have felt as they crossed that Mexican desert in Cormac McCarthy’s book, “Blood Meridian.” Totally parched, no water left, I saw a distant strip mall and a gas station convenience store. As if it were a mountain spring on the horizon, I quickly traversed the sacred ground of the smaller cemeteries within City Cemetery No. 3, heading for the convenience store. I spent some final moments exploring The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery on the corner of Montana and New Braunfels Avenue, but found nothing that I was looking for, e.g. the mortician’s grave that was supposedly there. I had originally studied the Historic Houston website showing this grave and thought the mortician was in the Odd Fellows Cemetery. However, as I peruse it now, I see that the grave is actually in the adjacent St. Elmo's Lodge 25 Knights of Pythias Cemetery. See how confusing thirty-one adjacent cemeteries can be?

Eventually, I crossed New Braunfels Avenue headed for the convenience store and cold liquid to ingest. But hey, as I approached the strip mall, there was a pawn shop. First things first. Twenty seconds into the pawn shop I saw that the guitars were all shitty, so I left and bought a 20 oz. Gatorade and a Slim Jim (I was also famished, as it was getting close to 7 pm) at the gas station. Downed the Gatorade in the shade and scarfed down the meat stick there across New Braunfels Avenue from Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery (this is in the same block as St. Mary’s Catholic and St. John’s Lutheran cemeteries). 

Blazing sunset, San Antonio, Texas.

A block or so away, I saw Church’s Chicken fast food joint. As I was still hungry and the air temp was still in the upper nineties, I decided to partake of their air conditioning. Here’s a selfie in the shadow of the last cemetery I didn’t visit, Hermann Sons, as I headed across the avenue for dinner. That cemetery, along with Immanuel Lutheran, both had locked gates and high fencing. I really didn’t feel like scaling the fence or walking the blocks looking for an entrance. My day was done. Whatever fascinating sights may lay in these last few burial grounds will remain unexplored. Supposedly, St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery has quite an assortment of fine statuary (ref.)

I entered Church’s, ordered, then went into the bathroom to see how badly my face was sunburned. Beet red, as they say. I had been wearing a hat, but the blazing sun had been low on the horizon, beating me in the face no matter which direction I faced, or so it seemed. My sunscreen had long run off. I grabbed my chicken sammie and diet Coke and sat down. I pleasantly realized this was not the same Church’s fried chicken chain from Philly. This stuff actually tasted good! 

I called an UBER driver in a few minutes, who quickly zipped me west on Dakota, then north up Palmetto, the cemeteries I missed appearing as a blur out my window. As we sped by these burial grounds, it occurred to me that in the entire time I spent traversing these 27 cemeteries, I saw not one other person. Odd. Exhausted and with a full weekend conference and trade show ahead of me, I headed back to the hotel for a shower and rest. I do hope you enjoyed this little account of my trip, so go get yourself a drink and relax, I’m sure that reading this must have made you thirsty.

Further Reading:

Ed Snyder's 2012 Cemetery Traveler blog post, "The Cemeteries of Old San Antonio."

Eastside Cemeteries Historic District

https://www.sanantonio.gov/ParksAndRec/Parks-Facilities/All-Parks-Facilities/Historic-City-Cemeteries

Old San Antonio City Cemeteries | Historic Houston: (historichouston1836.com)

Friday, June 24, 2022

Allentown Presbyterian Church Graveyard

And we find ourselves in Allentown - not the one that Billy Joel sings about in southeastern Pennsylvania, but the one in central New Jersey. You probably wouldn’t know it was there unless you saw the exit sign off the New Jersey turnpike. On my way from Philly up to the Freehold area in mid-April, 2022 (to meet a large group of people for a cemetery tour), I had a discretionary hour along the way, so I thought I’d check out A-Town. A quick one while he’s away, as the song by The Who goes. My neighbor told me the town was totally quaint, with Victorian style homes and old mills. 

Well, my neighbor was right. Cool old small town, great place to retire to. More of a draw for me, though, was that Google Maps showed a cemetery there. A full course in noetics would be required to understand what drives me to do such things. 

So about 9 A.M. one sunny spring Saturday, I jumped off the turnpike and headed into Allentown. The town itself is a couple miles off the highway, but certainly worth a cemetery road trip. The Allentown Presbyterian Church (founded 1756) has one of the most lovely and cared for graveyards I’d ever seen. Meticulously maintained, this relatively small (a few acres) plot of land has gravestones from all the major eras, beginning with colonial times, all the way to the present day. And by the way, a churchyard burial place is technically called a graveyard, not a cemetery.

Allentown Presbyterian Church

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Finding the graveyard was a bit challenging, as Google Maps got confused as to which side of the millpond the property was actually located. After three U-turns in the middle of the downtown area (which gave me ample opportunity to scope out the many coffee shops and diners open this fine morning), I finally spotted the tombstones through the trees, up on the hill across the pond.


Maybe you’ve been in this situation yourself – a new cemetery presents you with so many fresh opportunities, you’d don’t quite know where to start. The old church was an architectural gem, gleaming wooden white steeple, well-preserved, surrounded by dogwood trees in pink and white bloom. I immediately began photographing the wolf-table grave markers under its side windows, but then realized people were looking out at me from inside the church. Oops - there was a service was going on!  

Soul effigy stone, 1762
By the way, wolf tables are called that because the design prevented wolves from digging up the freshly buried bodies for food. (See photo at end for a better look at this open-pillared style grave marker.) Luckily, there were many interesting things to see and photograph away from the church. I really got carried away by the wonderful colors of the blooming dogwoods, and so veered toward the back of the church, overlooking the pond. This old brownstone death's head angel grave marker was probably the oldest on the property, and the ages of the various stones spanned the mid-1700s to the present day. There was a zinc monument from the late 1800s, many intricately-carved bespoke white marble markers from the Victorian era, and several old stones that had been carefully repaired. 

Zinc, granite, and marble grave markers

The gentle grassy hillside was perfectly manicured, the turf clipped neatly around each grave marker and monument – no small feat - and no grass clippings anywhere. Truly, as great an effort is put into preserving this remarkable graveyard, as is put into the preservation of the church building itself. It just invites people to explore and enjoy.

Shot with Leica R5 film camera

I spent my entire discretionary hour here in this graveyard, walking, reading the stones, enjoying the view. I got to test out my new forty-year-old Leica R5 film camera with some black and white film. Here’s an image of headstones behind the church – overlooking the millpond – lit by the morning sun. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

"Jesus is Condemned."
Many of the carved marble headstones were quite unique, as were the Stations of the Cross signs placed throughout the graveyard. The latter was a first for me – my visit being just after Lent and Easter, it appeared that the church would hold stations in the graveyard, with small groups of praying congregants moving from one station to the next, amidst the tombstones. Each station had a sign with the religious precis describing that particular station. Interesting way to give people the opportunity to explore the church’s burial ground – something not everyone would think of doing, or might even avoid doing.

You typically won’t see a crucifix in a Presbyterian church (or its graveyard, I assume), as they are not totally acceptable here. Why, you may ask? Presbyterians, like most Protestants, will typically use a cross, but not a crucifix. Their theology focuses on the risen Christ as opposed to the crucified Lord. (ref.)

When I first began printing my cemetery photography (which was initially only black and white images of stone angels) back in the early 2000s, I tried to get art galleries to exhibit my work. Many turned me down saying the work was “too religious.” Now, twenty years later, I come across this 2022 article in the National Review, “The Specter of Christianity,” in which the author, Kevin Williamson, opines that “Western civilization is Christian civilization.” He states that “Christian culture, Christian philosophy, and Christian themes dominate our art, literature, and political thinking.” So, really, there is no getting away from religion.

I suppose I could photograph the plain grave markers in non-religious cemeteries, “Strangers’ Burial Grounds,” as they used to call them. However, that would STILL refer to Christianity in much the same way that demonic metal bands like Judas Priest would have no basis for their rebelliousness if they did not have Christianity to rebel against. 

Judas Priest in their current 2021-22 Fiftieth Anniversary Tour (yes, I went!)

Williamson’s perspective on anti-religious subjects is interesting. Rob Halford, singer and songwriter for the band Judas Priest, for all their doom metal, totally define themselves in terms of what they reject. Same for Black Sabbath, Slayer, and so on. Their symbol, seen here above the stage, is of course, a variation of the cross. “The underside of Christian civilization is still Christian civilization: The Omen is a scary movie because of its religious context; we don’t have scary movies about liberal humanism or yoga, says Williamson.” We are “powerless before the cross,” he adds. To paraphrase Williamson, Halford can mock the cross or reject it, but he cannot escape it, because he has nothing to put it its place.

Wolf table graves alongside church
Soon, the congregation let out and so I ambled up the hill to the church to make some photographs of it. Noticed this historic sign nearby – I had walked right by the grave of William A. Newell (1817 – 1901) – Father of the United States Coast Guard. I walked past the few people who were gathered outside the church, chatting. Jumped in the car and took off so I could reach my next cemetery destination on time. Grab coffee at the smalltown diner in the center of town and then head out to the highway, I got nothing to lose at all...