Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Author Ed Snyder by Frank Rausch

I am not the world’s biggest Washington Irving fan (even less so a John Irving fan), so his grave is not why I visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York back in 2018. Not being an Irving fan seems almost un-American to me. I guess this hit home when I was visiting his grave – every once in a while I just play tourist, and go for the celebs. I got my friend Frank to photograph me at Irving’s gravesite. 

Bench at gatehouse, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Irving (1783-1859) lived near Sleepy Hollow and was bewitched by the spookiness of the area. It helped stoke his imagination for writing such tales as the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in the early 1800s. I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as an adult, and it was anticlimactic. Having grown up with this pervasive tale, there was no magic left in the words. I realize that at the time it was written, Irving created a Victorian gothic masterpiece. For me, Rip Van Winkle was a much more enjoyable tale – the game of ninepins in the dark Catskilll Mountains and falling asleep for twenty years to avoid the nuisances of everyday life. A goal as sought after, yet as unattainable, as a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. 

Anyway, I stray from my topic. Which is one of the reasons you read this blog, right? I seldom pander to people’s expectations. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is certainly worth the visit. The trip was mainly a reason to hang out with my buddy Frank, who had left Philly for Connecticut after he retired. Sleepy Hollow was a good halfway point to meet, and since we both photograph cemeteries, what better place? Frank had been there before, I had not.

Sleepy Hollow is bit north of New York City, near tiny Tarrytown, New York. Which is near White Plains. As I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge from Nyack, New Jersey, I couldn’t get the great power pop Fountains of Wayne song, “Little Red Light,” out of my head:

“Sitting in traffic on the Tappan Zee

Fifty million people out in front of me

Trying to cross the water but it just might be a while

Rain's coming down I can't see a thing

Radio's broken so I'm whistling

New York to Nyack feels like a hundred miles ….”

It wasn’t raining when I made the trip from Philadelphia up New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway; rather, it was a crisp winter’s day (actually December 27, 2018 – thank you metadata). Being a Thursday, I did hit all the wonderful rush hour traffic – which was not without its charms. I got a slo-mo view of a car fire near the Bronx exit, serendipitously playing out as James Brown’s “Hot Pants” blasted from my car stereo. (By the way, I only recently found out that cars don’t explode when they catch fire -That only happens in the movies. I am so impressionable.)

Pulling into small-town Tarrytown is quite a culture shift from the hectic highway driving. The Palisades and the woods are breathtakingly beautiful – and quiet. You quickly realize how the creepiness of the area got to Irving, and sparked his imagination. I’ve only been in a few areas of the country where I got such a creepy vibe, one being the Brandywine River battle grounds in Pennsylvania, famed for George Washington’s lost Revolutionary War battles. You drive along that little river through the woods, and you can feel the ghosts of all the dead soldiers in the morning mist rising off the water. There were Revolutionary War battles fought in the White Plains area as well.

The Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, New York

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has the same vibe. It’s quiet, its Gothic, and I’m sure it is creepy any time of year. While the cemetery itself was established in the Victorian era (1849), it is situated near the small graveyard of the Old Dutch Church (established in 1660), the final scene of Irving’s Headless Horseman tale. I can’t picture local Victorian era residents picnicking in either of these places. They just seem too dark. The whole place reminded me somewhat of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, wet, scary, not very welcoming. Which of course makes them great places to visit around Halloween.

Helmsley Mausoleum

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has got it all – size (90 acres), angel statuary, and hidden gems like Leona Helmsley and Andrew Carnegie’s graves - Helmsley’s memorial is bigger, in case you’re wondering! (Did you know that Helmsley left $13 million to her dog when she died in 2007?!)  Leona and husband Harry Helmsley owned the largest real estate holding company in the United States, and their huge mausoleum is quite extravagant. Large stained glass windows depicting the New York City skyline are astounding. This other stained glass window in another mausoleum was quite unique – probably a portrait of the deceased above his crypt.

Sleepy Hollow’s landscaping disorients even the most experienced gravewalker. Rolling hills, bridges and streams, graves under a dark canopy of trees – you can just get lost in the place. I’m not sure what a “cheerful” mausoleum looks like, but most of the mausoleums here are, while stately, are rather grim and foreboding. I don’t think I’ve ever been as surprised by the varied and imaginative DOOR HANDLES as I was on the mausoleums at Sleepy Hollow. The hourglass door handle is near Washington Irving’s grave, which is marked with a simple headstone. The creepiness of this specific plot was not lost on me. It’s all very quiet – almost too quiet. Even with remnants of Christmas decorations, it is gothic and dark here. It is not joyous. 

If you are into celebrity graves, Sleepy Hollow is jam packed with them. Washington Irving gets all the press, but there is something for everyone here, people who are much more famous – American labor leader Samuel Gompers, automobile magnate Walter Chrysler, Standard Oil Company founder William Rockefeller, Elizabeth Arden of the famed cosmetics company, IBM pioneer Thomas J. Watson, and so on.

See more famous interments on the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery website:

Frank shooting an angel

This marvel of a cemetery must be enjoyed while walking (or kneeling, as my friend Frank shows us here). It is one of the few places I’ve been that is so dense with amazing architecture, art, sculpture, and history, that you simply can’t appreciate it by driving along its sinuous roads. It is full of Victorian quirkiness, like iron fencing and gates with cast angels; there are assorted zinc monuments, bronze and marble sculptures, huge monuments, and unique mausoleum stained glass. The fencing is unusual both in style and quantity. Decades after the Victorian era, people felt that the iron plot fencing and decorative gates were rather gauche – so much ironwork around the U.S. was removed and destroyed. 

Not so at Sleepy Hollow. Maybe people were too scared of this place to trash the decorative ironwork. Walking through this wonderful chunk of history, you almost expect to find a shadowy figure crumpled at the foot of a monument, as did the protagonist in Irving’s Adventure of the German Student. “A beautiful young woman in black, slumped over with her tangled black hair falling over her face.” After taking her home with him, he awakens the next morning to find her dead. Decapitated, in fact, having been guillotined the day before he met her.

Additional Reading:

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Cemetery Meetups

Cemetery Meetup at The Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

Back in the fall of 2021 (when we were thinking that we were all successfully pulling out of the COVID-19 pandemic, pre-Omicron variant), I got this idea in my head that it would be a cool social exercise to get some Instagram cemetery photographers together for an outing at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. I invited mostly people I’ve never physically met. About ten of us showed up – several whom I invited, and some people who THOSE people invited. The only commonality was that these were seriously good photographers who shared a common interest – posting cemetery photography on Instagram.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Yeadon, PA side

Our initial outing at Mount Moriah went so well that we all decided to do it again. After some conversation, we all realized that we each had explored many cemeteries that the others had not. Thanks to Jenn O’Donnell (IG link), our member who organized an IG Meetup link, we all stayed in close contact with each other and took a vote on the next cemetery location at which to meet. Three additional meetups have occurred since that initial one, in cemeteries in southeastern PA and central and south Jersey. We number about twenty “members,” if you want to call us that.

A few things I’ve learned from my fellow necrogeeks (kudos to Timothy for that term!):

  • Cemetery nerds have the BEST stories!
  • There are funeral strippers in China.
  • If you ask at the office for the key to the community mausoleum, they might just give it to you.
  • Santeria-type offerings at a gravesite could easily involve live animals.
  • There are FAR MORE deaths-head and angelhead gravemarkers outside of New England than I thought.
  • Zinc monuments are still controversial.
  • Snapseed is a cool, in-phone photo-editing ap - and its free.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia and Yeadon, PA.
The photo you see directly above was the first group photo we made. Or rather, I made, actually, to sort of document our initial meetup at Mount Moriah. We only began staging the group shots at our second meetup, at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. We didn’t really know each other well enough, I think, at Mount Moriah, for anyone to suggest a group photo. Plus there was the issue of who was vaccinated and who wasn’t. Also, it might not have occurred to us at the time that we would continue our adventure. I’m not sure who suggested the group photo a month later at Laurel Hill, but it has since become a staple of our gatherings. As more people got vaccinated and boosted, spreading COVID became less of an issue.

Cemeteries need not be places where dreams go to die. As we re-envision what social gatherings should look like in this evolving pandemic, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor ones. So these cemetery meetups appear to be a healthy way to maintain our interactivity as social beings while staying physically safe.

While many cemeteries host official events that draw throngs of people (I realize there might be some of you who are surprised to learn that), such events are carefully planned and quite focused. Our IG meetups are anything but! We just stroll through the cemeteries and graveyards talking, photographing, and perhaps being led to some points of interest by someone who had been there before. We greatly appreciate the hospitality offered by the many open cemetery gates throughout the region, that allow us this opportunity. We also do appreciate the more focused events such as hearse shows, The Market of the Macabre, movie nights, concerts, the Darksome Art and Craft Market, and so on. Such events are all wonderful ways to bring people together, promote small business, and to raise money for the upkeep of the cemeteries.

Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey

Victorian-era garden cemeteries of course were designed for large groups of people to visit and enjoy. Before there were parks and museums in the United States, cemeteries were the places you would go to get away from the noise and grit of the cities. They were meant to be calm, contemplative locales, beautifully landscaped in arboreal splendor - a place to revitalize, a place conducive to better physical and mental health. People recognized early in the current pandemic (and especially during lockdown) that cemeteries were in fact the ONLY safe place to congregate. I for one am grateful to all the cemeteries for keeping their gates open and welcoming throughout this time. Hopefully the trend will continue and more people will visit regularly - and I encourage people to donate money to their favorite cemetery to help keep those gates open in the future.

There is, of course, no socially redeeming purpose to cemetery photography itself (or photography in general). As with any art form, it must be shared to offer its greatest value. Interacting with people who share this common interest is exhilarating, at times. Meeting them personally is an added dimension and doing so during the COVID crisis is one of the best things we can do for our mental health. As I write this on the first day of the new year, 2022, the Omicron variant is so widespread that unless we force ourselves into lockdown again, it cannot be avoided. We’ll all get it sooner or later.

COVID has made death more real for many of us (death toll as of January 2, 2022 in the U.S. is 828,732; worldwide it is nearly 5.5 million (ref.)). Probably not since the last pandemic a hundred years ago has death been this concrete. Mentally, this is probably healthier for us – we are now forced to be much more pragmatic about death. Its almost like the present pandemic switched things up: pre-pandemic, death was abstract and society was real (for the most part). During the pandemic, death became more real and society became abstract.

But now with our evolving understanding of COVID-19, we are trying to work our way back to being a society that interacts physically – less screentime and more facetime. Ironically, virtual tools like social media can help us attain this goal. Though Instagram, Facebook, and other social media are quite abstract, we can use these tools to form concrete relationships – to create actual reality from the virtual. Granted, there are situations in which virtual meetings are the only option due to geographic distance, transportation, or the need to reach a larger audience. However, social media can successfully be used as an invitation, an entrĂ©e into more fulfilling in-person relationships.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

Sometimes timing keeps all the members of our IG group from getting together. I’ve missed a couple meetups, but when I see the results others have posted on IG, it makes me wish I had been able to attend. Creatively, for many of us, these meetups will be a seminal influence on what is yet to come (little inside reference to the hooking tree we discovered in Camden).

We share our knowledge of specific cemeteries we have visited, and benefit greatly from the knowledge of others. These people bring a wealth of research and experience to bear in their work and all have their own reasons for doing what they do. It is evident by the joy and camaraderie at our physical meetups that everyone shares a deep interest in those who have gone before us. But why this interest? Perhaps it has something to do with a comment made by Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters) in his autobiography, The Storyteller ...

  We all carry traits of people we have never met somewhere deep within our chemistry.”

Another view of the photo above in the shade of an immense zinc gravemarker