Saturday, May 14, 2022

Old Tennent Church and Graveyard

While procursive behavior can potentially lead to defenestration, running to the cat lady posed no such issue. When our informal tour guides led us to her final resting place in the graveyard at Old Tennent Church in Tennent, New Jersey, I just had all these catastrophic thoughts going through my head. I could not help but think of Mark Twain’s cat story, “A Cat Tale,” in which he composes a bedtime story for his young daughters based on words beginning with “cat.” They would pick a word from the dictionary, and he would use it in the fictitious story, even if he did not know its meaning. Then the daughters would catch him in his fib and make him alter the story to make the word fit into the story! I actually know the meaning of the two five-dollar words in the first sentence, by the way.

Cat Lady

Old Tennent resides in Manalapan Township in Central New Jersey (my Jersey-native neighbors can actually pronounce “Manalapan”). This is near Freehold, which I suppose is where Bruce Springsteen’s ranch is – I probably drove past it on the way. 

Zinc memorial marking family plot
I don’t know the story of the woman who has cat reliefs carved in her granite memorial, it was just our first stop on our wonderful spring walk through a colonial-era graveyard. There was so much more to see – the old church which was built in 1753 (https://www.oldtennent.org), the death’s head soul effigy gravemarkers, the mausoleums, and so on. The Old Tennent graveyard was established in 1731, and is STILL an active cemetery, i.e., there are still new burials. 

Old Tennent Presbyterian Church, Tennent, New Jersey
The property is quite large, and the grave markers are arranged in sort of a timeline, with the oldest around the church, and branching out by era (and that era's symbolism) as the stones appear to orbit the church. The newest stones are in the outermost orbit. There are even a few zinc, or "white bronze" markers to be found near the church (these were popular from the late 1800s until about 1930).

"Starfish" angel soul effigy?
Most fascinating for me were the soul effigy brownstone carved stones. I had never seen so many in one place – there were dozens. Most seemed to be carved by two or three carvers, as the styles were all quite similar. The state of preservation of most of these stones is intriguing. Some have lichens growing on them, but are for the most part in great condition. There is a caretaker of the graveyard, and that person obviously does a wonderful job. Simply keeping the grass cut between all these stones and monuments is, well, a monumental task!

I must mention the reason I was here in the first place. Some friends who are part of the Instagram Cemetery Meetup group we formed last year live in the area and have suggested we all meet there for a walking tour. The group has done this about six times so far, congregating in various cemeteries between Philadelphia and Perth Amboy, New Jersey. About fourteen of us met on this sunny spring Sunday in Tennent – one of the largest attendances we’ve had. There are about twenty people who are part of the group and maybe ten on average will attend a meetup.

Some members of our meetup group outside church

We had hoped, as our guide had planned, to see the inside of the church. We arrived as a service was letting out and we asked if we could go inside. The people in the church politely declined, so we went about the grounds exploring and photographing. I made these group photos with my iPhone 12 on self-timer. I also brought my new old camera, a forty-year-old Leica R4 35mm film camera, which I needed to test before the warranty expired. A few members of our group graciously posed for photo portraits, as I wanted to test out the camera’s (with Leica 28-70mm f3.5 lens) ability to capture humans, which I have seen can be done with astounding crispness on a shallow depth of field.

Someone asked me how the camera has been performing, and I said, “I’ll let you know in a week when I get the film back.” I don’t photograph live people, generally, so the results will also reflect my paucity of skill in that regard. I say “live” people, because I intend to visit the dead as well at Saint John Neumann church in Philadelphia soon. One of our group mentioned that in addition to his headless corpse which is preserved in state behind glass under the altar at this national shrine in Philadelphia  (https://stjohnneumann.org/our-st-john-neumann/about-st-john-neumann), they’ve also put on display Neumann’s personal collection of saint’s skulls. I mean, what’s not to like there?! Oh, and if you go, this IS the place “where prayers are answered” (https://stjohnneumann.org).

A bit later, I was surprised to see members of our group filing into Old Tennent church! It seemed that our guide somehow convinced one of the church volunteers to not only let us in, but to also give us a half-hour tour! This was wonderfully educational and totally appreciated by everyone. The old wooden structure has been kept in fine shape, inside and out. The subscription pew boxes are labelled with small bronze plaques indicating the name of the person or family who pays “rent” on the box. 

Notch in church pew caused by saw used in amputation

The church had been used as a hospital for the American army (led by General George Washington himself) during the Battle of Monmouth, which was fought on the hill opposite the graveyard on June 28, 1778. As you would expect, then, there are many Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Old Tennent. Our guide pointed out blood stains on a wooden pew seat and another pew with a notch in it’s seat – supposedly this was made by a saw as a soldier’s leg was being amputated.

So that’s all very sobering, right? There was also a display case with cannonballs, rifle shot, and other historic memorabilia from the local battle. The Monmouth fight was pivotal in Washington’s career, as he, personally, along with his army, successfully drove the British farther from Philadelphia (which the British had occupied), a victory which prompted people to begin describing Washington as the Father of Our Country (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Monmouth).

After our tour of the church, our group continued its exploration of the grounds. We all posed for a group photo (again, taken with my iPhone 12) in front of a mausoleum. I’ve noticed that many members of the group sport great T-shirts and other items of clothing which serve as an effective starting point to begin a conversation with someone you’ve only ever met on Instagram! The social media platform is being used to create and nurture actual social in-person relationships. I look forward to our next planned meetup, which may be around Elizabeth or Newark, New Jersey. Our friends (and we truly have all become friends) from that area are anxious to show us two cemeteries that boast even more gravemarkers with angel and death’s head soul effigy carvings. 

In parting, let me just say that it always pays to look inside mausoleums. You can see some amazing stained glass, or even engraved crypt covers such as the one you see below. Seriously, would you ADVERTISE that you were a descendant of witch burners Cotton and Increase Mather? This Puritan clergy father/son duo was responsible in large part for the witch hunts and resulting murders in New England during the late 1600s. But seriously, if it hadn’t been for the Salem Witch Trials, how would we ever have known that witches can’t swim? Turns out that the Monty Python witch trial scene from the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” was a fairly accurate depiction of how skewed this Puritanical logic was (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJFA6uEfUlM). As an aside, “Cotton Mather” is also the name of a pretty cool power pop band. 


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