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