Sunday, December 31, 2023

Do You See What I See…


Do You See What I See…?

No, this is not a Christmas blog, even though I am posting it as 2023 ends and 2024 begins. Maybe its about seeing into the future. I don’t see the way you do, and you don’t see the way I do. Does that make either of us wrong? Not only is it healthy to see things from another’s point of view, but it can also help your creativity.

What other people see

I posted the image above on Instagram and Facebook recently and had a comment that said, “For all the time I’ve spent there, I’ve never seen this!”

Even if the person HAD seen the stone, they would never have seen it, or captured its image, that way that I did. The monument is in Laurel hill Cemetery, Philadelphia. It sits atop a small, steep incline, and from the road, it doesn’t look that interesting (you can’t see the words). Remember when you went trick or treating in the suburbs as a kid? Was there a house up a hill that seemed like too much effort for a candy bar, so you skipped it?

I replied to the comment that its interesting how other people see the same thing differently. It happens to me a lot. Lighting and the direction you’re facing changes everything! Think about flea markets - you walk down the aisles in both directions, right? Otherwise, you miss stuff. Some years ago I found this awesome postmortem photograph in a vintage frame at a punk rock flea market. Got it for twenty-five bucks! Interesting thing is that I spotted it on my second trip down that aisle, in the opposite direction.

Once you do find that cemetery treasure during your next jaunt, how do you want to capture it in an image? It is true what Barthes says about a photograph (in his book, Camera Lucida), that it captures the death of something. So you cannot go back and capture the same cemetery image someone else did (or even the one I captured myself on an earlier excursion). You’d have to reproduce the angle of entry, composition, lighting, time of year, and so on. Impossible. But that’s what makes photography art. That's what makes a photograph singular.

PERSPECTIVE

I have often been jealous of images other photographers have made of the same scenes, same cemetery monuments that I have photographed. Theirs, at times, seem much better than my captures. But that’s how we learn, right? Art in general, gives us ideas for how we can improve our own art. And, it can be painstakingly frustrating at times. I used to photograph cemeteries with a friend who was easily a foot shorter than me. Just that difference in elevation provided entirely new perspectives on a given scene.

The easy way to see things differently (and maybe catch something that you missed before) is to make the extra effort to visit the same sites again. Park on the opposite side and walk in a direction you’re not used to. I have visited THE SAME CEMETERIES dozens of times! I typically find something I missed before.

Cemeteries and their monuments are not static. Stone erodes, visitors place decorations (or bury things), sometimes there is vandalism. And everything looks different under a blanket of snow. Shoot at the edges of the day – a low sun on the horizon throws warmer light and creates long shadows.

AFTER-CAPTURE PROCESSING

Plus, you’re probably not looking to simply document the existence of a gravemarker – you’re probably looking to create some artistic image, right? So go abstract. Use a photo editing ap like Hipstamatic, the one I used to capture the image at top. Perhaps you can try simple black and white, for a more abstract look. Most camera phones will let you change to black and white easily.

Straight camera phone shot of the same scene (rather boring, right?)

When I look at this standard, snapshot-style image above, it doesn’t really do anything for me. The stone is a powerful statement, but somehow a simple photograph does not project that message, that intent. Barthes might have said that the viewer should read in this photograph the “distress of a recent bereavement” (Camera Lucida). How to capture that feeling? A tintype ap can give this scene a very dated look, as tintypes were around in the Victorian era when this stone was carved.

Image edited with Hipstamatic tintype ap.

You’ll notice that the stone is lit with horizontal sunlight, which casts a shadow from the cross atop the "Crushed Hopes" grave marker. The angled sun also gives definition to the letters. If the face of the stone was lit with direct sunlight, you might not even see the letters.

Use Snapseed (camera phone image editor) or your camera (or camera phone’s) own photo editing software to create an image you like, one that successfully captures a mood. There are no rules! You’re not so much altering reality as creating a more accurate version of what you saw. I guess you might say that I am not an “incorruptible servant of artistic truth” as classical guitar maestro Segovia said about the composer Tedesco in 1939!

"Frozen Warnings," by Ed Snyder

A few hours before writing this blog, I drove over to Dirty Frank’s Bar, home of Philadelphia’s Off The Wall gallery. There was a recent group exhibit of art work, and one of my two pieces that was juried into the show was sold. I was picking up the unsold piece. I walked in and said hello to the curator who apologized that my second piece had sold. Hardly a wasted trip! That second piece you see above. I call it "Frozen Warnings." It is an image layered with two of my cemetery photographs. I was really happy with the image, and humbled that a stranger liked it enough to purchase it. "Frozen Warnings" is a composite of two cemetery images, neither of which I was truly happy with. But you know, when you're not happy with something, the end of the story can start today.

Epilogue

Maybe your hopes were crushed in some way last year. Artistically, perhaps you hit a wall. Horror author Grady Hendrix wrote, “Christmas is a time to be haunted by our memories, for every Christmas is our first Christmas without.” (This is from his 2023 article, How the Holidays Became Haunted,  https://www.tor.com).

Hendrix was talking about loved ones lost, but maybe we can think of it as old habits lost?  A few years ago I spent back to back New Years Days (two successive years) exploring an abandoned cemetery. Since then, I’ve developed arthritis in my hip so I think my days of jumping off walls into abandoned cemeteries are over. But if you stay creative, and are open to new ideas, there will always be new worlds to explore. The soul wants adventure.

And then there is luck, right? A red fox appears out of nowhere and poses in front of a tombstone. A parade of Harleys pours into the cemetery for a biker funeral. As they say in the Hunger Games stories, may the odds ever be in your favor.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Roadside Memorial - Supernaturally Gruesome

“On a dark desert highway…” as the Eagles' song goes. You can picture such an accident in a remote locale, but it actually occurred at a reasonable well-lit city intersection. I wrote this in the summer a few months ago, watching the Atlantic Ocean on a peaceful day, far removed from the grisly accident scene. So far from such pain.

Near the Philadelphia International Airport is the intersection of Lindbergh Boulevard and 84th Street  - a highly trafficked area. When I lived near there, I used to pass through the intersection daily on my way to work. For about a dozen years, there was a large roadside shrine of stuffed animals and the like, indicating a life lost on this roadway, I assumed. The memorial was removed sometime in 2022. 

I had stopped to photograph it a few times, in various seasons, in various years. The stuffed teddy bears and other characters would get water-logged and beaten down by the elements, and I noticed that these would be replaced with fresh ones from time to time. Sometimes, balloons were added. Usually such markers of urban mourning have some sort of document posted in its midst indicating the person whose life was lost. This memorial never had one that I ever saw.

Some years ago I had some of my photographs in a group show with other artists in Philadelphia, and as is customary, the gallery held an opening reception. Artists show up to discuss their work, potential customers show up to see the work and meet the artists. I think I had two photographs in the show, but I don’t remember what they were – although they probably had something to do with death (were I to guess).

My daughter Juli is an abstract painter and has told me that customers are more drawn to the artist’s story, than to the art work itself. She advised me to have a good story. You would think I was a reasonably good storyteller after all these "Cemetery Traveler" blog posts that I’ve done, and books that I’ve written. Maybe so, but I’m not a good on-the-spot salesperson. I prefer to let my work speak for itself. Sometimes that works, sometimes not.

One of the artists in attendance that evening was, however, a very good storyteller. He wasn’t trying to sell me his work, we were just passing the time talking to each other about our work. He told me a story that made my skin crawl.

When he found out that I explored and photographed cemeteries, he offered me this story. Turned out that HE was the person who kept that roadside memorial alive all those years! It has been about eight years since he told me this, so I’m a bit hazy on the details. I will recount it to the best of my recollection.

The storyteller was the uncle of the subject of the memorial. About ten years prior to his retelling of the story, his niece and three other seventeen and eighteen year-olds were going to a graduation party. The niece, lets call her Caitlin, had a younger brother, about four years old. The teens had begged the parents to let them drive to another graduation party and the parents let her take the car. It was raining that night.

As they approached the intersection at Lindbergh Boulevard and 84th Street, someone ran the light at high speed – probably forty or so miles per hour. The teens’ car was broadsided by a truck, I think, and I believe some of the teens survived. The storyteller’s niece did not.

He was asked to identify the body in the morgue at some point. I imagine her parents asked him to do that. He told me that she was cut in half, head to foot, right down the middle. A grisly scene to witness. Can you imagine the horror? 

At some point, maybe the next day, the girl’s younger brother was asking when Caitlin would be coming home. No one knew how to break the news to him. He told his parents he was talking to her in a dream he had the previous night. He was not upset. She told him she was alright. But the thing he was most puzzled about was the vertical line she had coming down her face, all the way down her body ….


Sunday, August 6, 2023

Eulogy for My Mother


So my Mom died a few days before Mother’s Day, on May 14, 2023, to be precise. I’ve sort of been collecting my thoughts these last few months trying to figure out what to say. She was 84.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would post a blog about this. Not that bringing myself to write something has been easy. It has not. It has, however, been easy to distract myself from doing it, by finding other things to do, like, oh, I don’t know … visiting cemeteries. But I’ve got skin in the game.

I don’t want this to be maudlin or clich├ęd, like, to everything there is a season, I see her face in the sky, in the trees, in a running stream, all that junk. I do, however, see her face in a Wendy’s Strawberry Frosty and ripe tomatoes. She liked oddball stuff, like sardines, zucchini, black tea, fried green tomatoes, and SPAM. Which I attributed to her being of Welsh descent. I don’t know why.

Her physical health had been on a slow decline for about five years, but mentally, she was sharp. Spoke with her on the phone at least weekly (I live 120 miles away) and visited as often as I could. She loved her three children and four grandchildren. Wait – I’m getting maudlin. Let’s shift gears.

At the Bedside 

She fell in her apartment a few days before she died, and told my brother, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” I don’t really think any of us knew this was the beginning of the end, but I let my three grown children know, so they could visit. And they did. Bless them. And I know Mom enjoyed seeing them. They loved her. Her door was always open to them. It’s funny, they have so many DIFFERENT memories of her than I do. They all seem to have this lasting memory of the view over Wyoming Valley (northeast Pennsylvania) from my parents’ home on the mountain. 

Over the course of the next few days, she slowly got worse. Pain needed morphine; lungs needed oxygen. The afternoon she died, I had only been at her hospital bedside for about an hour when she started to slip away from us. My brother Tim was also there, along with my adult son Chris, and oldest daughter Juli with her new boyfriend. Wondered if this was their first date. I told him this was trial by fire for their relationship. My second oldest daughter, Collette, had been at her bedside for days prior to Mom’s demise. Her last remembrance of her grammy was when grammy was still alive. The next day my Mom was gone. Although I’m glad I was there for my Mom’s last conscious moments, I’m not sure which is easier to handle – being there or not, for that last breath.

Passing Away

When people say someone “passed away,” I always thought this was a lame and silly way of softening the blow. As Indian writer Sadhguru says, “Children are taught never to utter the word [death] at home, unless the God of Death chooses to visit, while the adults are on a quest to invent overly woke euphemisms that try to mask the bluntness of the event…” (Death – An Inside Story, Penguin, 2020).

I was surprised, however, to witness my Mom’s “passing.” That is truly how she seemed to leave us. Over the course of an hour, systems slowly shut down, pulse ox dropped (she was on cardiac monitoring), heart rate slowed, pressure dropped to essentially nothing. It was as if the curtains were slowly being drawn closed. Now I understand the gravestone symbolism of the stone-carved curtains being drawn. 

Did my twenty years’ worth of cemetery photography prepare me in any way for this? It did. I guess it made the inevitable seem more likely. Also made me realize that I’ve only got twenty years before I reach my Mom’s age. But I suppose that just as my Mom will continue to live on through all the people who knew her, I’ll live on in the memories, habits, and behaviors of people I know. 

My Mom liked my daughter Olivia’s fencing demonstration the last time we visited, and I only wish she could’ve heard and seen Olivia play the piano. I wish she could’ve seen rock star Chris on stage. I wish she could’ve seen Juli painting in her studio. I wish she could’ve joined me and Collette at the punk rock flea market. But she continues to live on in all of us.

All my children enjoy music, and my Mom did too. She was a big Tony Bennett fan, and I guess his death recently (July 21, 2023) is what finally prompted me to begin writing this. She and my Dad (also deceased) saw Bennett perform in the early 1960s at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Kind of glad she wasn’t around to see him go. He was a testament to longevity to her. 

Mom's last uneaten meal, with some forget-me-nots we sent her for Mother's Day.

I wish I got to play, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” for her on my guitar. If we had held a memorial service or funeral for her, this is the story I probably would have told. “Dooley” was one of the songs I practiced when I took guitar lessons when I was about thirteen. I wanted to play the guitar, but, it seems I didn’t necessarily want to LEARN how to play the guitar. The rare times I would practice at home I would plink out “Dooley” and my Dad would make fun of me. He would say, “Can you do anything other than go, ‘plink, plink, plink?’”  I never progressed while taking those lessons. I chalk it up to a bad teacher and a cheap guitar. Mom and Dad loved that song, but I never got good enough to play it. Now that I am good enough to play it (only took fifty years), I never did play it for my Mom.

Anyway - and this was back in maybe 1970 - she got fed up with my not wanting to practice one day and smashed the guitar over my head! Luckily, it was a cheap wooden acoustic, not a solid-body electric! To this day …. Or rather, to the day she died, she blocked out that episode of our relationship, said she really didn’t remember it. Ah, good times …

My interest in guitar playing resumed a couple years later as I witnessed my older cousin Jerry power chording his Les Paul through Creedence and Rolling Stones tunes. Mom went ahead and bought me a cheap electric with an amp and away I went. 

So here’s the punch line of the story. Mom hated snakes. She went to someone’s house after answering an ad in the “Country Impressions” newspaper to buy me a cheap electric guitar and amp. Legend has it that as she was paying the woman for the equipment, the woman asked her point blank if she was afraid of snakes. My mother probably paled and said “yyyyessss….?” The woman then said “Well, don’t turn around then. Just walk out this door and I’ll bring the guitar.” My mother, of course, whips around to see a giant snake stretched out on the sofa behind her! Mom took the storm door off its hinges as she threw herself outside to safety! But she came home with the guitar and amp for me. That’s what mothers do.


I appreciate all the condolences that people sent. So many heartfelt ones. I’d like to include some of them here, but I can’t really bear to look at them again. Death of a family member can bring out the best in people – and sometimes the worst. One of the most wonderful things that happened was when my childhood friend George called me to talk. We “came up” together, as is current parlance. He told me that my Mom was like a mother to him. Then he changed that and said, no she wasn’t “like a mother, she WAS my second mother!” George’s Mom (also deceased) made me feel as at home at their house as my Mom made George feel at home at our house. He said he would often have two dinners, one at my house and one when he returned to his own house. Pork chops, Shake ‘n’ Bake chicken. My mother fed people.

My brother, bless him, took care of our Mom for years and sorted through so much afterward – clearing out her apartment, notifying Social Security et. al. of her passing, picking up Mom’s ashes from the funeral home, speaking with friends and relatives about Mom’s death. I am so grateful that he did all that.

As for a legacy of sorts, my Mom wrote down in a spiral notebook things she wanted my thirteen-year-old daughter Olivia to read after Mom was gone. My Mom told me a few years ago that she was doing this, and would tell me things she was writing. As difficult as it was to talk to her about this at times, I’m so glad she did it. Olivia is the youngest of my children and therefore knew her grandma the least. I have the notebook, and while not confidential, I still can’t bear to open it. At some point, I’ll give it to Olivia. No doubt its written in cursive. My Mom was so thrilled that Olivia taught herself to write in cursive, even though it was no longer taught in school.

Mom was in severe pain for the last two years of her life. It’s really horrible that medical science couldn’t relieve her pain. I guess that's partly because medicine isn't all science - its mostly an art. You're lucky to get a good doctor. As Pulitzer Prize finalist Percival Everett says in his novel, “Dr. No,” “I was reminded that what we see is really all we know; everything else is induction, deduction, or simply guesswork.”

On the way back to Philadelphia the day she died, my son Chris and I stopped at a turnpike rest stop and I pulled up alongside a car that ironically had this placard on the side. My Mom loved all kinds of fish in cans - sardines, herring, whatever other fish they tin. I posted this photo with the caption below on Facebook the day she died. May 14. 

“This is for my mom. For those of you who knew her, you may have known that she liked tinned fish. Sardines and stuff like that. I used to joke with her all the time about how gross I thought that was. My mom died today at 2 PM. Mom, wherever you are, I hope there’s a lot less pain and a lot more tinned fish. Love you.”


Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Face of Pride and the Grave of Divine

Its Pride Month as I write this, June, 2023 – the celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ +) rights and culture. In honor of this, The New Yorker Magazine (June 12, 2023 issue) has this artwork on its front cover, entitled, “The Look of Pride,” a self-portrait by the artist Sasha Velour. Now, I don’t know if this is supposed to be an updated homage to drag queen Divine, but that’s immediately who I thought of when I found the mag in my mail slot the other day. I’m also using this cover shot as my lead photo since I can’t find any public domain images of film legend Divine! (Maybe if John Waters reads this he can send me a link to one...?)

At the end of April, 2023, I drove from Philly to the Baltimore area to attend the spring meeting of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies. The meeting was held a bit north of Baltimore, in York, PA, at the Penn State Campus. The connection to Baltimore was a planned group trip after the morning presentations, to Druid Ridge Cemetery, which is on the northwest outskirts of Baltimore (Pikesville, MD). But this story is about the cemetery I stopped at on the way to York, a prequel.

When in Baltimore … 

I searched the internet for cemeteries to visit on the drive to York. I thought about taking I95 south to Havre de Grace, then heading northwest to York on the smaller roads there were some small graveyards to check out. Another option was to take I95 south to the Baltimore Beltway, head west to 83 north and up to York. A longer route, but probably more direct. Getting lost I can handle, but wasting time annoys me. So I checked on available cemeteries along the latter route. 

As I looked for cemeteries I’d never visited, I came across one called Prospect Hill Cemetery, near the intersection of 83 and the Beltway. I don’t usually go star hunting before a visit to any cemetery (I find that I miss out on more that way, lol!), i.e., to see if there are any notable people buried within. However, many of the links I followed for Prospect Hill Cemetery came up with the same, one notable burial there – Divine!

Divine in center
Yes! Divine, star of several John Waters films - you know, she played Tracy Turnblad’s mother Edna in “Hairspray.” Or maybe you don’t know. Divine is probably the world’s best known drag queen (my thirteen-year-old daughter believes that to be Ru Paul – but she’s wrong). So that sealed it for me – take I95 to the Beltway, get off at the Towson, Maryland exit and hit Divine’s grave. Or should I say the grave of Harris Glenn Milstead.

“Waters and I were not heading to a beach. Instead, we were going to Prospect Hill cemetery, where his longtime friend and early star of his films, Divine, is buried. Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, a larger-than-life drag queen, died from a heart attack at the age of 42 in 1988, just a week after the premiere of Waters’s film Hairspray. Prospect Hill is also where Waters himself has a plot, as does his friend (and actor in many of his films) Mink Stole. “We call it Disgraceland,”….” 

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/12/john-waters-on-hitchhiking-across-the-us

Several things on the internet intrigued me about the star’s grave, like the article from The Guardian quoted above. One item said that it is easy to find – in the lower area, with all the flowers and other decorations that fans leave. Prospect Hill is a relatively small cemetery and his grave would be the ONLY one adorned with visitors’ chalk-written messages on the stone. Another site showed photos of a sign the cemetery had placed, asking visitor’s to Divine’s grave to be respectful. I’ve visited a lot of cemeteries over the past two decades, and I do not recall EVER seeing a sign like this calling attention to a specific grave. Here’s what the sign says:

“Fans of Harris Glenn Milstead (“Divine”) are welcome in Prospect Hill Cemetery, but please be respectful of the impact of your visit on families who have loved ones buried nearby. Writing on or defacing a gravestone is illegal under Maryland law. Items left will be removed at the cemetery’s discretion. By all means, pay your respects to an iconic performer, but help preserve the dignity of this burial ground.”

So what sort of “items” might one find at Divine’s grave? The imagination wanders. Apparently, visitors leave “appropriate” mementos, which, if you’ve seen any of Waters’ films, these could be …. well, let’s let Mr. Waters explain:

According to a Baltimorefishbowl.com article from 2021:

“Divine’s grave is on the cemetery’s lower level, next to his parents’ grave. Waters’ lot is across a private road from Divine’s and slightly up a hill but still close by.

Waters has suggested that getting buried near Divine will make it convenient for their fans: One-stop grieving. 

He acknowledges that Divine’s admirers can be “a little misguided” in the way they sometimes behave at the cemetery.

“People do leave crazy stuff,” he said in a talk organized by Literati Bookstore in Michigan. “I said to the graveyard: Wait ‘til I get there.” 

- https://baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/divines-gravestone-gets-a-restoration-and-cemetery-warns-fans-please-be-respectful-of-others/

Raining in Disgraceland

When I arrived in the vicinity of the cemetery, I was surprised to see that it was in a densely congested retail area, with the cemetery hidden on a hill overlooking the stores on Dulaney Valley Road. It was easy enough finding the cemetery entrance with Google Maps on my smartphone. Prospect Hill is an elegant yet relatively small spot – it would take you two minutes to drive through it. The single one-way paved road snakes through the upper level, then down through the lower one, and out the exit. Its been here since 1893 and there are many old gravemarkers among the new ones. The brightly-blooming azaleas presented a rather cheery accent to this heavily wooded setting in the light rain. 

Rear view of Divine's gravemarker

I wasn’t seeing any gaudily decorated stones as I drove through the lower level, so I checked Google Maps for “Divine’s Grave.” Sometimes this works. And it did. Just over there on the right, about fifty feet away. I pulled over, parked, and approached what thought must be Divine's grave - there appeared to be a small sign and some things around the stone. The light rain stayed mercifully light during my visit. 

Turned out to be the one. Divine's stone did have some small decorations around it - some plastic flowers and, of course, pink flamingoes - tastefully situated around the base. The grounds were quiet, no one else there.

Plastic dog poo at base of Divine's grave stone

So what else did I find at Divine’s grave? Nothing terribly outlandish. I mean, you WOULD expect to find a ring of brown plastic dog poo, right? And I did. Everything’s relative. If I have to explain, I’d rather just direct you to watch the movie, “Pink Flamingos.” And as Mr. Waters has stated during the wonderful Q & A section in his standup live performances, “In answer to everyone’s first question, ‘yes,’ Divine really did that.” Yet another reason why Divine’s legend will live on. 

There were three plastic pink flamingos in front of the stone – one of which had it’s butt cut off and stuffed with Styrofoam to accommodate a makeshift makeup kit. There were beads and coins, and some worn chalk messages on the face of the stone. Some crystals, some earrings. 


The makeup kit was a rather clever memento to leave. Divine’s unique makeup is iconic (click here for examples https://divineofficial.com), and I would think in some way influenced Sasha Velour’s artwork on the cover of the New Yorker. It is interesting to note that the John Waters movies Divine starred in – Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Hairspray – were made in the 1970s and 80s, eras when flamboyantly made up drag queens were not quite as acceptable as they are today. (Oh, I am going to get SO much feedback for that last sentence!). But if you search the internet for photos of Divine, that face literally BEAMS with pride, does it not? The title of Velour’s self-portrait can just as well describe Divine’s countenance, “The Look of Pride.” So, hats off to Harris Glenn Milstead for taking such great risks and by doing so, becoming immortal.

Custom makeup kit at Divine's grave

I didn’t leave anything at Divine’s grave, but I did come away with a greater appreciation for Milstead’s art. I’ve long been a fan of John Waters and his work, but I hadn’t fully appreciated Divine’s role in all that. They both pushed boundaries that forced people to think differently about the world around them.

After paying my respects, I took a walk up the hill, thinking I might see a stone engraved with the name, “Waters,” but saw no such thing. Maybe John bought the plot, but not yet the stone. Or the stone is there, but not yet engraved. I can’t imagine it will say, “America’s Filth Elder,” but, who knows? It may pay to visit around Christmas, if you’re in the area:

“Waters himself is a regular visitor to the grave site, especially around the holidays, when he and Baltimore casting agent Pat Moran annually carry in a decorated tree. "Divine was a Christmas fanatic," he explains.” - https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2000-10-15-0010230265-story.html

And speaking of Christmas, I'll leave you with this item. As I was searching the internet for public domain images of Divine, this is what immediately popped up on my computer screen:



Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Death's Head and Soul Effigies in the Graveyard, West Orange, NJ


I mapped out my pre-meeting destination a few days before my trip to north Jersey – the West Orange Presbyterian Church. Why? If I got to the Newark area a couple hours before our group meetup time (11 a.m.), I can fit in a visit to this place and photograph some of the death’s head and angel head gravestones not commonly found in the Philadelphia area.

The morning of my trip from Philadelphia to the Oranges (near Newark, NJ) was rather busy. This was a Sunday morning at the beginning of April, 2023. I drove my wife and daughter to the airport at 3:30 am, as they needed to catch a 6:30 am flight to Miami. The airline demanded a three-hour arrival time because of the near-tornado situation that occurred the night before. After dropping them off, I came home and packed my photo gear for the trip north (about a 2-hour drive). I figured if I got there early, I would just explore one or two other nearby cemeteries.

After I packed the SUV and started to drive out of my neighborhood, the “Low Air in Tire” light came on my dashboard. A nuisance that crops up once every six months or so. In BMW’s wisdom, they don’t actually tell you which tire is low, so you have to check them all. Sigh. So I drove a mile to my local air pump station at the car wash in South Philly, checked the tires, found out the driver’s side rear tire was low. Filled it up and hit the highway. 

Our meetup group of cemetery photographers planned to begin the day in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, in East Orange, then close the day down the road at Fairmount Cemetery. My early solo trip would be a prequel. On the way up the Jersey turnpike, I decided on which of two nearby cemeteries I’d visit first – the 18th century churchyard of the Presbyterian Church in West Orange, and then, if time permitted, Mount Pleasant Cemetery in East Orange.


I found the church and graveyard without much difficulty, arriving about 8 a.m. Sunny, but chilly – maybe 40 degrees. My friend Phil told me this burial ground had a lot of “soul effigy” headstones, which I was eager to see. He believes it has the largest number of existing stones carved in this style by Newark’s Uzal Ward and his several imitators.

Soul effigy stones

Although there are some marble grave markers scattered along the front and sides of the church, the vast majority (literally hundreds) of markers here are of the brownish-red sandstone variety, commonly found from central New Jersey north throughout New England. Most are adorned with either the winged death’s head skull, or the angel head with wings. Inscribed death dates range from the early 1700s to the early 1800s. 

According to the Atlas Preservation article (ref.), Gravestone Evolution in America From the First Settlers to the Early Victorian Era, this locally quarried sandstone has “a very fine grain, and was relatively high in silicates. It tends to weather minimally and … concise lettering on stones dating back to as early as the middle to late 1600s can be easily read today…. “

This material is commonly known as “brownstone,” the slang term for sandstone that is brown in color. In the Atlas Preservation article, the author states that the reason sandstone was used was because “Stones needed to be soft enough to split and carved with hand tools, but durable enough to resist erosion.” It seems odd that it is so durable – you would think the “sands of time” would wear it down easily. The author accurately states, “A historical graveyard, and all that goes into it, is a kind of ancient puzzle, that I hope will intrigue you as it does me.”https://atlaspreservation.com/pages/american-gravestone-evolution-part-1

I’m no aesthete, but what I find most fascinating about these stones is the soul effigy carvings, as my friend Phil refers to them. He been sort of a death’s head divining rod for me lately – I really had no idea where to find them. Phil has explained to our Cemetery photography meetup group that such imagery is quite common in the old church graveyards of central and northern Jersey. 

Side door of First Shiloh Baptist Church, West Orange

This particular church, formerly Presbyterian, established in 1718, is now operated as the First Shiloh Baptist Church. The gargantuan brick and wooden structure has seen better days. It appears to be abandoned, but it is hard to say. Partially eaten food and canned goods rest near the entrances, trash surrounds the front grounds of the church, the woodwork is cracked and peeling. Although I saw no homeless people or vagrants in the area, it did appear to be a rest stop of sorts. 

Food at the front door.


Why such an equal mix of death’s head and angel head grave markers? Perhaps a hundred of each? I should have paid more attention to the death dates to see if they validated the following statement from Archeology.org:

“…the death's-head motif accompanied the harsh beliefs of orthodox Puritanism. Its replacement by the cherub reflected eighteenth century religious liberalization during the "Great Awakening," a period when some scholars believe orthodox Puritan views were being replaced by a more liberal perspective.” - https://archive.archaeology.org/8309/etc/gravestones.html


It would be interesting to see if the death’s head stones were generally older than the angel head ones. Maybe on my next trip - I guess that’s why they make tomorrows. 

My Next Adventure

Statue at First Shiloh
My next adventure turned out not to be Mount Pleasant Cemetery. After walking the grounds and photographing the headstones at First Shiloh for an hour, I jumped into the car to warm up, find a coffee shop, then zoom off to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery (about five miles away). As soon as I started my car, that pesky “Low Air in Tire” light came on my dashboard again. Rats! Obviously, I’ve got a slow leak. Where to find a tire repair place?!


Luckily, it was only 9 a.m. and I was scheduled to meet up with my friends at 11 a.m. So I had two hours. With my usual sangfroid, I typed “Tire Repair Near Me” into Google Maps on my cellphone instead of my typical message, “Cemetery Near Me.” Most places were closed, Firestone, gas stations, etc. However, there was a Mavis Discount Tire that opened at 9 am about five miles in the direction opposite my preferred direction. Beggars can’t be choosers, so off I went, tout de suite.

Took about half hour to get there, through lots of congested traffic areas, but I arrived about 9:30, and pulled into a large suburban retail resort. Drove past a Whole Foods in a strip mall to the Mavis at the bottom of the parking lot. Many cars in the parking lot. Ouch. Docked the Pequod and went into the customer area. At the counter I asked the fellow if they could fix a slow leak quickly. 

The guy started filling out the work order and asked me how far away I was visiting from, as he took the info from my Pennsylvania auto registration card. I told him a hundred miles away, and I need to get to a cemetery in an hour. He quickly looked up and a bit startled, said, “We’ll get you on the road as quickly as possible, sir.” I didn’t think I needed to explain that I was not heading for a funeral.

First Shiloh (Presbyterian) Church
I left my keys with him and told him I would walk up to the Whole Foods and be back soon. Feeling way more comfortable with the situation, I walked over to the Food Hole for coffee and a breakfast sammie. When I walked in I noticed they had potted gardenias on sale. I like having one in front of my house, so I figured I would buy one before I left. So after downing some breakfast, I bought a gardenia and headed down the parking lot toward Mavis Tire.

When I was about a hundred yards away, my cell phone rang. My car was ready. Thirty-two dollars to fix the nail hole in my tire and off I headed toward Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. For anyone’s reference, I give a five-star rating to the Mavis Tire Supply, LLC, at 235 Prospect Avenue in West Orange, New Jersey!

I ended up putting in a full day with my meetup friends at Holy Sepulchre and Fairmount Cemeteries, experiencing zero lassitude given the fact that I was running on about three hours’ sleep from the night before! But more on that excursion another time. The preprandial at Dunkin Donuts across from Holy Sepulchre helped me begin my day a third time - like a new angel getting its wings.




Sunday, February 19, 2023

"Lincoln in the Bardo" - Oak Hill Cemetery


As I sit here in my living room typing this passage, my thirteen-year-old daughter is practicing Bach’s Prelude in C minor on our piano. I can’t help but think it would be the perfect soundtrack to George Saunders’ recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.  The music is somber, as is the book. 

You may be wondering what a “bardo” is. I didn’t know before I read the book. I actually didn’t know until AFTER I read the book and started writing this essay. Saunders does not actually mention the word, or define it, in his book. According to Wikipedia:

'' ...bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena."

The bardo, then. And you might also assume “Lincoln” refers to Abraham. But it does not, It refers to his son Willie, who died at age twelve.

Oak Hill Cemetery gatehouse, Georgetown

The image you see at the beginning of this article is my photograph of the sculpture from the entrance to a mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. It is near the Carroll mausoleum, where Lincoln’s son was temporarily laid to rest when he died in 1862. As the story goes, Lincoln visited the mausoleum in the days following his son’s death, opening the casket and holding him in his arms.

I’ll let you digest that for a few moments. Maybe a few more moments if you are a parent.

Library of Congress

I made the "There Shall Be No Night There" photograph as well as many other images when I explored Oak Hill Cemetery back around 2005. I was unaware of the Willie Lincoln story at the time. In the fall of 2022, I learned of it through George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). A librarian friend of mine told me about the book when I gave a lecture on abandoned cemeteries at her library. Sounded intriguing, so I bought and read the novel.

Densely wooded Oak Hill Cemetery

The book brought back vivid memories of how eerie Oak Hill was. I was there after a spring rain, and everything was slick and dripping. The caretaker warned me to stay on the sidewalks so I didn’t slip or fall into a sunken grave. He could easily have been Jack Manders, Oak Hill’s night watchman at the time of Lincoln’s visits. Manders, lantern in hand, would guide the President from the entry gate (see photo below) where he tied his horse, to the Carroll mausoleum in the dark. Manders would unlock the mausoleum door, and leave the father alone with his grief. This is all documented in Manders’ actual logbook from 1862.

Entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery

I never saw the Carroll mausoleum – didn’t go looking for it when I was at Oak Hill. Didn’t know anything about Willie Lincoln at the time. So why was Willie “temporarily” laid to rest there? Well, the Lincolns expected to move the family back to Illinois after the President’s term had ended. They planned to take Willie back with them for a proper burial. A clerk of the Supreme Court, William Carroll, let the Lincolns use his family mausoleum as a temporary resting place until they returned to Illinois. Abe never made it back to Illinois alive.

Willie Lincoln’s death: A private agony for a president facing a nation of pain - The Washington Post

“The remains of Willie Lincoln lay in the marble vault, locked behind an iron gate, for more than three years. On numerous occasions, author James L. Swanson wrote, “his ever-mourning father returned to visit him, to remember, and to weep,” even as he tried to hold the country together.

After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Willie’s casket was exhumed and placed aboard the presidential funeral train for the journey back to Illinois. Father and son headed home together.”

Again, I’ll pause and let you think about that for a bit.

The majority of Saunders’ book is about the experience of Willie’s “ghost,” after his body was delivered to the mausoleum in a funeral procession. Willie’s experience involves many other people – or, ghosts” - with which he interacts while in Oak Hill Cemetery. It is a rather riveting story, one that you want to end well. But the way it ends is quite unsettling. 

The chapel on the cemetery grounds where Willie’s funeral service was held is shown in the above photo - Saunders refers to it in his story. I remember getting a creepy feeling walking past it those many years ago. The entire cemetery was gloomy, dark from its tall trees. I had a distinct sense of being alone.

Were I to return, I would probably not be able to think of anything but the characters and scenes from Lincoln in the Bardo, and the “matterlightblooming” phenomenon where the ghosts, or souls, disappear in a snap from the bardo and head to some other, undefined, state of existence. They avoid all talk (yes, they can talk to each other) of death, how they got to the bardo, or life itself – referring to our mortal world as the place they were before. They cannot admit to themselves that they are dead. Hence, the deep denial evinced by the sculpted phrase, "There Shall Be No Night There." Were I to return to Oak Hill Cemetery at this point, I think I would feel anything but alone. 

Further Reading: 

A review of Lincoln in the Bardo 

https://sevencircumstances.com/2018/01/10/a-triumph-of-imagination-lincoln-in-the-bardo-by-george-saunders/