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.”

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

“…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.” -

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.