Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Sad Hour

Oddly, after twenty years of hanging around in cemeteries, photographing, researching, and writing about them, I have only this past year learned about “the sad hour.” And I have my friend Sarah Amendola of Mockingbird Lane Artistries to thank for it.

Sarah and I have exhibited and sold our cemetery-related art and art objects at various shows and events (both physical and online), like "Market of the Macabre," at Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery and the "Darksome Art and Craft Market." We've been friends for about ten years. Sarah creates jewelry and objets’ d’art that run toward the dark side.

Sarah (rear) at "Market of the Macabre," Laurel Hill Cemetery, Phila., 2023

Sometime in 2023 I saw her Instagram posts for an object she was casting from a 3D print of a Victorian artifact. It was a clock face of some sort. The “Sad Hour… ?” I’d seen and heard of some obscure Victorian-era mourning artifacts, but this was one of the oddest.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Phila.
Every once in a while I’ll see a grave stone or marker of some sort with some time-related symbolism, or even actual clock times. The hourglass is classic, but I’ve also seen clock faces and mentions of time, such as on this zinc monument at right. I’d wondered for years why the time of death was something a person would record on their grave marker ….

The coffin plaque in itself is rather interesting. Later in this post, you’ll find links to Sarah’s online business where you will find examples of many such objects from Sarah’s collection. I thought it would be informative to transcribe for you my interview with Sarah, concerning “The Sad Hour,” so you can have a privileged look into her world. 

"The Sad Hour"

The Sad Hour: Hand Painted, Working Clock (link)

What exactly is this object I see on your website, Sarah?

This coffin plaque replica is called The Sad Hour. In Victorian times, death was beautified more than it is today. Very decorative hardware was used on the coffins, postmortem photos were taken, and hair was collected and made into framed art and jewelry for the family to keep as remembrance. The women wore beautiful black dresses and accessories when they were in mourning. 

The Sad Hour clock is a rare coffin plaque that was used to display the deceased’s time of death. Victorians were superstitious; they believed if the clocks weren’t stopped at the time of death, their soul couldn’t pass on, and they would be stuck to haunt the living. 

How and when did you first learn about the "sad hour?"

I have been collecting Victorian era coffin hardware for a handful of years and have a friend that has been collecting and reselling all types of funerary items for over a decade. He was the reason I learned of The Sad Hour.  I have been actively searching for and wanting one to add to my collection ever since. 

Sarah's collection of vintage coffin hardware

I wondered why I had never heard of this. You say it's rare?

It is definitely rare, though I have 3 close friends who each have one in their collections. More common coffin plaques used during that era have inscriptions that read “At Rest,” "Mother," "Father," or “Our Darling” (which was often used for children and babies). 

"At Rest" necklace, made from an original coffin plaque. (link)

So, you’ve scanned and copied one of the originals? Where is the original?

The original Sad Hour that we scanned is owned by my friend Dan Cogliano of Klopek’s ( [Below is a photo of] the original that resides in Dan Cogliano’s personal collection, which is the piece that was 3D scanned by Jason and I. 

Vintage Sad Hour from Dan Cogliano’s personal collection (link).

Can you describe the process you used?

Jason Welsh of First Density Material and I used a custom programmed rig that hooks to a digital SLR to take photos of any object. The object rotates and the camera takes around 155 shots in 3 different camera positions. Software is used to stitch the camera angles into a 3D mesh using matched vector points in the scene. The 3D mesh is then brought into software that allows the mesh to be cleaned up and post processed for 3D Print. (Click here for Instagram Reel showing this process.)

Oversized working clock replica of "The Sad Hour," Special Edition Gold (link)

Sounds unique, super-technical, and historically accurate. If I remember your exhibit at Market of the Macabre in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, you had a Sad Hour clock on your table that was maybe eight inches high [see photo at beginning]. Was that the size of the original coffin plate?

The original size of the Sad Hour is approximately 5.5 inches tall and 4 inches wide. 

Once Jason and I scanned Dan’s original, we resized the clock to a much larger size so it could be hung on the wall and used as a working clock. The working clock measures approximately 9.75 inches tall and 7 inches wide. 

And what else do you plan to make, based on your scans?

We have scanned a huge portion of my coffin hardware collection. I have been creating and selling this type of jewelry on my website for several years. 

Sample coffin hardware jewelry made by Mockingbird Lane Artistries (link)

Is your version made of metal?

The objects are electroformed, a process that has been around since 1838 which allows an object to be coated with a very thick layer of metal. Unlike electroplating which only allows a thin deposit, electroforming can be deposited as thick as your equipment allows. So 3D prints are made of the replicas with a certain surface thickness removed so that it can be replaced with electroformed copper. Its a reverse molding process that uses the 3D print as the form.

What was the original made of?

The original seems to be made from castable metal with a nickel plating.

How does this item fit in with your other hand-crafted products at Mockingbird Lane Artistries?

A lot of my jewelry is Victorian inspired, so the sad hour jewelry fits in perfectly with the other coffin hardware replica jewelry I have created. 

Sad Hour necklaces from Mockingbird Lane Artistries (link)

Are you planning other 3D projects?

Coffin hardware necklaces
Recently we have been scanning many vintage Halloween objects, such as blow molds and ceramics which will make another unique collection of jewelry. Halloween and Victorian style are two of my favorite things. I also make jewelry from actual, original coffin hardware, as you see here. These are Victorian escutcheon plates for thumbscrews; I also use vintage coffin nails in my jewelry. You can see many examples on my Instagram site (click here to see).

Vintage, original coffin hardware
How can people check out your products?

I do have a website, which is

I can also be found on Instagram

And Facebook

This is Jason's website, First Density Material - he offers scanning services for replicating objects in 3D.

Coffin hardware jewelry from Mockingbird Lane Artistries 

Sarah, I greatly appreciate the time you and Jason spent with me creating this blog post. Experiencing the creative process behind your art has been a truly unique experience! 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Toy Story … in an Abandoned Cemetery

This is my gratuitous Valentine’s Day post – you’ll just have to bear with me. Valentine’s Day is not the subject of the post, but apparently, there is some love involved. Tough love, maybe? You only hurt the ones you love? Again, bear with me (nyuk nyuk). If you’ve ever walked through a cemetery, you’ve probably seen stuffed toy animals on graves. Usually childrens’ graves. A common practice, leaving such an offering, a remembrance, perhaps. But in abandoned cemeteries? 

Abandoned cemeteries are a form of dystopia, to be sure. The environment – meaning nature – is usually in the process of destroying what humans built. For the past twenty years a Victorian-era cemetery in Philadelphia has been in a sad state of disrepair, only accessible to those who the owner or caretaker allows in. Many wonder how it got this way, but the real question on everyone’s mind is:

Why are there so many toy stuffed animals lying about throughout Mount Vernon Cemetery? 

There are no visitors to place them on graves in loving memory of the deceased. There are no visitors. There is no visitor access. You can almost picture some hideous beast living in its burrow, periodically feasting on stuffed animals. The ones you see here, matted down with weeds and rain, well, don’t really belong here, do they? The trapped, partially dismembered clown fish above has a look of fear in its eye. 
Stuffed Animal Dystopia.

Its almost as if some beast killed them with its poisonous saliva and secreted a fluid to trap them in weeds until it later required a snack. Much like an insect that gets caught in a spider’s web. Perhaps this is simply attribution bias on my part. Perhaps not. One poor toy was in the process of being dragged into the beast’s lair as I stumbled upon the massacre scene. You can just hear Jennifer Lawrence singing, “The Hanging Tree,” right?

Into the lair of the beast ....

Do the toys get thrown over the fence by the caretakers of the active cemetery next door, as they clear graves prior to mowing? Then something, or some things, retrieve the toys and drag them through the fence into the abandoned graveyard. The mind wanders to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book ..and the toys Bod may have left lying around the cemetery in his formative years.

A fox, perhaps, requires such playthings? That, apparently, is the general thought if you read the Instagram posts by the volunteers now caring for the cemetery.

So, first off, Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia is no longer abandoned. Technically, it never was. It was simply ignored by its owner - for about twenty years. It is currently being maintained by many dedicated volunteers. There are regularly scheduled cleanup days and occasional tours, but access is closely controlled. Here’s a photo of my friend Kim posing with some bears during a recent tour.

Mount Peace Cemetery, next door, has always been well-cared for. It seems likely that somehow, these small grave decorations travel from there into unkempt Mount Vernon next door. Perhaps the wild foxes that prowl the wooded grounds of Mount Vernon steal these objects from Mount Peace in the night - they snitch Winnie-the-Pooh from a defenseless grave, and abscond through some hole in the cyclone fence into the wild next door. But to what end?

Mount Vernon’s twenty-seven acres is probably twenty percent cut back at this point, with nature having a twenty-year lead on the humans trying to tame the bush. So there are plenty of hiding places for fox, deer, and so on. I’ve seen small herds of white-tails leaping through the underbrush. Sometimes you’ll even see shredded toys, along with …. bones?

So, do the red foxes drag the stuffed critters into their burrows for padding? Groundhogs do this – but with them, its usually the flags from the little flagpoles people stick on graves. But then, why are they scattered all over the grounds? That’s like saying if humans are descended from apes, then why are there still apes?

What I don’t know about the housekeeping habits of small woodland creatures could fill volumes. Perhaps instead, UFOs are involved. Whatever the case may be, if you find yourself walking through a more-or-less abandoned cemetery alone and you round a bend to find this Ted smiling at you in the middle of the road, your brain does not race for a logical explanation. Your brain screams.


Saturday, February 10, 2024

Falling Snow in the Cemetery

Okay, no more ChatGPT tricks. This is really me writing this. Really. No, wait, how would you know? Hopefully, my personality will suffuse the text to the degree that you’ll be able to tell its really me. I’m interested in my readers’ take on how I compare to AI, so please comment!

I should have named this post, “Falling In the Snow in the Cemetery,” since that’s one of the things that occurred during the recent January snow week while I was shooting cemeteries. But more on that as we slide along. I’ve photographed cemeteries in the snow many times, and recounted those experiences on this blog. Between January, 2022 and January, 2024, I really had no new experiences to recount.

Why is that? Well, it hadn’t snowed in the Philadelphia area in two solid years. We were due, I suppose. Can’t say I missed it all that much – go global warming! But we did recently get dumped on twice in one week – about three inches initially, then about six a few days later. I had a few opportunities to get out there with the cameras, so, Bob’s your chipmunk, as they say.

Old Swedes Church monument, Philadelphia
Early in the week, it snowed all day and I was able to get out to a few South Jersey cemeteries for some shooting before sunset. Actually, I began my snow shooting in the small Old Swede’s Church graveyard near my house in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. The church sexton allows people to walk their dogs on the large open area next to the graveyard, and there were about ten dogs frolicking in the snow that morning. One woman had just entered the property and her large dog was pulling her along. She said something like “Slow down, Petey, I know you want to see your friends!”

Ben Franklin's grave, Christ Church Burial Ground (Pennies ...get it?)

Since I work in south Jersey, it was easy enough to visit nearby Harleigh, Old Camden, and Evergreen cemeteries after work. A few days later we had an all-day snow, so I was able to get out into an active snowstorm in Calvary Cemetery, in Cherry Hill. It remained cold for a week so I made the most of the weather by catching lingering snow in Philly’s Christ Church Burial Ground (Old City) as well as the Old Pine Church graveyard (Society Hill) on my way to and from work.

Selfie with friend in Calvary Cemetery, Hill of Cherries, New Jersey

But back to the beginning. The selfie you see of me (above) was made when I first arrived at Calvary. It was colder than a witty analogy. The photo below is me an hour later, after shooting in the piercing wind and trudging through six inches of fresh snow. Photographing cemeteries in a snowstorm can be quite an amazing experience – until its not. It is exhilarating to be out there alone with the elements, knowing full well no one else in their right mind is doing the same. Well, alone except for the groundskeepers plowing the cemetery roads. Probably wondering how unhinged this guy must be in the snow with all those cameras dangling from his neck. 

Jesus, it was cold out there!

As I repeatedly jammed additional “HotHands” chemical hand warmer pouches into my gloves, I kept thinking how I didn’t want to end up like Jack Nicholson in the final scene of “The Shining.” Its one thing to reach the point of self-actualization by getting that one-in-a-million shot, but the need for the safety of a warm vehicle in the dead of winter can knock you down a few pegs on Maslow’s pyramid, where you’re all of a sudden more concerned with basic survival needs. And losing digits.

Ansel Adams, eat your heart out. (Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ)

Granted, this is nothing compared to what Ansel Adams went through to capture those gorgeous images of the snow-covered Rockies in Jellystone Park, or climbing onto his car roof with a tripod and a view camera to shoot, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” but it was challenging enough. Everything’s relative. Adams probably didn’t have a fourteen-year-old daughter at home who needed dinner made when she got home from school. 

Sunset, Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ

Anyhow, that weekend it stayed cold (below freezing), so I spent a few hours trudging through Woodlands Cemetery in west Philly. Mainly I shot with the iPhone and Holga loaded with 120mm black and white film. It was so cold I couldn’t wind the film for the next exposure! (Remember winding film? …. Remember film? …)

Yours truly, with the Holga (Woodlands Cemetery)
The Holga. Yes, just another pain point in my photographic arsenal. A Holga is essentially a cheap plastic toy camera that uses 120mm film. As I write this, I’m waiting for the film processing place to develop my film, scan the negatives, and send them to Dropbox for me. I have no idea whether there will be anything good on that film. Actually I shot two rolls of 12 exposures (120 mm BW). I will wait until I get the results before I post this, so you can all witness either my ineptitude or my genius, whichever the case may be.

Turns out I was rewarded with two reasonable images – out of 24. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut twice a day. Here they are.

Holga images (L: Calvary Cemetery; R: Woodlands Cemetery)

Falling For You

At one point, in a cemetery I won’t name, I slipped on the ice. Wasn’t climbing on a monument. (Honestly, I don’t do that. Having seen a monument fall on a person, pin them to the ground and break their leg, I do avoid such near occasions). I was simply walking along the unplowed road, and my feet flew out from under me! My mind's eye was blind to the ice under the snow. I’d been looking out at the gravestones, eyes peeled for a good composition, instead of looking where I was walking. Obviously, I had not done the proper risk assessment. Hit my right shoulder on the ground with tremendous force:

According to Microsoft’s new AI powered Bing search engine:

"The gravitational force acting on a 200 lb mass is about 889 Newtons. A person who weighs about 200 pounds and falls just 6 feet will hit the ground with almost 10,000 pounds of force."

Calvary Cemetery, Cherry Hill, NJ
And I felt every one of those fekkin 10,000 pounds. Jesus H. Christ! Despite the pain, I made it okay hiking through the cemetery and shot for an hour, but then I realized I couldn’t raise my right arm very high. The next day, I couldn’t raise it at all. I spent the next week with T. Rex arms. Really thought I tore my rotator cuff. But after a week of Motrin smoothies, the pain began to
subside, and I started to regain my range of motion. I am glad that I continued shooting after the fall – I did make some decent photographs. Great art comes from great pain. 

Mausoleums, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ

Why Photograph Cemetery Statues?

Why subject myself to all this? Is it to capture/create a unique image? To build up my catalogue raisonnĂ©? To have ‘alone’ time? Or is it just the JOURNEY that’s important, more so than the destination? I think it’s a combination of all that, but my reason can best be summarized in something the artist Andrew Wyeth said to his granddaughter, Victoria Browning Wyeth, “my goal is not to make pictures but to express my love of these things.

I do love cemeteries and graveyards, which is why I use them in my art. Unlike Georgia O’Keeffe, who is widely known for her paintings of flowers, and said “I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.” I appreciate the fact that access to cemetery statues is usually free and the statues (usually) don’t move. Cemeteries? I want to be there, and I want to create something. Paul Rudnick, in a recent New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs piece, wrote in jest about something “seemingly empty yet rife with meaning.” Describes cemeteries fairly well, don’t you think? 

Calvary Cemetery abstract, shot through glass in a snowstorm

While I certainly appreciate the beauty of a landscape or an Italian marble cemetery sculpture, I also appreciate the fact that people went out of their way to memorialize the dead. Sometimes a grave marker is the only tangible evidence that a person existed. Standing amidst these monuments can make one feel part of the human family. Like the dog, Petey, mentioned above, many of us just want to feel part of the whole.

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist, philosopher, and critic said in 1977, “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death.” He added, “Its true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more” (Camera Lucida, 1980). So what better canvas with which to create new art than a cemetery? 

Sunset, Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ

I also appreciate the beauty of a warm motor vehicle on a frigid day. Here’s another image I like, shot out the window of my wife’s Rav 4. Right after I made this image, I couldn’t get the power window to go back up! Panic. Twenty-four degrees outside. Another snowstorm expected tomorrow. After much fumbling around and considerably more panic, I realized there was an interlock on the door – a button that disables the power window function! Found that ten minutes later - released it and we’re back in business! Always never do that. But DO drive an SUV when you’re shooting cemeteries in the snow! You don’t want to get stuck. 

What Does Snow Add to a Photograph of Cemetery Statues?

To paraphrase Reese Witherspoon, who recently said that “Snow days were made for Chococinnos,” snow days were made for shooting cemetery statues. Why? Probably for the same reason she got in trouble for telling her TikTok followers that it was okay to eat snow. It’s novel, its enjoyable, and it probably won’t hurt you (unless you slip and fall in it, that is). 

Snow angel, Calvary Cemetery

Also, as I was surrounded by all this white, it dawned on me that one of the reasons I photograph cemetery statues is because they seem to be monochrome. They’re easy to shoot in black and white, and if you choose to shoot in color, there’s no color-balancing needed. No matter the hue, the observer’s brain corrects for it because you already know the statue is white. You don’t need a “Shirley” card to shoot cemetery statues.

(A Shirley card, by the way, was a photograph of a white woman (Shirley, a Kodak employee) used since the mid-1950s by Kodak photo labs to calibrate skin tones, shadows and light during the printing process.) 

Warholized cemetery angels (Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ)

Supposedly, the Farmer’s Almanac said we are in for a rough winter. So maybe I’ll have more opportunities to shoot snow angels. I mentioned the Almanac prediction to my neighbor a couple months ago, a woman who moved to Philadelphia from Spain. She did not understand what the Farmer’s Almanac was, never having heard of it. I felt like an idiot trying to explain it, because, well, I couldn’t. To quote Pee-wee Herman: “Some things you wouldn’t understand. Some things you couldn’t understand. Some things you ... shouldn’t understand.” Like the image below….

The "Late Nights" image above is a mash up of two images combined as one. Both were made in south Jersey cemeteries during the snow week. Andy Warhol said that art is what you can get away with. Is it disrespectful or sacrilegious tromping through a graveyard making such photographs? I think that any attention we give those who have gone before us is a way of paying respect. Their memory lives on.

Old Pine Street Church, Philadelphia
One of the things Victoria Browning Wyeth has said about her Uncle Andy (who died in 2009) is that when she visits his grave, she pictures him deep underground in his casket smiling up at her. I think I’m going to imagine that from now on, when I’m photographing in cemeteries – those below are smiling up at me - and laughing, probably, when I fall.

(Cue up the R.E.M. song, “Fall On Me” ….. )