Last Year in Cemetery Travel

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Hollywood Forever by Loren Rhoads.

This blog suffered this year while I concentrated on the writing and release of my space opera trilogy.  I only managed to put up 26 blog posts (including this one), but I am really proud of some of the other advances Cemetery Travel made.

Death’s Garden:

I started publishing the first essays that will become Death’s Garden Revisited.  Thirteen of them have gone up so far, ranging from California to Paris, Missouri to London, and Oregon to Venezuela. The essays have explored losing family members to becoming inspired to lead tours or actually rescuing a graveyard from the brink of destruction. Stay tuned! I have some great things lined up for 2016.

WishYouWereHere-cover-FINAL-600x900Wish You Were Here:

My book of cemetery travel essays was chosen by two book clubs as their book of the month.

Cypress Lawn Book Club
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California
I fielded questions from the Cypress Lawn Book Club in person. That was a lot of fun.

Morbid Curiosity Book Club
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
BAKA Cafe Gallery Lounge, Toronto, Ontario
This one hasn’t happened yet, but I’m really excited that the club chose my book. You can read along with them — and follow their upcoming selections — at Meetup.com.

Press:

Mental Floss chose Cemetery Travel as one of 9 Niche Blogs to Brighten Your Winter last January.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Irene S. Levine for the Chicago Tribune for an extensive piece she wrote about adding cemeteries to your summer travel. It has the wonderful title “Nothing like a Cemetery to Enliven a Trip.”

I did my first Skype interview with Casey Jarman, author of the upcoming Death: An Oral History, which will be out in August 2016 from Zest Books.

I was interviewed by a freelancer for the Mumbai Free Press Journal about the prevalence of tombstone tourism, but the story hasn’t appeared yet. I’m still hopeful.

Finally, Cemetery Travel was quoted as a source in KQED’s Bay Curious article “Why Are So Many Dead People in Colma? And So Few in San Francisco?” You can read it here.

Guest Blogging:

Emerian Rich invited me to kidnap the Horror Addicts blog for a couple of days, so I wrote about the graves of horror’s forefathers: part one, part two, part three.

The Horror Writers Association hosted its annual Halloween Haunts blog series, so of course I wrote about Graveyard Horrors:  http://horror.org/halloween-haunts-graveyard-horrors-by-loren-rhoads/

Podcasting:

Morbid Curiosity and Cemetery Travel were featured on the amazing, long-running Finch Files podcast: http://www.finchfiles.net/podcasts/2015/10/26/finch-files-halloween-15-episode-28

Posted in Cemetery blog, Good cemetery news, Wish You Were Here | Tagged | 7 Comments

See the #fireworks I created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2015 annual report.

See the fireworks Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World created by blogging on WordPress.com. Check out their 2015 annual report.

Source: See the #fireworks I created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2015 annual report.

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Death’s Garden: Communing with the Dead

by George V. Neville-Neil

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Panorama of Pere Lachaise by Loren Rhoads

In 1998, I quit my job as a manager in a software firm and decided to bounce around Europe, a place I’d lived and worked in, but never really visited. I made my entrance to Europe through London, where I visited the long-standing (since 1886) anarchist bookstore run by Freedom Press.

Contrary to popular belief, anarchists are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. While checking out the small, well-kept shop, I struck up a conversation with Kevin, who was working there. He was kind enough to point me to some works that could further my learning, including Anarchist Portraits by Paul Avrich. It had also been recommended by a friend.

In all of the historical—and many of the theoretical—works were references to past events I had never heard of. The one that most struck a chord with me was the Paris Commune of 1871.

The short version of the story is that in 1870, France was stupid enough to attack their much better armed Prussian neighbors to the east. They got walloped. The French government fled Paris. The people of Paris, who had declared revolution many times before (1789 and 1848 being the best-known examples), declared a commune and barricaded the city. Life was reorganized along anarcho-communist lines: each person contributed what he could and consumed what was necessary. The defense of Paris began.

The Prussians, of course, wanted someone to surrender to them. However, the Commune was not a government, as 19th-century Europeans understood it. The Commune held out until the 21st-28th of May, when the Prussians—acting with the consent and aid of the French government-in-exile—massacred the people of the Commune. They killed 3,000 in the actual battle and over 20,000 in executions and revenge murders. This was commemorated, so my books said, by a marker in Père Lachaise Cemetery. This I had to see.

I arrived in Paris on a cold, dark February afternoon. I had a few hours to kill before my train to Barcelona. I took the Metro directly to the Père Lachaise stop.

Paris in February is not known for its beauty. As I ascended the steps from the Metro, I was greeted by a cold gray sky. The neighborhood around Père Lachaise was then an Arabic immigrant community. Mingled with the usual Parisian smells of car exhaust, urine, dog shit, and fresh bread were less familiar odors of Arabic cooking. If it’s always an experience leaving a Metro stop, this one was doubly so.

The stop nearest the graveyard was in the middle of a large traffic island, so I had to walk through traffic to get to the entrance of the cemetery. This particular entrance was not the main one, which stood 100 yards further along at the westernmost part of the cemetery.

I climbed the small set of stairs and entered the cemetery proper. Immediately I noticed a map, which was good, as I didn’t want to ask, “Where are the Communards buried?” in my limited French. The Communards themselves didn’t seem to be on the map, but I noticed that the cemetery was divided into zones, such as those for scientists, philosophers, and political figures. I figured that the latter was my goal. It was, of course, clear across the cemetery. To compound my problems, the cemetery was only open for another hour. With a train to catch, I didn’t want to be locked in: a very real possibility, since the cemetery had a high fence around it.

The cemetery itself was quite large, especially for a city as physically small as Paris. Père Lachaise is a ½-mile on each side. Each internal cobblestone roadway and dirt path was named or numbered. This organization strikes me as Napoleonic, Napoleon being the inventor of the now-infamous French bureaucracy.

As I walked the cobblestone Avenue Circular, it surprised me that the tombs were all aboveground. Paris, thanks to the River Seine, has a high water table. Many of the tombs and monuments were quite ornate. Some were beautiful. Angels predominated as the type of sculpture. Beautifully sculpted female faces smiled down on the dearly departed. The French not only brought fresh flowers to the dead, but also some glazed ceramic versions of flowers. Those they left on or near the tombs as one would leave flowers. Even more ornate were the white stone plaques, like miniature headstones, set atop the monuments with personal messages to the deceased. These ranged in size from 8×10 to 12×16 inches. They carried messages such as “To our beloved son,” “Our darling mother,” “Our brave soldier,” etc.

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Communard Memorial photographed by George Neville-Neil

It took me about 20 minutes to cross the cemetery. I was prepared for quite a search. I mean, who cares about a bunch of long-dead anarchists? Thankfully, I was wrong. The marker wasn’t just a small thing in the ground. On the east wall of the cemetery itself, the marker was three feet high by five feet wide and said “Paris Communards 1871.” Even more amazing, the area was obviously well tended. There were a large number of bouquets all around it. I was awestruck. Someone—many people, in fact—not only remembered, but cared enough to visit. Even though I was alone, I realized I was with people I might know and like if I met them in person.

I took a few photos and decided I had time to look around more. As I turned around, I saw what I had not noticed on the map. Immediately across the Avenue Circulaire from the Communards were all the Monuments aux Deportées.

These sculptures commemorated all those killed by the Nazis and the Vichy government during World War II. Large, beautifully simple (in the style of modern sculpture) monuments were engraved with the names “Auschwitz,” “Birkenau,” and “Belsen.” Each commemorated hundreds of thousands of people killed.

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Auschwitz Memorial photographed by George Neville-Neil

 

These were not adorned with flowers but instead, in the style of Jewish visitors to cemeteries, had small stones left on them. The monuments were all covered with many stones. I do not know the origin of this custom, being an atheist and only culturally Jewish, but I knew what it meant: “We were here.”

Auschwitz plaque copyThe combination of the memorials proved too much for me. I found tears running down my face. Tears can mean many things; in this case, they were angry tears, wept in frustration at the stupidity of my race, the human race. I sat down and just looked at the stones, then walked back to read them all one more time.

It was getting late, so I found the nearest exit, the Porte de la Reunion. I went to find some paper to write on, some food to eat, and a Metro back to my night train to Barcelona.

*

My second trip to Père Lachaise was a little different. I gave myself plenty of time, arriving at 10:30 a.m. I brought two flowers—yellow roses, which the French call “Rose Texas.” I find that funny. The Metro stop was the same; the cemetery was the same. Thankfully, the weather was a bit nicer, since it was September.

I placed one rose sticking out from behind the plaque for the Communards, a popular place to leave single flowers. The other went on the Auschwitz memorial, not because I know anyone who was killed there—my family had mostly immigrated to the United States before the First World War—but because it’s the name I always think of when I think of concentration camps. I guess that’s branding for you.

Angry tears still overwhelmed me.

George’s coda:

It has been 17 years since I wrote about my visits to Père Lachaise. While I visited Paris several times in the interim, I had not returned to the cemetery.  In August of 2015, I was again visiting a close friend in Paris, and, as usual, he and I spent many hours walking around the city.

Paris is a wonderful city to walk in.  When you tire, there are cafes in which to sit and drink coffee. When you want to go home, you can always hope the Metro.  We walked and talked about our usual topics: our lives, our loves, politics, and the state of the world.  It was early August, but not too hot for a long stroll, but by noon we knew that it was time to sit some where shaded and take lunch.  

After lunch, he asked if I’d like to visit Père Lachaise again, knowing about my previous pilgrimage there and my feelings about the Commune.  He rarely, if ever, visited the cemetery and asked one of the workers where to find the plaque.

We walked one of the long walks along the edge of the cemetery and returned to the political wing of Père Lachaise.  There were still bouquets and flowers at the Commune’s plaque and at the monuments to the dead of previous wars.

What surprised me this time was that there were several new monuments. The first I noticed was for the genocide in Rwanda.  While that event had occurred before my first visit, the monument had not yet been erected.  As I looked around, I saw other monuments to those moments in the news where we occasionally pause and reflect upon our brutality.  I guess I should not have been surprised.  Humanity’s violence, of course, has not abated and so there will always be new monuments in this area, one for each new, known, horrific act of man upon man.  Who knows what I’ll find when I return again?

***

george_neville-neil05George Neville-Neil is a quiet Irish boy trapped in the body of a Jewish anarchist. He’s written about finding his landlord dead, getting tested for AIDS, cruising, and anarchy in Père Lachaise for Morbid Curiosity magazine and appeared in Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues.  This essay initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.

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About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

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Gravestone Symbols- Meaning and Inspiration | Blog | Stoneletters

This is an amazing and beautifully detailed post from Stoneletters.com.  Please follow the link to see the whole post.

Lettering is only a small part of a gravestone design. Almost all of my headstones incorporate a small carving of a symbol or motif. Choosing a symbol is often difficult and may be inspired by something your loved one was passionate about or simply an image from nature. Here are some symbols from my headstones which I hope will inspire you.

Source: Gravestone Symbols- Meaning and Inspiration | Blog | Stoneletters

Posted in Good cemetery news | 1 Comment

Death’s Garden: The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery

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All photos of Mount Moriah Cemetery by Ed Snyder.

by Ed Snyder

Last weekend [editor’s note: actually August 28, 2010], my friend Frank and I explored Mount Moriah Cemetery (established 1855) in Southeast Philadelphia. Although I’d been there innumerable times, it’s been years since I’d explored the central monument area, which is way overgrown with trees, cascading picker vines, and poison ivy. Essentially, it’s a forest, only with tombstones in it!

Frank had heard stories about the cemetery being wild and untamed. He asked me if he should bring a weapon. A weapon? Well, maybe boots and long pants (even in this heat), because of the deer ticks. Truth be told, Mt. Moriah is in a rundown section of town (where all the best cemeteries usually are), and I agreed that we should at least bring baseball bats. However, he was referring to the “family of wild pit bulls” he heard lived in the cemetery! I had my doubts.

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The gatehouse at Mount Moriah Cemetery

I figured if there was a family of pit bulls, they’d be living in some shelter, e.g. the crumbling brownstone gatehouse. So we decided that should be our first stop! Upon arriving, we explored but found only sordid bedding littered with condom wrappers and piles of tombstones. Tombstones? Some from the late 1800s, some from 2006. Why? In looking at Mount Moriah’s website [which was taken down in 2012], it appeared that stones got moved, then disappeared. A genealogist’s nightmare. They also said if you’re planning to visit the cemetery, “It may be worth a trip, but be prepared for confusion, frustration, and disappointment.” Hm. Now that’s enticing.

Snyder_MonitorWe actually found some interesting things in the open and trimmed newer section of the cemetery (on Kingsessing Avenue), like this marble monument to the Monitor, the Civil War submarine that engaged the Merrimac in the famous battle of the ironclads. Quite a find, certainly not disappointing! We also peeked into the chained-up mausoleum nearby and were surprised to see a shattered marble crypt door, which allowed a rare voyeuristic view of the century-old wooden casket inside.

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We decided to drive as far as we could into the main section of the cemetery, where the tops of very elaborate, expensive, and graffitied monuments peek out of the brush. Some of the original weed-covered roads are still used by people to deliver old sofas and tires to their final resting place, so they are somewhat drivable (a jeep would be your vehicle of choice here). The monument you see in the photo at left is in the center of the forest, and commemorates an 1862 Masonic “Grand Tyler.” Its column must be 40 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base, topped with the largest marble compass I’ve ever seen. After hacking our way to the base of it, Frank astutely pointed out that I was standing knee-deep in poison ivy! We made our way out of the thicket and back to the car.

Driving through this jungle, straddling washed-out craters in the road, and avoiding being whipped in the face by tree branches was like being on one of those Disney rides or Universal Studios—you half-expect a velociraptor to poke its head out of the thicket. Which is about when we saw the pit bulls!

Snyder_KeystoneTwo large brown puppies went scampering off down a path near the Keystone monument above. We stopped earlier to photograph it, but hadn’t noticed the dogs. Of course, we were looking up at the time. Gee, let’s get out now and see how protective the mother is! No, really, at that point, I wished the convertible top of my car went up a bit faster. We decided to bravely drive away.

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At one point on a side road — a path, really — we dead-ended at a pile of lumber and other rubbish. (Here’s my car at that point.) As I backed the car out for about ten minutes to get to a different side road so we could turn around without getting lost, it became apparent to me that Saabs are just not good off-road vehicles. Well, the cemetery’s website did say to be prepared for confusion and frustration….

With a sigh of relief, we found our way out of the woods into a clearing, and then back to familiar territory: the pile of unused concrete crypts near the gatehouse. We were certainly not disappointed that the mama pit bull decided to keep a low profile that day.

Is Mount Moriah a sad commentary on our city or a wondrous attraction for the urban explorer of abandoned places? I can’t be judgmental as to the former and am sorry that the cemetery has been allowed to devolve to this sad state. However, it allows one to contemplate the detritus of human endeavor. We erect monuments to the deceased (ourselves) for a purpose, but attempts to preserve memories can be undermined. Vandals, time, and weather erode efforts at immortality. The corruption of the cemetery seems to affirm, rather than deny, the decay down below. Seeing it in this condition, you feel you are witnessing the final disappearance of the spirits of the interred.

Epilogue
I wrote the above account in 2010, never guessing that years later I would find myself on the Board of Directors of a Friends group making every attempt to save this massive historic cemetery. How it got to the condition I described in 2010 seems to have been a result of gross mismanagement and negligence—perhaps 100 years of this. When Harry Houdini visited the grave of his idol Robert Heller here in 1910, he was dismayed at the condition of the cemetery. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If people join together for a common goal, miracles sometimes happen. Respect for the dead is a powerful thing.

I published a few posts like the one above on my Cemetery Traveler blog between 2010 and 2012 and got quite a few people riled up. Local residents, descendants of those interred, the City of Philadelphia, and numerous other concerned citizens nationwide were appalled and irate.

The situation at the cemetery got to the point where the City of Philadelphia felt obligated to step in and haul away the abandoned cars, round up the feral dogs, and barricade the entrances. A grassroots Friends group formed: The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI). After a few run-ins with them, they became convinced, as did I, that I wanted to help save the cemetery. At approximately 300 acres and over 80,000 graves, Mount Moriah is possibly the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania. It likely was the largest abandoned cemetery  in the U.S. in 2010.

It is no longer abandoned. The FOMMCI has worked tirelessly since 2012, engaging thousands of volunteers to clean up and take back from nature this overgrown green space in urban Philadelphia. If not for the efforts of so many concerned with showing respect for our dead, Mount Moriah would have been left to die on the vine — or by the vine, more literally.

Such a dramatic display of volunteerism is hardly revolutionary (although Betsy Ross is in fact buried here); however, the sustained effort certainly is. The recently formed Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation was legally given control of the property in 2014.

Snyder_Friends shirtIn the words of Mount Moriah resident John Whitehead’s (1948-2004) 1979 hit song, there “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” I continue to photograph and document Mount Moriah’s restoration progress on my Cemetery Traveler blog. For more information and a detailed history of the cemetery, please visit the FOMMCI website and Facebook group.

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The first part of the this essay was published as “Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery”on Ed’s Cemetery Traveler blog. I invited him to update it, since I’m excited by all the work he’s inspired at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

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Snyder portrait squareEd Snyder’s photography and writing converge to help society come to terms with death and dying. These creative processes help him deal with the world, with personal issues, and even to judge himself. (In retrospect, psychiatry would’ve been cheaper.) Spending time in cemeteries has helped him to prepare himself for the loss of loved ones. Seeing others find meaning in his work is an unexpected gift. Ed says, “What strikes me about the cemeteries of the Victorian era is the tremendous emphasis on art in people’s remembrance of the dead. It is almost as if their respect was more profound.”

Please check out Ed’s books Stone Angels and Digital Photography for the Impatient and his lovely photography. You can follow his cemetery explorations at the Cemetery Traveler on blogspot.

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About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited, Good cemetery news | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments