Monthly Archives: May 2011

Snapshots from Cemetery Adventures

Scoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art of the American Sunbelt StatesScoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art of the American Sunbelt States by Lucinda Bunnen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In early 1980, Lucinda Bunnen and Virginia Warren Smith left home on a mission. They wanted to record how survivors used graveyards to speak to the dead and those who visited the dead. As Susan Krane, curator of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, says in the foreword, “Cemeteries are pieces of perpetual (and tantalizing) alienation, points of communion that are forever thwarted by silence.” Bunnen and Smith understand graveyards as the only place where some people can make their deepest feelings public.

The two women traveled 26,000 miles of back roads through Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to photograph one-of-a-kind grave monuments and grave offerings. These range from Styrofoam adorned with a pink plastic telephone and the epitaph “Jesus Called” to wagon wheels with broken spokes to the pyramid-shaped tomb of a camel-driver named Hi Jolly. More than any sterile marble muse, these often-handmade monuments give a true sense of the life that has been lost. The viewer senses the joy of the fisherman holding up his catch in a photo plaque. The sorrow of the bird leaning from its branch to gaze down on its dead mate reaches beyond the stone, beyond the graveyard, beyond the photograph. The flat bronze marker of the 24-year-old Vietnam vet, scratched with a pin to read, “We miss you brother,” tells poignantly about loss that the Canadian Mist bottles left behind can’t begin to fill. The cowboy engraved with his head resting on his saddle explains more than names and dates ever could.

There’s plenty here that’s funny and inexplicable. What’s being communicated by the four-foot-tall picnic basket? A photo of a plate of tomatoes adorns a grave in South Carolina. Somehow, seeing Snoopy dancing, nose in the air, on a headstone just creeps me out. The photographers were weirded out by a Styrofoam Bugs Bunny.

Most of the photos are presented as simple black and white. Many have comments scrawled by the photographers, adding explanations that make the significance clear. Occasionally photos have been hand-colored, but that only serves to highlight the ephemeral nature of most tributes.

Beyond the photographs is the diary of their trip. In February the women had a scary experience when they reached an extremely remote graveyard in Texas and all their equipment, including their compass, magnetized. In the course of their journeys, they camped in a pioneer cemetery in Arizona, got stuck in the mud on the Navajo reservation in Canyon de Chelly, and were threatened by a man with two teeth and a shotgun in Kentucky.

All in all, it was quite an adventure to record these photos of graveyards. I’m glad they chose to bring me along for the ride.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #5.

I had to search the secondhand bookstores to find a copy back in 2001, but you can order your own copy from Amazon: Scoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art of the American Sunbelt States

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Memorial Day at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

There was a nice feature today in the Huffington Post about all the effort that has gone into remembering the Civil War veterans buried at Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery.  Here’s the link.

The cemetery’s website has this to say about Sunday’s event:

“On Sunday, May 29, at 7:00 p.m., Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery will glow with the light from 4,500 candlelit graves of Civil War veterans as the Green-Wood Historic Fund hosts a series of commemorative events to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Hundreds of musicians, uniformed re-enactors, historians, descendants, and members of the community will gather to participate in these unique tributes. Green-Wood is serving as a Civil War Sesquicentennial Headquarters in New York as our nation marks this historic milestone. More than 4,500 Civil War veterans are interred at Green-Wood.”

A full schedule of events is available here.

A commercial for Stories in Stone

In lieu of a book review today, how about a book trailer?

My review of Stories in Stone is here.

Cemetery of the Week #17: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Letty Lent’s gravestone

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
540 North Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, New York 10591
Telephone: (914) 631-0081
info@sleepyhollowcemetery.org
Founded: 1849 as Tarrytown Cemetery
Size: 90 acres
Number of interments: 45,000
Open: Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The village of Sleepy Hollow celebrates its famed Headless Horseman on its police cars and with banners on every lamppost. According to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Horseman haunted the Old Dutch Burying Ground, which dates to the 17th century. That graveyard will be the subject of another Cemetery of the Week column. Today I want to talk about the newer Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which wraps around the Old Dutch Burying Ground.

This weekend, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is offering tours on Sunday, May 29, and on Monday, May 30 (Memorial Day), both at 2 p.m. The tour costs $19.99 per person and advance reservations required. Here’s the link.

For braver souls, there’s also an evening lantern tour on Sunday, May 29, from 8 p.m. until 10. That costs $24.99. Additional tour dates and more information are listed at http://sleepyhollowcemetery.org/news-events/.

They also offer occasional photography workshops in the cemetery.

If you’re interested in doing a short self-guided tour, the cemetery offers free legal-sized maps featuring eight major figures buried there, including Washington Irving, Andrew Carnegie, Walter Chrysler, and Elizabeth Arden. You can get a copy from the cemetery office or from the literature box at the cemetery’s south gate, adjacent to the Old Dutch Church. They also sell a larger full-color map highlighting more than 50 features of the cemetery. Those maps are available for purchase at the Philipsburg Manor museum shop, across the street from the cemetery’s south gate.

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Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is a lush, gorgeous “rural” cemetery in the fashion of London’s Highgate and Brooklyn’s Greenwood. It is a wonderful place to wander on a spring day.

Walking up the hill from the parking lot between the Old Dutch Church and the Pocantico River, you’ll find the author of the Legend responsible for Sleepy Hollow’s renown. Just shy of the crest of the hill, Washington Irving rests inside a simple iron gate emblazoned with his family name. A plain marble tablet, streaked green with lichen, marks his grave. According to a bronze plaque placed in 1972 by remaining members of the Irving family, the “graveplot” is now a national historic landmark. When I visited, the American Legion had placed an American flag on Irving’s grave to pick it out from all the others, which I appreciated, since the plot’s gate was locked. Irving served in the New York Militia in the War of 1812, but never saw action. Bluebells brighten the grass between the graves.

I found the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery incredibly peaceful. The traffic’s quiet hiss on Route 9 counter-pointed the singing birds. Although I couldn’t see them from the churchyard, lilacs perfumed the air.

I saw no indication that the headless horseman writhed restlessly beneath the sod. In fact, life seemed to be in full force, from spiders winding strands across the ancient stones to squirrels chasing each other up and down the stolid elms. Violets flecked the grass, visited by humming bees. Somewhere near the Pocantico River, a woodpecker knocked on a tree.

While Sleepy Hollow Cemetery holds its share of famous or notable historic figures, the historic unknowns captivated me more. Snowy white flowers adorned a bush growing atop the grave of Letty Lent, the thirteen-year-old wife of “Capt.” Isaac Lent. Born on Christmas Eve 1806, the poor girl had already been married by August 1819, when she passed away. I wondered if she’d spoken her vows in the nearby church.

The cemetery has featured in several notable films and videos. Several outdoor scenes from the 1970 movie House of Dark Shadows (spun off from the hit 1960s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows) were filmed at the cemetery’s receiving vault. I’d link to the trailer, but the cheese factor is too high.

In January 1989, the Ramones were buried—alive—in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for their Pet Sematary video. None of the deceased Ramones are buried there now.

Useful links:

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery homepage

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

My review of Permanent New Yorkers

Homemade tribute to New Orleans’ cemeteries

Sacred ~ New Orleans Funerary GroundsSacred ~ New Orleans Funerary Grounds by Elizabeth Huston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t know if it’s fair to review a book published on Lulu, but I paid my $32 (It would have been more, but I had a coupon), so I have an opinion on this one. I bought it for Huston’s lovely infrared photos, which are the highlight of the book. To be honest, though, I prefer the black-and-white ones to the ones in which the colors have been touched up. Perhaps it’s the reproduction, but the colors look tacky to me, detracting from the lovely scenery.

The minimal text could have benefited from both editing and proofreading. The introductory essay makes some excellent points about the fragility of graveyards, but winds in circles and dilutes its own authority. Later, a brief quote from Kahlil Gibran (whose connection to New Orleans isn’t clear to me) manages to contain two typos. In fact, I would have preferred if Huston had ditched the unnecessary epigrams from Shakespeare, the Buddha, and Christina Rossetti. Houston’s notes on the cemeteries and monuments — relegated to a list at the end of the book — are more interesting. One hopes she’ll make some changes in the third edition.

The prologue to the 2005 edition says that Huston is donating her profits from the book, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the Red Cross and Save Our Cemeteries, a New Orleans organization which restores the historic graveyards. That takes some of the sting out of paying for this book.

You can order it from Lulu

…but it’s cheaper on Amazon: Sacred ~ New Orleans Funerary Grounds

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