Tag Archives: angels

Weekly Photo Challenge: Sunset

The Crocker Angel earlier in the day

I don’t have a photo from the night I watched sunset in the graveyard, but I can tell you a ghost story about it…

Sunset was a line of blood carved into the sky as we entered the graveyard. There were seven of us: the cemetery docent, the bookseller, the magician, the psychic, the woman who set up the computer system in the University cadaver lab, “Silent Bob,” and me. Almost everyone was armed with a digital recorder and a camera.

The docent led us first toward the potter’s field section of the graveyard. It contained not only indigents, but also people who died without family to claim their bodies. The cemetery had some records of the dead, mostly details of where the bodies — or parts of bodies — were found

We hadn’t gone far onto the empty lawn when we discovered a tablet gravestone set into the grass. “I’ve been a docent here 11 years,” Dennis said, “and I had no idea this was here!” The man was a victim of a shipwreck on a Confederate (CSS) ship.

“He’s just glad we found him,” the psychic said.

I kept seeing lights whiz past my left eye. I wasn’t sure if they were reflections of stray flashlight beams off the weird lenses of my new glasses. “Take a picture up between those trees, would you?” I asked the bookseller.

“Oh, look!” She held the window of her digital camera out toward me. A bright white ball floated in the middle of the screen. Behind it loomed the huge black redwood trees.

I buttoned up my flannel shirt. The docent wore a Hawaiian shirt. The bookseller and Silent Bob were in shirtsleeves. Goosebumps shivered up my legs and it felt like someone laid a cold wet cloth across the back of my neck. I turned to my left to find another fallen gravestone surrounded by the sod.

When I pointed it out, the psychic said, “She fell or was pushed or was persuaded to throw herself down the stairs. She was a servant girl who got pregnant.”

“Did she break her neck?” I asked, rubbing the back of mine to warm it.

“I didn’t know you were psychic,” the bookseller said to me.

“I’m not,” I said, “but she isn’t the first ghost I’ve been aware of.” I moved up the hill until the group was between me and the fallen headstone. Warmth rushed over me as if I’d moved next to a radiator. It felt so good I shivered.

There were other instances, less dramatic than the first. I heard music several times, but that might have been a trick of the air (there wasn’t any wind). I saw red eyes glow in the camera flashes, but smelled skunk and saw several feral cats skulking between the gravestones. I heard a sneeze, but later we saw evidence that at least one homeless man was overnighting. I know that one of the “orb” photos was caused by the flash striking a moth’s wings because I was looking in the right direction when the camera went off.

The eeriest part of the tour was trying to locate the grave of the Black Dahlia. Apparently, she’d had family in Berkeley who gave her their plot rather than see what was left of her body consigned to the potter’s field. I had the strongest urge to sprawl atop the paved path as a safe distance while the others scoured the steep hill for her pink granite stone. I wanted to feel the warmth seeping up from the ground and stare up at the stars. I did not want to step, by accident, on the grave of the woman who had been so violated.

When the others found her, I joined them to stand before her stone. The only epitaph was “daughter.” “Such a pretty girl,” I thought again and again. I refused to imagine the police photographs.

When we moved away from her grave, I realized that my whole body ached. I’d been sick with a cold for several days and coping with my three-year-old’s jet lag as she re-acclimated to West Coast time, but I felt wrung out, insulated, and completely cut off from the outside world. I embraced the feeling and concentrated on the beauty of the moonlit graveyard, the scents of the trees, and the stars sparkling overhead. I only wanted to be where I was, alone in a group of strangers in a familiar place. I didn’t want to know anything more about death.

Cemetery of the Week #35: Mountain View Cemetery

Weekly Photo Challenge: Up

Stained glass window at the San Francisco Columbarium

Spectacular stained glass windows adorn the Neptune Society’s San Francisco Columbarium.  I particularly like this one, since it combines regular leaded glass, painting on glass, and glass layered to make special lighting effects.

The guardian angel (the larger figure with the wings) is helping a soul ascend toward the streaming light of Heaven.  The quote at the bottom of the window says, “With thee is the fountain of life. In thy light shall we see light,” which comes from Psalm 36:9 in the King James Bible.

I’m not sure what the domed building in the background is:  clearly not the heavenly citadel, since it’s shadowy.  It might be some landmark of pre-1906 San Francisco, but I don’t recognize it.  I do like the way the glass in the upper right quadrant glows like moonlight on the sea.

Cemetery of the Week #30: the Neptune Society Columbarium

Cemetery of the Week #28: Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery

Death and the Sculptor

Forest Hills Cemetery
95 Forest Hills Avenue Boston, Massachusetts 02130
Telephone: (617) 524-0128
Established: 1848
Size: 250 acres
Number of interments: 99,000, as of 1998. No later figures are readily available. (See the final link below.)
Open: The cemetery grounds are open every day, including Sundays and holidays, from dawn to dusk.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Boston’s elite came out from the city to build summer homes and country estates beside Jamaica Pond. It made sense that they would want their own graveyard, too. New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide acknowledges that Forest Hills is lesser known, probably from surviving in the shadow of Mount Auburn, but it is “unquestionably worth a visit.” I’d have to agree.

Founded in 1848, 17 years after Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, Forest Hills Cemetery featured lovely artwork from the start. Its most famous sculpture stands right inside its gate. Death and the Sculptor by Daniel Chester French may be the most magnificent work of art I’ve ever seen in a graveyard. The large bronze combines relief work and statuary. Death is a stern-faced matron dressed in Grecian robes and a large-cowled cloak. She reminds me very much of Walter Crane’s Pre-Raphaelite “Winter” in A Masque of the Four Seasons. In French’s sculpture, Death has wings, but doesn’t carry a scythe or hourglass. She merely reaches her shapely arm out to touch the sculptor’s chisel. He’s in the middle of carving a relief of the sphinx and the pyramids, a reference to Martin Milmore, for whom this monument was made. (Milmore sculpted the Sphinx at Mount Auburn.) In French’s memorial to his friend, the sculptor twists to look over his shoulder, but his gaze is not directed at Death but beyond her. Into eternity, perhaps?

Across a sun-struck meadow stands a fabulous bronze angel. Her hair is rolled back from her no-nonsense face, bound by a circlet across her brow. Her powerful wings raise behind her. Garden of Memories identifies her as another of David Chester French’s works, his Angel of Peace.

French sculpted the monumental figure seated inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He also did the Minute Man who stands at North Bridge, Concord. Garden of Memories reports that he has six sculptures at Forest Hills.

Lesser known artists beautified the cemetery as well. I gravitated toward the graces: drapery clad women sculpted as permanent mourners. One of my favorites has her flowing hair wound in a partial bun, as if she’d been too distraught to fix it properly. She leans against a plinth topped by an urn, which she clasped lovingly in her arms. A number of stone women stand on tombs, a single hand pressed to their chests. One, whose direct gaze was seemingly unscarred by sorrow, hadn’t noticed the strap of her dress slipping off her shoulder. Elsewhere, Faith turned blind eyes upward as she cupped an anchor chain in her hands. Her gown, caressing every curve, slid dangerously low on both shoulders. The same was true of the bare-shouldered maiden on the Clapp tomb, who placed a floral wreath before a table reading “Life More Abundant.” Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction to David Robinson’s Saving Graces, notes that these mourning statues behave “as if grief were a form of erotic surrender.”

A more demurely dressed angel with short cherubic wings held a round tablet, almost like a platter, which read, “The spirit shall return to Him Who made it.” I liked the sense of God as artist.

Forest Hills Cemetery serves as the final resting place of e. e. cummings, Anne Sexton, Eugene O’Neill, Revolutionary War generals, suffragette doctors, as well as the Red Scare martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti. Susan Wilson’s Garden of Memories: A Guide to Historic Forest Hills provides six possible walking tours, covering art, history, literature, and world events. The book is for sale at the cemetery office.

The cemetery is also a lovely arboretum. The native trees tend toward pines and evergreens. In the spring, flowering cherries and apples contrast to the bare dark gray shoulders of rock poking from beneath the topsoil. When I visited, the cemetery had drifts of forsythia in bloom, masses of sunny yellow flowers lining ridges. At one point, I found myself standing beneath an incense cedar: camera forgotten, simply inhaling.

Each year, Forest Hills hosts an exhibition of contemporary sculpture. When I visited, a towering blue wishbone with a gold capstone rose to the left of the main meadow: Linda Foss Nichols’ Aeolian Conduit. I wished for enough wind to hear if the giant harp truly did sing. In its shape and coloring, the wishbone implied the raising of hearts or lifting of hopes. It was a beautiful piece, my favorite of the new works we saw.

In the past, the cemetery has offered walking tours, poetry readings, and plays based on the lives of the people buried there. Their online calendar has not been updated, so I don’t know if they have anything upcoming.

Useful links:

The cemetery’s website

A downloadable map of Forest Hills

Additional resources

The Forest Hills Educational Trust blog

Forest Hills history and landscape

ETA: Here’s a great new post about the statues and landscape at Forest Hills.

Other posts on Cemetery Travel about Forest Hills:

Forest Hills Cemetery’s grand entrance

A guidebook to Forest Hills

Cemetery of the Week #16: Metairie Cemetery

Brunswig tomb in Metairie Cemetery

Metairie Cemetery
5100 Pontchartrain Blvd.
New Orleans, Louisiana 70124
Telephone: (504) 486-6331
Founded: 1872
Size: 150 acres
Number of interments: More than 4500, according to Findagrave.
Open: 7:30 am to 5:30 pm daily

New Orleans’s Metairie Cemetery opened in 1872 on the grounds of the old Metairie Race Course. Popular legend holds that the old Creole aristocracy had barred the graveyard’s owner, Charles T. Howard, because he was a crass American who’d made his fortune in the corrupt Louisiana State Lottery Company. At his first opportunity, Howard bought the land, closed the track, and charged the Creoles money to be buried there. New Orleanians love a good story. Even though this one is not historically accurate, the oval shape of the track still dominates the modern cemetery. Exquisite mausoleums line its concentric lanes.

Old postcards show the grand entrance to the cemetery as an ivy-swathed archway. Unfortunately, the archway was demolished when Louisiana chopped the Pontchartrain Expressway through the Metairie District. The former grand entrance now serves as the back exit.

Right near the highway rises the 30-foot-high tumulus of the Louisiana Division of the Army of Tennessee. The tumulus, a man-made hill, is perhaps the most ancient form of grave monument. This burial mound belonged to a “Benevolent Society” that provided burial space to veterans of the Civil War. Inside the grass-blanketed tumulus lay 48 crypts full of old soldiers, including Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who ordered the first shot fired on Fort Sumter and later commanded the Army of Tennessee. When the last Civil War veteran was buried in 1929, the tomb finally knew peace.

The most famous person ever buried in Metairie Cemetery was Jefferson Davis, sole president of the Confederate States of America. He died in New Orleans in 1889 and was laid — temporarily — to rest beneath the 38-foot granite column marking the tomb of the Army of Northern Virginia. Davis’s funeral was the largest New Orleans has yet seen. Even so, Louisiana could not hold him. Several years after his death, Davis’s widow Varina allowed his remains to be removed to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The Army of Northern Virginia’s column in Metairie remains dedicated to Davis’s memory, since the bronze letters that recorded his name and dates discolored the marble before they were pried off.

My favorite monument in Metairie Cemetery — as hard as it is to choose a single favorite — belonged to the Egan family. They had it designed to look like a ruin. Its Gothic marble archway yawns open to the sky, just like the chapel that inspired it on the Egan property in Ireland. New marble blocks were distressed to appear cracked and broken. Even the family’s nameplate looked as if it had been dropped. I love the intentional devastation.

Another candidate for my favorite was the jaw-dropping Brunswig tomb. The granite pyramid rises taller than it is wide, stabbing its point into the November sky. The German family name beneath the Egyptian solar disk amused me. A maiden in Greek drapery and elaborate curls raises her hand to knock on the tomb’s door. Behind her stands a tall Roman urn with ornate handles and a marble eternal flame frozen in its mouth. Across the entryway crouches a sphinx whose broad shoulders dwarf her impassive face. Going Out in Style, which discusses the “architecture of eternity,” attributes the inspiration for the tomb to one that stands in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan, Italy. I like the juxtaposition of the German drug magnate retiring into eternity with a Greek maiden inside an Egyptian Revival tomb decorated with a Roman urn beneath the humid Louisiana sky.

An astounding grave, inspired by one in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, remembers Eugene Lacosst, a successful Bourbon Street hairdresser who made his fortune in the stock market. His rococo sarcophagus stands inside a blinding marble archway with a half-dome like a band shell. Lacosst is buried alongside his mother.

Behind that stands a row of mausoleums with angels surmounting their roofs. I particularly love the pair of marble angels atop the Aldige monument. Mrs. Jules Aldige, her daughter, and granddaughter drowned in 1898 when the steamship Bourgoyne sank. Atop their cenotaph, two angels stood inside the prow of a boat. One angel clasps her arms around her companion, either clinging to her or holding her back. The other angel has thrown her arm over her head in distress as she lifts off. Of all the angels I’ve ever photographed, these were the most dramatic.

A final note: since it occupies low ground close to Lake Pontchartrain, the Metairie District was completely inundated after Hurricane Katrina. The photographs of mausoleums barely cresting the water broke my heart. I haven’t had the opportunity to return to New Orleans since then, so I can’t report how well everything has been restored. The disaster just underlines the fragility of these old cemeteries, full of one-of-a-kind artwork.

Useful Links:

Lonely Planet rates Metairie Cemetery #1 of all the things to do in New Orleans. Map to the cemetery

Origins of Metairie Cemetery

Civil War history in Metairie Cemetery

Flooding in Metairie Cemetery after Hurricane Katrina

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Metairie Cemetery:

Metairie Cemetery: An Historic Memoir 

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity

Elysium: A Gathering of Souls

New Orleans Architecture vol. 3: the Cemeteries

Consecrated Ground: Funerary Art of New Orleans


Weekly Photo Challenge: Red

Ann Arbor's Forest Hill Cemetery

Founded in 1857, Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery is the final resting place of Michigan pioneers, politicians, UM professors, and football coaches Fielding H. Yost and Bo Schembechler.  The lovely old garden-style cemetery is stuffed full of fascinating one-of-a-kind sculpture and heavily shaded by trees that are older than the city itself.

I discovered the cemetery while I was a student in Ann Arbor.  We used to walk through it on our way sneaking into the adjacent Arboretum at night.  I didn’t know then that the weeping woman statue glows in the dark.

I spent a wonderful summer day in Forest Hill, wandering with my camera.  I love the beautiful plantings on the grave above, especially the crimson geraniums amidst the hostas.   Despite the August heat, everything seemed to be flourishing in the shade here.  It seemed so very peaceful.

Forest Hill links:

The official website

The Ann Arbor wiki

The legend of the weeping woman from Grave Addiction

Video tour of the cemetery

A feature about the retirement of the cemetery’s longtime guide