Ed Snyder was blogging about visiting cemeteries before the idea even occurred to me. In fact, I wrote to ask his permission to call my blog Cemetery Travel. He was kind enough to say yes, because getting people to visit cemeteries is important to him.
All of Ed’s quirky personality comes through in this fun little book: his sense of humor, his love of life, his meticulous photographer’s eye, his passion for protecting and restoring cemeteries. He’s a storyteller, not a writer, so the text is straightforward and occasionally less polished than it might be, but it’s easy to get caught up in his wonder at the wildlife inhabiting a cemetery or his anger at how a cemetery has been treated. Just as soon as you think you’ve gotten Ed figured out, he’s gently brushing off the invitation of a prostitute outside the cemetery gates or dodging a pack of feral pitbulls in Mount Moriah or stopping by the grave of Nancy Spungen to tell the sad tale of Sid Vicious’s illegal burial there. He sounds like he would be a great person to poke around a cemetery with.
I was amused to see Ed’s experience visiting the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence was so similar to my own. Both of us arrived when the English Cemetery was closed. Both of us met Julia Bolton Holloway, the cemetery’s caretaker, who welcomed us into the graveyard, let us photograph to our hearts’ desire, and showed us her little museum. I was glad to see that nothing had changed between my visit in 1999 and his in 2010.
I’m envious that Ed got to hang out in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill while a zombie movie was being filmed. I wish he’d been able to go out on the boat that scatters ashes in Long Beach, but the interview he did with the boat’s captain is fascinating. I’m glad that he researched the destruction of Philadelphia’s Monument Cemetery, which was demolished to build a parking lot — and essay that is worth the price of the book.
The only reason I took one star off the book is that I wish it had more of Ed’s beautiful black and white photos. I’m going to have to buy a copy of his Stone Angels book, too.
All in all, I’m grateful that Ed pulled together his favorite blog pieces to create this book. I hope it will bring more attention to The Cemetery Traveler and his work bringing Mount Moriah Cemetery back from the edge of dissolution.
For a while now I’ve been wanting to connect up with other cemetery bloggers. If you blog about cemeteries, whether occasionally or solely, would you let me interview you?
To start with, I’ll need your name, the url for your blog, and a way to contact you. You can use the form below. Also, please let me know if you’d like to be featured on Cemetery Travel, or if your responses are just between us.
Here are my questions:
What’s the focus of your blog: geographic, historical era, famous names, iconography or artistry?
How often do you try to post?
Do you have co-bloggers or guest bloggers?
Do you have a favorite cemetery resource — a book, blog, or website — that you turn to often?
If you belong to AGS or another cemetery/history organization, what do you see as the benefits?
If your blog has been ongoing for a while, give me the link to your favorite post(s).
Do you have a favorite cemetery? Describe your favorite cemetery experience.
What’s on your “bucket list” to visit?
Do you accept cemetery books for review?
Can you suggest another cemetery blogger I should contact?
You can reach me through the Contact Me form below. Thank you! I can’t wait to hear from you.
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.
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.
We 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.
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!
Two 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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
Ed 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.”
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.
It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year, the first death of someone really close to me. He’d been cremated, so there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.
This was Nunhead’s annual Open Day, so I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere. I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteriesand Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7. Lucinda Lambton once described them as a jet black necklace running through London. Nunhead was no municipal cemetery, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth. Inside the imposing gates was overgrown Gothic splendour: angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, a roofless chapel, a myriad of fascinating monuments and memorials. I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed to mourn. I was home.
I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly Friends of Nunhead Cemetery publications stall, which accompanied the general cemetery tours. You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to you. Often it was local residents who remembered playing in the cemetery after it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969. Its railings long gone for the war effort, nothing prevented anyone going in and exploring. I wouldn’t have been able to resist it. There were horrible tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewelery — and skeletons as well. Eventually, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, the local council bought it for £1.
Visitors often just said how creepy it was, but what an amazing place inside. One man told me that he was a psychic and could sense all the departed spirits around him. He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere. He seemed completely sincere. I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability.
Sometimes visitors would ask about one particular symbol, as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery. This was what they called ‘the dollar sign’ or the combination of the letters IHS which means Jesus Honimum Salvator. I found out what it was for future questions, which led me onto a fascination with the meaning of cemetery symbols.
As a result, I created the Symbols tour and began my career as a tour guide. Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation. It’s always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group and all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.
But they’re always very keen. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, I kept turning round, thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end. Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations, they didn’t put them in chronological order in the graveyard, so we have to run about a bit.
I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching our largest monument: the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, Turkey. It takes up an entire room of the museum. I was always interested in history at school and my involvement in cemeteries has been a marvellous way to keep involved.
You never know what you might find in a cemetery, despite how familiar you are with it. In 2013, during a long winter, we discovered an unusual anchor-shaped tombstone commemorating a sailor killed in the First World War, although not buried there. In Winter 2014, I was updating my tour notes. Whilst walking along a familiar path, I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before. I will have to do some more research on it.
I always emphasise on the Symbols tour that it’s an introduction to the subject and there are many more to found. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it. In Nunhead, we have one 15-year-old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board, and the mask of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.
I’ve only had one strange experience in the cemetery, or rather, outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a Christmas social at a local community centre. As I passed by the cemetery‘s high wall along deserted Linden Grove, I heard children’s voices from inside the cemetery. As it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing. The houses opposite didn’t have any windows open. I walked on and the voices faded behind me.
The Brockley footpath runs along one of the high walls of the cemetery. Ill-lit, it is pitch black at night. Atmospheric, to say the least. I was making my way along it as a shortcut to an evening walk. Whenever I looked back, I could see that the darkness catching up behind me. I did walk a little faster after that.
I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice. The way in which the dead are treated are often an indication of how the living are treated. Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero. Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited. Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirkyard, but that’s another story. However, Nunhead will always feel like home. No famous people, no royal connections, but instead a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill, as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.
Carole Tyrrell has always had a desire to walk on the darker side of life. A published ghost story writer, her passion for cemeteries and graveyards began after her father died and she felt a need to be where the dead were remembered. She visited cemeteries in New York, Venice, Edinburgh, and all over the UK, but she prefers slightly overgrown Victorian cemeteries where ivy-clad angels watch as she discovers the stories behind every epitaph. She is a cemetery tour guide, specialising in the intriguing subject of symbols, and has her own blog called Shadows Fly Away. You can keep up with her on Facebook.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.) If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.
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