Confessions Of A Gravestone Photographer

[At work in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Chateaugay, NY]

I would strongly object to anyone who would dare call me morbid.  It is not morbid, in any sense, to appreciate and love old (and new) cemeteries.  It is not morbid to stand over a grave of a total stranger and contemplate his or her life.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York.  Overlooking the village below was Evergreen Cemetery.  I could never tell you the number of times I’ve wandered among the monuments of those who walked the very streets I walked.  Every time I go back to my hometown, Owego, I spend at least an hour strolling the beautiful landscaped, 19th century burial ground.

When I moved to the North Country in 2011, to the Adirondack Mountains where I am closer to Montreal than to any other major urban area, I began to discover the charm of the small graveyards of this part of the state.  Some are hidden and silent among the pine trees, some are six feet from a corn field and some are on breezy hilltops, with faded red barns in the background.

Then, sometime in 2012, I believe, I came across a website called Find-A-Grave.com.  I checked it out and found out that they were seeking volunteers to photograph headstones for people, upon request.  These were folks that lived in Montana or Texas who were doing genealogical research or simply wanted to see the grave of uncle Robert or aunt Hazel.  These people would place a request to Find-A-Grave and I, as a volunteer photographer, would get the message via email.  I then would find the cemetery, locate the grave…take a photo…upload it to the website and move on.  My reward?  Hundreds of thank you emails from the people who made the requests.

“Thank you for taking the time to photograph the headstone of my aunt Martha.  I knew I would never see her final resting place because I live so far away and I’m getting too old to travel”.  This was typical of the emails I would receive.

Doing this, I have learned a great deal about local history and the stories of the families who were so much a part of this area.

  • I’ve stood over the grave of a young girl who was murdered in the 1920’s.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of suicides.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of old farmers who had four wives…all buried nearby.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of two young girls who froze to death in a blizzard.
  • I’ve stood over the grave of a thirty-something woman who came home from jogging along a road several hundred yards away from where I’m writing this, stepped into the shower, and dropped to her knees and died of a massive heart attack.

I did this alone for a few years.  My wife probably thought I was just trying to get out of the house, until I invited her along on one of my “graving” afternoons.  She became my best partner in this ‘hobby’.  She had the sense to look for women’s graves through the name of the husband.  My number of photos taken began to soar.  At this writing, on a mild Indian Summer afternoon in September of 2017, I have contributed over 1,000 photo requests.

It’s been said by some philosopher that one never dies as long as someone speaks your name, remembers you or thinks about you and your life.

I hope some volunteer photographer will stand over my grave and speak my name…then I know I never truly died.

                                                 [Log book and print-out of requests]         [My ‘graving’ kit]

[An extra note: Below is a link to Find-a-Grave.  It’s all free.  You can open an account and make requests for photographs. And remember, it doesn’t cost anything.]

https://www.findagrave.com/

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The Road Of Tears And Spirits

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[Looking north from Route 80 toward Lake “O”]

The theme of this post is darker than I would like, given that it’s less than three weeks until the joyful time of Christmas.  But, I didn’t have a choice.  We just crossed on Route 80 this past weekend when we visited friends in Jupiter, FL.  The memories are still fresh.  And, given the fact that I still have two other non-holiday posts to publish (one is a brief sketch of Edgar “Bloody” Watson–certainly not something to read while trimming the tree), I have to write what I have time to write about.  If that makes any sense.  Besides, we are rapidly approaching the January 1 date when we will pull out of the Siesta Bay Resort, leave Florida behind us and head north and west for new adventures.  I know something interesting and necessary is awaiting me in the Mojave Desert.  You’ll just have to keep up with these posts while the holidays come and go.  Put me on your gift list–the one to yourself.  Okay?  So read on, it really isn’t that sad.  Oh, one more thing: My next post will be my 300th blog!!!  Please share it.  Repost it.  Enjoy it.

There is a road between Fort Myers, on the Gulf of Mexico and Palm Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean.  On a map, it is Route 80.  Around Belle Glade, it splits, Route 80 swings slightly north and Route 27 dips to the south.  For miles, this road skirts an impressive levee.  This is the Hoover Dike.  To the north of this levee lies a very large body of fresh water.  Lake Okeechobee.  Lake “O”, provides the water for the Big Cypress National Refuge and, further to the south, the Everglades.

On more than one occasion, Lake “O” has broken through its containment wall.  Before Herbert Hoover had the present levee built, it was fairly common for the land south of the lake to suffer major destruction from hurricanes–or just heavy rains.  Thousands of farmers were drowned since the area became populated by whites late in the 19th century.  The Seminoles had been driven south into the ‘glades after years of futile wars were fought to force them to move westward.

Today, it is the center of the sugar empire of central Florida.  Today, I drove through Clewiston and Belle Glade.  I felt the darkness of the soil begin to permeate my soul.  I stood in a small cemetery outside of Belle Glade.  There were dozens of graves of those who were drowned in one of the recent storms and floods.

The graves of the children were numerous.

The sky was darkening.  I stood by the roadside and looked north toward the lake.  I turned and looked south toward Big Cypress.  It was a landscape of the most basic of elements–sky and dark earth.  I could not feel the flow of the groundwater as it moved, ever so slowly southward, but I knew it was there.  I thought about the farm workers, whose fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, were buried in such cemeteries as Foreverglades or Ridgelawn.  I wondered how many graves were destroyed by the floods and lost–forever.  Looking north and then south, there was not the slightest of elevations to break the flat horizon.  I thought again of the farmers and how unbearably hot it must get in midsummer–out there where no tree provided shade, and only the black earth, the black mucky earth clung to your boots and darkened your sweaty forehead.  The ants.  The snakes.  The mosquitoes.  Nature is your enemy out there.  If a cloud passed between your shoulders and the fire of the sun, it would give you cause to kneel and pray your Thank-You God prayer.

The spirits of this forsaken land must walk the canals, the small dikes–and Route 80.

At the funerals in the past years, sweat must surely have mixed with tears.  If the drop ran down your cheek to your lips, both would be salty.

I got back into my air-conditioned car and drove on.  I was depressed, oppressed and distressed by this forbidding soil and linear horizon.  I’ve driven through Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Saskatchewan.  Nothing had prepared me for the featureless terrain of central Florida.

For all the smiles I encountered at the cafes and diners, I knew they had some kind of links with the sorrow of too much water, and too much sun–and too much black soil.

SouthOfLakeOLookingSouth

[Looking south from Route 80 toward Big Cypress]

 

The Green Man: Watcher Of The Lychgate

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I am a conflicting image.  Sometimes I appear in churches, carved into the bosses of an archway.  At other times, I am associated with pagan symbols of nature worship.  I am a man and I am a tree…one part of me morphs into another.  I am called The Green Man by those who study the esoteric arts and druidic symbolism.

In this story, I am part of the Yew tree.  But, I can be seen in any great mass of foliage.  You just have to know where to look for me.  And, you have to know how to look for me.  Just look deep into the forest or the hedges or the copses of trees…and you may be lucky enough to find me.  My history is older than the oldest oak.  My story begins at the time in history when stories themselves began.  To ward off the fear of the darkness, the common folk would gather around campfires or hearth fires and tell stories of ghosts, lost maidens, valiant knights, beautiful queens and dead kings.

They would tell tales of the Little Folk in Ireland or the fearsome monsters of mountain lakes like Grendel in Beowulf.  Uncountable witches, demons and heroes were the threads that held these narratives together.

I am just one of them.

I live in this deadly tree because nearly every part of it is toxic to humans, except the berry.  The beautiful bright red berry.

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Why am I dwelling in this strange tree of uncountable cemeteries?

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My job is to look down at the Lychgate at the entrance to the churchyard and keep account of the joys and sorrows that enter and leave the church.

LitchGate

The Lychgate is traditionally the place where the shrouded corpse is kept before the priest can emerge from the church and begin the service of burial.  In later years, I protected the pall-bearers from the elements.  It seems it always rains on the days of burial.

Maybe not.

The pall bearers would pull their scarves snug around their necks and glance down at the coffin of their friend, their parent, spouse, child or grandparent.  They would hold firm to the brass handles.

Inside, the priest secures his heavy cloak and takes a final nip from his flask to warm his tongue and throat.

They all would meet at the Lychgate to begin the prayers.  And, who doesn’t need the prayers?  After a few minutes, all would walk slowly to the newly dug grave, lower the corpse and say a final prayer.  The priest would go back inside to prepare his sermon for Sunday morning.  The pall bearers would head to the nearest pub and toast the departed.

The surviving families would go home to mourn and feel the deep emptiness that suddenly is a part of the house.

In time, they will begin to live full lives again–until their turn comes to pass through the Lychgate.

Sometimes, on a bright joyful day of a wedding, the new couple would leave the church door and reach the Lychgate.  There would be a rope tied across the opening.  The children standing and giggling nearby would have to be paid a few pence to have the rope untied.

I watch over these things.  You will never see me in the Yew tree, but I’m there.

Someday, I will find the living people who passed through my Lychgate.  I will come to them in their dreams and cause them to remember the day they spent near the gate.

Some will cry real tears of real sorrow.  Some will cry real tears of joy.

All these things happen at the Lychgate.  I know.  I’ve seen it all from my vantage point…hidden in the green foliage of the earth.

Take care what you say and do in the protection of the shady forest, for the trees have eyes and ears.

YewTree

Waiting For All Hallow’s Eve X: “Those Wild and Crazy Victorians”

Just when I thought I knew nearly everything about the Victorians, something falls into the lap of my experience that amazes and astonishes even my jaded mind.  The great Age of Victoria (who ruled England from 1840 to 1900) gave us such interesting societal practices that continue to delight us…and frighten us.  The era gave us Jack the Ripper and Downton Abbey.  I mean, what more do we really need to know about life back then?  Foggy London and high-born people of the Manor House…that’s about it.

As far as the so-called “Victorian” attitude toward sexual mores, well, ahem, don’t we all know what really happened?  Somebody was making babies, somewhere in England in the late 19th century.  After all, they needed a fresh crop of young men and women to send into the fields of Flanders to be blown into small bits by the Kaiser’s army.  (It’s interesting to note that most of the ruling families that fought against each other in WWI, were related!).

But I digress.

The Victorians did have a rather fascinating view of death.  The incidents of premature burial (before ‘clinical death’ was clearly defined) was common enough that many people were terrified of being buried alive.  I don’t think I’d care much for the idea, myself.  Something like that happening can ruin your whole day.  A number of wealthy oldsters, when planning their own funerals and tombs, would have a bell system installed.  That way, if they woke up in a casket, all they had to do was pull a string and a bell would ring in the caretakers office. Imagine the poor cemetery worker, sitting by a tiny fire in a little cottage inside the walls of the graveyard, hearing the bell go off.  (Now, there’s a blog!!!).

It was also the fashion among some families to pose the deceased in such a way to deny the finality of death.

Here is a photo that I took from somewhere on the Internet…probably Pinterest.  This image is not a fake.

Look closely at the picture.  The women are sisters.

The blonde woman is dead.

What do you think?  Comments anyone?

TheDeadBlondeGirl

 

My Right Chest, My Ringtone and a Cemetery

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Just this afternoon, I found myself in a cemetery.  For those who are keen on details, it was Saint Alphonsus Cemetery in Tupper Lake, NY.  The skies were blue with patchy cumulus clouds; a departure from the thunderstorms we’ve been experiencing.  I love to stroll in cemeteries.  Usually, they are quiet places excellent for the necessary contemplation of Life and Death issues that we all should ponder every so often.  I had my favorite little notebook, a Moleskin, in my left shirt pocket.  I keep this book handy to copy interesting epitaphs, if I should happen upon one.  In my right shirt pocket was my iPhone (red protective case for those of you who are keen on details).  I had on an Amazon.com baseball cap.  I had already sprayed myself with my homemade bug repellant (see recipe below).  The gnats seemed to love the repellant.  I guess it’s an approach/avoidance kind of thing with those little bugs.

The tune “In The Mood” was running through my brain.  That’s because we had gone to the Lake Placid Center for the Arts last night to see and hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  I love big band music and the thoughts I was having last evening could make for a really cool blog.  Hmmm?  And, the female vocalist? Forget about it.  She came on stage like a sweet blend of Mae West, Jessica Rabbit and Betty Grable.  I was so intent on listening to her lovely voice and looking at her cherry-red lipstick, that I failed to notice the slit up her ankle-length gown.  They had to tell me about it later.

During the concert, I had turned off the ringer of my iPhone.  It was set on vibrate.

My wife had come along for the ride to Tupper Lake because she wanted to get some fresh air.  I mean we have plenty of air, fresh and otherwise at our house at Rainbow Lake, but she just wanted to go on a drive.  She took a short walk toward the Civil War section and then settled in the car to to escape the gnats.

So, there I was walking over a slight rise in the cemetery.  The lawn was freshly mowed and the scent of newly cut grass filled my olfactory system.  When I passed the headstone for Florence Rounds, my right chest began to flutter.  That’s it, I was sure I was having the “Big One” as Redd Foxx used to say.  For a moment, I thought that a cemetery is the perfect place to have the old ticker stop ticking.  After all, you’re right where you should be.  I asked God for the forgiveness for my few sins and put my hand to my right chest.  Then I remembered that my heart was actually on the left part of my chest.  So this wasn’t the Big One.  This was the vibrating iPhone.  It was Mariam calling me to think about getting home.  I said okay…just a few more stones to look at in an effort to find a collectible epitaph.  I switched my phone back to ringer mode and put it back in my right shirt pocket.

Quickly, I was lost in my reverie again.  I passed Anna Huntington and then Daisy Peets. Both ladies were about my age when they were called home, so to speak.

I was in a rather isolated part of the cemetery.  My cell phone went off again.  This time my ringtone kicked on.

I had downloaded Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” from iTunes about a year ago.  So, here I was standing in a lonely part of a cemetery and I’m hearing: “How does it feel?  How does it feel?”

My vivid imagination, for the briefest moment, had me feeling that it was the question sung by all those deceased people, some forgotten, some remembered, to me.  They wanted to know how it felt to be the one who was alive.  Maybe they forgot the sun and the rain, the clouds and the snow, the laughter and the tears, the joy and the sorrow of being alive.

“It feels pretty good,” I said, as I headed back to my car.

I was in the mood.

 

[Make Your Own Bug Dope]  This was put out by a friend of mine on Facebook several years ago.  I forgot who posted it, but thanks!

Get a 16 oz Spray Bottle

Mix: 15 Drops of Lavender Oil with 3-4 Tbsp Vanilla Extract and 1/4 cup of Lemon Juice.  Shake well.  Spray. Enjoy.

A Missing Image But Still A Memory

 

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The photographic frame, measuring 3″x5″ sat on the flat surface of the headstone.

It’s a small quiet Catholic cemetery on the edges of the village of Saranac Lake, New York.  The winter snow was gone but no grass or Spring flowers had the courage, or time, to begin their life again.  Cemeteries are full of living, growing entities.  Flowers bloom.  Green turf covers the ground.  In this cemetery, fallen branches from tall pines, still green, sit on the ground.  There are hundreds of pine cones scattered about.

Amid all this growth and life, there are the mute stones that mark the resting places of people who walked the very streets and paths that I stroll.  Each stone has a name or names of those who lay below.  The dates carved into the stones tell the passer-by how long this man, that woman or this child had spent among the living.

Dead flowers, plastic flowers and potted shrubs adorn the stones.  Sometimes at night solar-powered votive lights glow with a spooky aura in the darkness.  Some enterprising funeral-industry worker thought it would be a good idea ($) to get the grieving family to pay for the small lights.  To some driving by after dark, one can perhaps make out Uncle Tony’s grave by the green light by the tree…just there to the left.  To others, like me, it’s a ghostly reminder of the loneliness graveyards can be when the sun sets.

Some stones have elaborate laser etched photo quality images of the couple, a daughter, a son, a grandparent, a set of golf clubs, a guitar, a pickup truck, a semi, a forest scene or the path leading into a setting sun.

This particular stone had a photo mounted in a frame.  The frame was separated from the backing.  The glass was dulled by abrasion and there was no reflection.  And, there was no picture of the deceased.

Who removed the photo?  A vandal? A parent? A sibling? A fiancé? A child?  Perhaps this was the last image…the only surviving image of the departed one.  I’m thinking is was too personal to leave out in the elements and best kept in a pocket, close to the heart.

Someone had the picture.  Someone carried the photo around with them.  They left only a broken frame.  I looked close and could almost see an after-image on the grey glass.  I couldn’t quite make it out.

But, it was of a person who, for years, had his or her likeness visible to anyone who cared to look.

Now, no one can see who lies six feet below the stone.

Only a name, dates and a block of granite are left.  But I did not miss the picture.  Instead, I thought how lucky this person is…to have something as a proxy.

I thought of the millions of people who lie, unmarked, in the soil of war-torn countries, famine stricken regions, roadsides and river bottoms.

The picture may be gone, but something is there for us to see.  Something for us to lay a flower upon.  Something to touch.  A place to pray.

On a morning, celebrating re-birth, I stand and think of these things.

Too many human beings don’t have such a luxury.

Sisterhood of the Spirits

There is little hard scientific evidence to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I hold firmly to the belief that women communicate far better than men.  As a researcher in the field, I have heard with my own ears, women  talking for hours about lipstick.  Men, on the other hand, can sit for an entire NFL game and say only such things as “oh, crap” or “‘another bud?”.  It is widely accepted, women have an open heart and bond much quicker then men.  Women have close friends and they tend to bond with their sisters with a solidity that is beyond belief.  Men, on the other hand, tend to have fewer friends.  They have locked themselves down and lost the key when they were mere children.  Most men spend their lives trying to find that key again…but it’s usually a fruitless search. I have often wondered if this intuitive nature that women possess can extend beyond the boundaries of the physical world.  I admit that death can impair ones ability to articulate the most rational attempts to communicate (although, I had a date once…).  More research in the field is called for.

–Professor John Cecil Wadd, Worthingstone Professor of Gender Communications (Ball State University).

Reprinted with permission from “Girls Talk Too”, 1971.

I photograph gravestones.  Over a year ago I ran across an Internet link to a website that provides a clearing house for those interested in locating a relatives headstone.  It is a great help in genealogical research.  The group functions somewhat like Ancestry.com.

I volunteer my services as a photographer to look at the requests for pictures in my area and go out to snap the images.  I get grateful thank-you emails from people who live six states away and will never know what the stone marker for their great-grandfather looks like.  What do I get out of it?  I get to wander cemeteries all over northern New York State.  I have been in beautiful locations…some are sad, some are badly vandalized and some just sit lonely, on a hill, bordered on three sides by cornfields.

Doing this for over a year has given me a chance to get to know the names of important people in the early history of this and nearby counties.  I start to see relationships.  He is married to her and there is their child, buried between parents, who died in infancy.  It can be a sad afternoon, sometimes, to stand and contemplate the interwoven marriages, probably divorces and early deaths of those who walked these hills a century ago.

But some are not of historical interest.  These are just modern-day people who have passed on in more recent years.

So, there I am, wandering the graveyards in fields and towns near where I live.  When I go “graving” I first look through the website for requests.  I choose those that are nearby and easy to find (I hope).  Sometimes, when walking the cemetery, I have problems finding the correct stone.  This can be the result of spelling errors, location mistakes and general misinformation.  There are times (these are frustrating) when the family name will appear on a large hunk of granite and nearby are footstones that simply read “Mother” or “Our Father”.  No names, no luck.

But a strange occurrence one day, left me very tired and quite discouraged.  I had a problem: The request was for a woman named Joann (I’m not revealing the last name), who was said to be interred in a cemetery very close to where I live.  Her story intrigued me because according to her obituary she was jogging on the road that leads to our house.  She went home, and while taking a shower, she collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.  I checked the dates.  She died in 1987.  She was 28 years old!

This is a very small graveyard that holds about 200 residents.  I felt that this was going to be easy…but, search as I might, I simply could not locate this Joann.  After two hours of walking back and forth along the rows, I was getting out of sorts.  I took a deep breath.

I then tried to communicate with her.  Joann, I said with my eyes closed, please.  You died young, way before your allotted time here.  You were a vibrant young woman, newly married.  You were full of life.  You tried to stay healthy.  Please, Joann, lead me to you right now so I can put closure in someone’s life who requested your grave picture.  Joann, call me to your final resting place.

I turned and opened my eyes.  I took a step and tripped over a small headstone.  I thought…good job Joann, you were right here all along. I looked down and saw a name that was NOT HERS.

Around this time, I enticed my wife to join me on my graving trips.  She enjoyed the scenery and liked the walks when the weather was fair.  It wasn’t long before she began to demonstrate an uncanny ability to find the names I could not find.  Look for the maiden names, she’d say, some women are buried with their parents if widowed, or with the husband if married.  But, my wife explained, it gets complicated.  You have to figure out familial relationships to find many names.  It’s not simple sometimes.  She was finding graves faster than I was.  My wife was a great help, to say the least.

It was after a few graving trips that I began to wonder if more was going on with my wife than meets the eye.  Was her “female intuition” helping her?  Was she hearing things that I, as a man, simply couldn’t hear?

I took her to the nearby cemetery and told her about Joann.  Maybe she’ll speak to you, I said.  You know, the woman to woman thing.  She walked off in a direction I had gone a dozen times before.  I leaned against the car and looked over the other names on the request sheet.

Pat, over here!  I heard my wife’s voice.  I looked over, cupping my eyes against the glare of the sun.  She was standing near a small headstone, pointing to it.  I grabbed by Nikon CoolPix and walked over to her.  And there it was.  Joann’s stone.

I was very impressed, to say the least.  I snapped the photo and walked back to the car.  I turned around a few minutes later.  My wife was standing over Joann’s marker, looking down.

Were they communicating?  I wondered if they were talking about nail polish.

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