Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cemetery Photo Day

A Day in the Life
In October of 2010, I took an after-work ride up to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, to do some shooting (photographs, that is, not groundhogs). Best to get as much of this sort of thing in before Daylight Savings Time ends and such endeavors become impossible during the winter months. I didn’t expect anyone to be there (after all, it is a cemetery!), but to my surprise, there were couples, families, and individuals walking around—with cameras! Weird. Even at Laurel Hill, this is unusual. I drove and walked around for an hour or so, taking some fall foliage photos, when I noticed one of the maintenance vehicles parked near a monument. There was an air compressor running in the back of the truck—maybe someone I know is working—“Hey! Frank!

It’s interesting knowing someone in the cemetery biz—Frank fills in the gaps of my cemetery knowledge. I’ve learned a lot more about how cemeteries operate, how monuments and statues are maintained and repaired, how and why bodies get disinterred, and so on. Also, these people say the darnest things. Once we were hanging out and I asked him how his week was. To the surprise of some strangers around us, he said, “Great! We got all six bodies out of the ground!

I pulled my car over to the side of the road and got out. Frank turned off the compressor and said, “Come on up here, I want to show you something.” Frank and I share a common passion for cemeteries and photography, plus he knows that I like weird stuff. His invitation was quite innocent, and I followed him up the granite steps to the base of a giant monument. There was a rectangular hole in the ground, with a ladder sticking up out of it. As far as I could see, Frank and I were the only ones there.

I, of course, walk over to the hole and am about to look down when a man’s head and shoulders pop up out of the hole! Scared the living hell out of me! One of Frank’s coworkers was working down in the crypt and was climbing out. Frank sees this sort of thing every day—people climbing in and out of crypts is a routine occurrence for him. He hadn’t intended to shock me, but he did get quite a kick out of my reaction.

What he actually wanted me to see was the inside of the large burial crypt which was made of brick and had an arched ceiling. To place a casket in one of the many spaces in the crypt wall, one had to dig about six feet down to the vaulted brick ceiling, pull up the four-inch-thick slate covers, place the ladder, and … man, that’s a lot of work! How do they get the coffin down the ladder? Well, for this burial, they were just placing an urn of cremains in one of the crypts, so the hole only had to be large enough for a person to get down there with power tools (to grind the sealing mortar from around the proper crypt cover) and the urn. If a casket was being buried, the hole would’ve had to be larger so as to lower the casket into the underground mausoleum (see below for how they do this). As I got there, the worker who was grinding off the crypt cover was coming up the ladder (don't you love the phrase, "grinding off the crypt cover?" I know I do.).

People see these big cemetery monuments and they don’t realize the monument may be perched atop a huge underground mausoleum! One of the reasons the ceiling of the underground structure is arched is to provide the strength needed to support the gigantic, ten-ton granite monument!

The next day, I came across this email announcement:

"The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) is launching Philly Photo Day to celebrate their one-year anniversary. PPAC is designating October 28, 2010 as Philly Photo Day. They are asking anyone to take a picture in Philadelphia on this day, and submit it electronically to PPAC. They hope to receive hundreds if not thousands of images that will constitute a broad portrait of Philadelphia on that day. Then on November 9, 2010 PPAC will open an exhibition of the submitted images in the Crane Arts Building."

Interesting. Do I have anything worth submitting? The only photographs I shot that day were at Laurel Hill. I assumed the photo must have people in it. Maybe one of the images I made while I was with Frank—ah, THAT’S why there were so many people at the cemetery with cameras! Maybe I got scooped and all those other people will be submitting great photos! Ah, well, I submitted the image you see at top of this blog and it was accepted. Hey, a day in the life—and death—of Philadelphians.

It's unusual for me to have live people in any of my photographs—let alone one I took in a cemetery. I typically only photograph stone people, rather than live ones! Strangely, at the reception (which was fabulous--thank you Sarah Stolfa and PPAC), there was only one other cemetery photograph, and it was one of a solitary stone angel. Stranger still, many of the hundreds of images in the exhibit lacked people.

I wonder what that says about us as photographers? As people? Would you have assumed such a photo should include people? Was my assumption caused by some flaw in my personality? Have a look at a small sampling of the hundreds of entries on PPAC’s Facebook site.

Further Reading:

I was curious how a coffin could actually be lowered fifteen feet down into a crypt, so I looked it up. Oddly enough, such devices don't actually have a fancy professional-sounding name--they're just called "Casket Lowering Devices." Mechanical lowering devices, usually sitting on straps and perhaps attached to a portable winch system, are typically used. You can see such a device here.

No mean feat, lowering a heavy casket, or concrete crypt, into the ground. Since this is typically done relying mainly on the brute force of man and muscle, its no surprise that it costs so much to bury someone. You pay for the labor and hopefully, they do it right. You don’t want accidents to happen, such as the incident at an Arizona cemetery when a coffin slipped, fell, and broke open to the horror of onlookers!

Links of Interest:

Sarah Stolfa runs The Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC).
Check out her engaging book, "The Regulars," portraits she made of patrons, while she was tending bar: