The first place I look for when I travel to somewhere new, is the oldest and most elaborate or historic cemetery. I find them to be the most beautiful sanctuaries. Rows of varying stones, crypts, monuments, statues, fountains, benches, and art. They are truly like a quiet art park, sometimes in the middle of cities, where each small or massive piece is representing of someone’s life. We go through our whole existence gathering experiences and stories and some are passed on, but the grave is where the physical manifestation resides. I would like to say forever, but there are some disturbing truths on this matter.
Mount Moriah in Philadelphia was my first experience in an ‘abandoned cemetery’. The lease on the land expired. Cemeteries can be on leased land, which seems a little unsettling the more you think about it. I am a huge advocate of abandonments and letting nature take back what was once hers and the beauty of her doing so inspires the hell out of me. Mount Moriah was a prime example of my passions colliding. Stones overgrown and covered, crumbling structures, headless angels, a colony of marmots, nesting birds, and vast rolling hills of resting places. The vines climbing up the weathered marble and the sprawling vegetation that swallows meticulously carved markers gives a place that is built on death a new and vibrant life. My time there was spent in awe. I photographed the beauty, soaked in the surreal scenes, pondered the past, watched the wildlife, and inadvertently picked up a tiny unwanted hitchhiker. The whole ordeal is a story in itself, but I was visited by a tick that left me a present. I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease weeks later. (No worries, I got swift and top notch treatment thanks to living in the age of information and technology)
Nature is an unbeatable force that we attempt to coexist with and given the chance, she will take back what was hers. Mount Moriah is an example where the balance is heavily shifted in her favour. There is a preservation group that maintains parts of the grounds and hauls away the garbage dumped by uncaring others. They remove the occasional graffiti and mow the paths so people can still walk through. It’s a beautiful thing they do to allow the public to access and embrace the beauty and to allow survivors to visit their deceased loved ones. They do this by volunteer or non-profit group and I find that inspiring and beautiful. All this space could legally be bulldozed down after a half-assed disinterment of most residents. They could pave it and build condos or some revenue gathering businesses. The reason they don’t bother is that the property value is really low. And so it sits half-kempt. Beautiful in it’s own way, taken back by nature.
In Vancouver BC and other places of dense population, the property value prevents abandonments from sticking around too long and the constant streamlining and downsizing is turning all of the cemeteries into flat fields. From a profit point of view, it makes more sense to pack things in tight and set any stones low so they can drive a ride-on mower over it. It saves countless hours of landscaping labour, which is kind of a saccharine way of saying that it eliminates jobs. Jobs people are proud of. When I was in Oakland California, I did a portrait session with James, a groundskeeper that maintained the beautiful hills of headstones. He posed with his weed-whacker among the marble residents for photos that are now his business card. James, and the whole full time crew, loved their jobs. The Oakland Cemetery is , by far, the most spectacular graveyard I have ever seen. I spent eight hours walking the grounds and the sense of awe never dampened once.
The stories of the past reside in giant stone libraries and are wealth of history and individual life stories. Summaries literally written in stone. Sad stories, inspiring words, tragic reminders, romantic gestures, and monuments that feel immortal.
But nothing is forever. The cemeteries stand as a resonance. Until they, themselves fade and become unprofitable and slip into the forgotten.