Each time I enter a cemetery I stop at the gate. I whisper to those present, I tell them I am here to honor, to respect, to visit only - to do no harm. I scan the landscape. I look for active sites - those tell me to stay away, respect the family, respect the friends and those grieving. I look for large monuments that might tell a story of this place, a time, of these people. And then, camera in hand, I begin to walk. My walk is a wandering sort - here and there - where I feel called. I speak their names as I pass by; hello Abigal, good morning David, rest in peace sweet Sara, greetings Col. Greer.
I am reading a book on the archaeology of cemeteries and burials grounds and found the most wonderful description for those of us who wander these beautiful gardens; these places are the open-air museums of the stories of those who came before.
I recently visited two of NJ's great cemeteries; Mt. Pleasant in Newark and Piscatawaytown Burial Grounds in Edison. The first was found in the 1800's, the second in the 1700's. Both are historical and both have famous residents. Here is what amazed me a bit; I've wanted to visit Mt. Pleasant for some time, however it is right in the middle of Newark and if you know the reputation of that city, you know that a lone woman walking around a large, quiet cemetery with camera gear in that type of area would be best to think twice about doing just that! So when I visited I did so in the bright light of a fall Sunday with my husband in tow. I found Mt Pleasant to be well kept for 90% of the grounds, and never once felt worried, threatened or concerned. I saw no trash, except for that 10% of land near Route 21 which has no fence to protect it and I can only assume has trash blow up into the grounds from the highway. *I had one issue there, and that I will write about in another post. However, visiting Piscatawaytown in Edison caused me a little bit of concern. It is easily found on a main drag, and three sides are open to the street (with two fenced in) while the fourth butts against the property line of houses who face in the opposite direction. The grounds had litter clearly found; bottles, wrappers, cigarette packs and more. Some areas seemed well kept, while others showed signs of years of neglect. The whole place gave off more of a "get in get out" vibe to me than my usual wander and visit feeling. Now here is my weird brain at work: In the place where Thomas Edison's 1st wife rests, where he himself once laid before being moved to the grounds of his home, Glenmont, in the center of a large crime-ridden city I felt at ease and enjoy my visit; however, in the town named for him, in a much more rural area by comparison, in a small neighborhood, I was ill at ease during my visit. Never judge a cemetery by it's gates!
The trouble of which I spoke in that earlier entry has given me pause to try and describe. It wasn't troubling so much as a shock. I have wandered many a graveyard, I have been saddened at neglect, disappointed at stones toppled and lost to time, I have peered into many a mausoleum to be heartbroken at the broken stained glass. The shock I got at Mt Pleasant on that sunny afternoon didn't last long, but it turned to deep sorrow. I peered in the mausoleums along "millionaires row" expecting to see stained glass, wilted brown flowers, dust, nameplates and prie-dieu for visitors. Upon peaking in one I was taken aback to find the front of the marble and cement of the lower vault had been crushed in. This was no subject of time, it would take considerable force to do that. The top of the casket was to the far end of the door and I (luckily) could not see enough clearly to haunt me, but it was very evident that the heavy marble had broken through the wooden top of the casket and now rested partially inside. The whole of the side of the casket was visible and aside from the obvious damage to the top at the far end, looked in good condition. I walked on.Two Mausoleums further down this row. As I had with each I walked up the path to peer inside, my eyes at a normal level. I literally jumped back a step once I looked inside. There, to the right and on the floor was a casket, half pulled from its burial niche, resting at a tilt almost pushing at the door. It was then I noticed all the glass of the doors was gone, and a heavy, thick chain with a large lock had been wrapped around the doors to bar further entry. How horrible! I took a deep breath, preparing myself for what I might see, and stepped forward again to give witness to the damage inside. A large casket had been extracted from the lower right-hand niche, the far end still propped up by the lip of the broken marble faceplate, a pile of marble rubble lies on the floor and the head of the casket lies just inside the broken glass doorway. If I had had a mind to, I could have easily touched it with no effort. The casket was a reddish brown rust color but was not wood. It was a Boyertown ARMCO Iron Ingot plated casket. I whispered a soft, "I am so very sorry". I walked away with a heavy heart. Final rest? I think not. To disturb the grave to me is a sin of cruel and heartless manner. I can only hope that the caretakers plan to repair the damage and return the deceased to a peaceful rest.