From inside a half-globe of clear Lucite, Harry Begler stares straight back at us. The young man’s image is amazingly intact and undistorted by the odd curvature of the material that protects his photograph. The clear casing has suffered somewhat over time, but is still in terrific condition considering it’s spent the last hundred years living through as many freeze-and-thaw cycles, the corrosive air produced by heavy industry, and the inevitable presence of no-goodniks. Centered below Beglar’s photo and cut into his long granite grave marker is the depiction of three chain links making an ever-so-graceful arc downward.
Chains are a not-uncommon symbol to find etched into gravestones and they appear in great frequency here at Workmen’s Circle Branch 45 Cemetery. Begler’s three links match the totem of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows whose symbol—standing for Amicitia Amor et Veritas (English: Friendship, Love, and Truth)—is its own standalone thing.
The rest of Workmen’s Circle’s linked chain imagery takes an entirely different form. For these, an unbroken chain encircles the deceased’s portrait.
Google the subject and you’ll find a whole lot more information around grave marker carvings that feature a broken chain—with its last link either missing or severed. There even appears to be a common twofer plan where the first half of a couple to die would have the broken link with her or his partner following it up with a connected chain to symbolize the pair united in the afterlife. We don’t see any of this at Workmen’s Circle, though—all chains are perfect circles and completely intact.
That the residents of Workmen’s Circle are all Jews may or may not be significant with regard to the symbolism of chains on grave markers. This goy couldn’t find anything connecting the two, but perhaps our O.T. brothers and sisters can help us out here.
Speculation aside, it’s always interesting to see how these patterns emerge at certain cemeteries—it’s almost fad-like. So gander away at these terrific combos of grave marker photographic portraits and the wreath-like protective chains that wrap them up both as design elements and symbols.
The young man—he’s perhaps all of twenty-five—sits for his formal portrait in a jacket, tie, and pressed white dress shirt. Bennie Mazer possesses a full head of thick black hair and holds what is fair to call a Mona Lisa smile. The man’s eyes, though, are inscrutable. Through no fault of his own, the photograph—printed on a ceramic disc nearly one hundred years ago—has started to deteriorate in a most unexpected way.
In this image, Mr. Mazer’s deep set eyes appear as if engulfed by sparkles of light. The swirling electrical field that creeps over his right shoulder seems to have entered the body and lit Mazer like a jack-o-lantern from within.
The photograph, set into a large stone grave marker, is lovely, fascinating, and bizarre—equal parts local history and science fiction. It’s also hard to fathom how this object that survived 98 harsh Pittsburgh winters would deteriorate in such a lopsided way. The reality probably has to do with the printing technique and the particular value of that two-tone shade, but it feels like the work of spirits.
The Orbit first went goo-goo ga-ga over these early-century ceramic grave photos when we encountered them at Loretto Cemetery years ago. Those were a revelation … and then Beaver Cemetery upped the ante considerably. Those earlier posts brought to mind all sorts of ponderances on memory and permanence and how we (the living) use these places—we’ll not repeat all that here but to say those questions are never far from the noggin.
We also discussed the strange clustering of ceramic photos in certain cemeteries and the near complete absence in others. Let me know if you find more than three or four of these in all of giant Allegheny Cemetery.
Stone for stone, the per capita count of photo graves, or posthumous portraits, at the tiny Workman’s Circle Branch 45 Cemetery (and next-door New Light Cemetery—we’ll get to that) is off-the-charts. There are so many examples that we decided to break these out into a series around a few loose themes.
Here then is part one, where we look at the most haunting of the gravestone portraits—the ones that are in their own slow dissolve right before our eyes. The images contained range from mostly there with some weird distortions—like we see with Bennie Mazer—to versions so weatherbeaten and sun-bleached as to make their subjects barely distinguishable. We also threw in a handful of gentle fades and a couple that have apparently been defaced—a sadly common occurrence at all these cemeteries.
We’ll quit the gabbin’ so you can get to gawkin’. We’ll see you on the other side.
It’s a striking image. Marija Stosic’s grave marker has deep-chiseled text that casts stark shadows in the day’s bright sunlight. The minimal epitaph, Ovoi počiva u miru bozjem, is—if Google Translate is to be believed—Croatian for Rest in the peace of God. Above, we see the familiar empty oval cutout where a ceramic portrait of Ms. Stosic would have been inset when the stone marker was first installed.
The design of the monument features a carved cross at the top with an image of Jesus in relief. Sometime over the last 94 years, the top has broken off leaving the Beloved Son not only crucified but bisected at the waist. Marija Stosic’s tombstone rests with another couple dozen (at least) fellow graves in a plot that’s now overgrown with the kind of scrubby barbs that will make this place difficult to negotiate by the time spring returns.
To be honest, we didn’t think Loretto Cemetery would produce another Orbit story. Our two-parter, from way back in 2016, on Loretto’s fine collection of pre-war photo graves and the ones that just about slipped away seemed like all we’d be able to squeeze out of such a small memorial park.
This time though, with a return trip on a lovely full sun midwinter day, we went all the way to the back and the bottom. The cemetery has an L-shaped extension that reaches down the hillside and runs out where the closely-clipped grass meets untamed snags and prickly bushes … but the cemetery doesn’t actually end there.
Come springtime, it’s unlikely anyone would even have the sight lines into this extra, lost, forgotten—take your pick—section of the cemetery. We imagine the winter’s long grasses and denuded vinery will produce the same sort of thick greenery that envelopes every square inch of untended, asphalt-free Pittsburgh making this parcel all but invisible to Loretto’s visitors.
The obvious question: why did this section of the cemetery—a plot maybe a few acres large, containing grave markers almost entirely with Croatian names, deceased in the 1920s and ’30s—stop receiving the care the rest of the park has? In lieu of any real journalism, we’re left to speculate.
Theory 1: Cost savings for the cemetery. The geography of the hillside is just too severe and Loretto’s management decided they couldn’t justify the expense of sending their grounds crew into an untamable wild to tend a set of grave markers so old they rarely—if ever—receive family members.
Theory 2: This was never a part of Loretto and instead it was a separate, independent cemetery. We find these tiny cemeteries—often associated with a particular church, faith, or national origin—all over the place. They’re also often immediately adjacent to larger cemeteries. Perhaps the Hilltop’s Croatian community purchased or sub-leased this plot of land back in the 1920s with their own maintenance agreements that Loretto is not responsible for.
A wander through the cemetery—any cemetery—always brings up questions of permanence. Grave markers—cut from granite, weighing hundreds of pounds, placed on land with this specific purpose—carry the unrealistic expectation that they will exist in this state forever. But we know it ain’t going to play out like that.
In our previous story on Loretto’s photo graves we discuss the irony that some of the ceramic photos on grave markers have outlived the carved text, such that we don’t even know the names of people whose images we still have—and it’s been less than a hundred years.
Loretto’s forgotten cemetery takes that and says hold my beer. You’re not even guaranteed a reasonable way for visitors to access your plot—and it may have been that way for decades.
You’re still reading this? The rambling rarely stops, but here we are.
If you do want to check out Loretto’s forgotten cemetery, we recommend doing it before the poison ivy, viney overgrowth, and legit jaggerbushes come back to life.
* That should be something like Here rests the forgotten cemetery.
The image is both bold and secretive, seal and sigil, blunt of message and artful in its old-world, hand-crafted execution. At its center is the stump of a tree, big roots extended like a three-legged beast; on either side are crossed boughs, each leaf in perfect alignment. Ringed around the image in a practical, modern typeface are the words WOODMEN OF THE WORLD MEMORIAL.
Beneath the tree’s roots is a small scroll. More often than not–at least in our harsh climate–the words have been worn away. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find one that still has its Latin inscription clear enough to read: dum tacet clamat, “though silent, he speaks.”
Woodmen of the World grave markers were a new thing to this taphophile until just recently. Sure, any tombstone tourist has tripped over plenty of big granite monuments carved to look like tree trunks, piles of cut wood, or stumps carved with a common surname, sometimes with each limb separately marked for a departed family member. As gravestone fads go, these were a big thing in the 19th Century and the fever lasted well into the 20th. Pretty much any larger cemetery dating from this era will have its share.
But The Woodmen! Not every stump-like grave marker is for a Woodman. In fact, here in the city of Pittsburgh, they seem to be extremely rare. To find one, you’ve got to kiss a lot of lumber-looking frogs. Woodmen markers will have that impressive insignia bearing the organization’s name or the dum tacet clamat phrase. Each will almost certainly date within the 30-ish year period from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Annette Stott, professor of art history at The University of Denver, seems to be the authority on Woodmen gravestones. Her article “The Woodmen of the World Monument Program,”(Markers XX: Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, 2003) is a great introduction to the relatively short history of Woodmen of the World’s (WOW) membership/insurance policy-gets-you-a-free-gravestone program.
Stott was writing from Colorado, which is perhaps not coincidentally where the Woodmen–a secretive, fraternal order in the mold of Freemasons and Odd Fellows–were founded in 1883. (WOW headquarters moved to Omaha, known as the “Sovereign Camp,” in 1890. The insurance side of the business–rebranded as “Woodmen Life“–persists to this day.) She describes a very particular couple of styles for the monuments the Woodmen initially offered to supply their beneficiary members in good standing upon death.
When and how the Woodmen spread east is unclear, but they sure found a lot of takers in the Mon Valley. I’ve had a devil of a time locating any WOW stones in all of my hundreds of walks through giant Allegheny Cemetery; exactly one found (so far) in equally huge Homewood Cemetery. (Though I haven’t put in the same amount of time there.)
But Dravosburg–WOWza yowza! Richland Cemetery, just uphill from the bridge to McKeesport, has dozens of Woodmen monuments. There are so many in this medium-sized memorial park that at a certain point, your author just stopped looking. You can’t bag them all and I had a cookout to get to.
Stott describes the two original designs offered by the Woodmen program as “a six-and-a-half-foot monument consisting of a shaft surmounted by a draped urn … or a seven-and-a-half-foot tree trunk with the Woodmen of the World emblems carved in high relief.”
There is nothing resembling “a draped urn” on any of the WOW monuments at Richland, but tall tree trunks with the Woodmen emblem are in no short supply there. There is a strong similarity in all of these, but they’re not cookie-cutter copies, either. The placement of severed limbs, design of the deceased’s name plaque, and the monument’s base all vary from model to model.
One of these (Peter Wersderfer, below) is decidedly more ornate than all the rest, but whoever decided to face the monument north–so it would be perpetually backlit–never considered the trouble that would cause photographers in the blogosphere a century later. Sigh.
Even though one being a “member in good standing” was the initial qualification to be in the Woodmen of the World’s monument program, one has to assume the big seven- or eight-foot tree trunks had to cost a lot more than a simple flat slab. Money came into the system somewhere and it wasn’t going to pay out evenly across-the-board.
So there are many Woodmen grave markers out there with no resemblance to trees or stumps or woodland anything. One can see by the examples below that there were a couple more common, much simpler designs and then a number of outliers that look like the monument carvers added the WOW emblem to other off-the-shelf models in their catalog.
Woodwomen of the World?
While there were undoubtedly many many ladies of the frontier who could accurately be described as “woodwomen,” it will come as a surprise to no one that a hundred years ago, a person required a Y chromosome to be eligible for the Woodmen of the World.
That doesn’t mean women were entirely excluded from memorials. Rather, as is so often the case, they arrived on WOW-branded markers partnered with their husbands or in their own separate, adjunct status.
Stott describes a particular version of this the Western U.S. “Women of Woodcraft, the female auxiliary of the Pacific Jurisdiction Woodmen of the World since 1898, also maintained a monument program.”
In Dravosburg, at least, there don’t appear to be any Women of Woodcraft, but rather a number of stones bearing typically female names and the seal-like imprint of the alternate Woodmen Circle. That title is objectively less cool than Women of Woodcraft, but we imagine the route to get there was pretty similar.
Woodmen of the Afterworld
Woodmen of the World grave markers exist for a relatively slim segment of history–approximately, the 1890s through the 1920s. This tracks with what we found in Dravosburg, although the earliest ones spotted are from 1907. The insurance program likely took some extra time to spread this far east.
Stott describes the end of things as a basic case of an unsustainable business model:
After 1928, no insurance certificates were issued with a monument benefit, and in 1932, with no new money going into the monument fund, it was decided to distribute to each member still holding a monument agreement the exact amount that they had paid in, plus interest. That ended the program.
Richland Cemetery has at least two markers that include the WOW insignia and fall outside this timeline. Clinton Shallenberger (d. 1935, photo above) and William Neel (d. 1945, below) both ended up with WOW-branded grave markers, but it seems unlikely they were paid for by the organization.
Were these “members in good standing” who’d paid enough into the program back in the day to find a grandfathered-in loophole? Or were they loyal Woodmen to the end who specified the organization’s seal on their gravestones–even if the family had to pay for it–as a dying wish?
We’ll likely never know–there may be as many reasons as there are after-market Woodmen of the World grave markers. Like their fellow crypto-brotherhoods The Freemasons and The Odd Fellows, The Knights of Pythias, The Frogs, and The Owls, there’s what’s known, what’s imagined, and what we’d rather leave untold to keep some mystery alive in this age of over-exposure, instant reward, and gluttonous narcissism. We can be grateful that maybe that’s something that might still be taken to the grave.
All photographs taken in Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA., Sept. 2021.
The family is gathered together in grief. Their roles are not entirely clear, but it appears we’ve got a husband and wife, several school-aged children, and a nanny tending to the youngest of the lot. There is also another, larger, man dressed formally in the kind of double-breasted coat-and-tails popular among the well-to-do of the mid-19th century. Even if the patriarch hadn’t quite literally lost his head (and portions of both arms) it’s probably safe to say he’s the reason the gang is all here.
The figures, intricately carved into an elaborate marble cemetery monument, don’t appear as they originally did 150 years ago. Like her father (or maybe it’s her father-in-law), mom is also sans-tête, but even more striking is the way the facial features of the entire group have been worn away, leaving a strange alien-like cadre–gaunt, ghostly, and zombified–but awkwardly dressed in Sunday-best human clothes with an out-of-place Greek temple in the background. It’s the perfect setup for a gothic sci-fi story.
If you’ve spent any time at all within the beautiful boundaries of Allegheny Cemetery, you know its greatest hits: the rolling landscape, gangs of deer, and gaggles of geese; the Winter mausoleum, resplendent in faux-Egyptian glory, complete with a pair of guardian sphinxes; elegant–if, endangered–stained glass; the hokey Jaws-inspired “shark grave”; Orbit favorite Steelers stones; final resting places of famous (at least, Pittsburgh famous) people like Stephen Foster, Josh Gibson, Lillian Russell, and Stanley Turrentine. The list goes on …
But for those of us who spend enough time in the cemetery to, you know, “check the pulse,” there are so many more fascinating details to this 177-year-old burial park that we thought we’d put together a scavenger hunt for those who might be looking for an excuse to get out and poke around.
Below is a collection of favorite oddball, accidental, and unexpected elements from Allegheny Cemetery’s 300+ acres that we offer up as a fun, we-still-need-to-be-Covid-safe outdoor hunt for the curious. Much like an office visit with Dr. Love, there are neither bills nor fees for participating. There is also no time limit and the only reward is the satisfaction of getting out there, stretching the legs, and doing the thing–but that’s a fine way to spend a sunny spring afternoon.
Happy hunting, y’all!
We’re four photos in, and already down as many noggins. The ornate colliding with the real world never fails to generate interesting anomalies. Statues carved from stone that have lost fingers, whole limbs, and yes, their entire cranium are always something to see–and Allegheny Cemetery has plenty of these–but we thought we’d call out two evergreen favorites.
The headless boy (above) sits among a circle of similar–but still intact–statuary in a glorious part of the cemetery, reliably basking in fine views and peaceful tranquility. By contrast, the bird’s nest monument (below) is always a hive of activity as a family of sparrows almost always take up residence under the structure’s partial roof, atop the cloth-draped column by the headless woman. Yes, again with the science fiction, but it’s almost as if the lady’s brain has been transformed into a bird’s nest that her decapitated body must now lean in close to communicate with.
Hat ornaments! There are many markers that incorporate iconography of the service their occupants pursued, but we particularly like the fireman’s memorial (above) with its old-school pointy hat-helmet and large firehose nozzle.
There are plenty of military veterans buried at Allegheny Cemetery, but few got the Union soldier’s hat + crossed cannons and cannonballs treatment of this fellow (below).
Most of the big cemetery obelisks are pretty plain. Shaped like mini-Washington Monuments, their whole thing is to be big and simple. But we love the detail on this one (above) where a stonemason has carved an incredibly intricate fantasy machine full of gears, engine belts, flywheels, an anvil, tools–you name it. Its an abstracted imagination of what a fully-mechanical factory might look like. It probably bears little resemblance to real life (even the real life of a hundred years ago) and more to the satire of Chaplin’s Modern Times vision of innovation-run-amok.
Orbit whisperer Paul Schifino pointed this one out to us, and we’re glad he did. While including statuary of a young child isn’t all that rare (especially when the deceased died young), this one appears to be a bonus, add-on stone to a much more traditional marker. The bronze (?) head and bust was clearly handmade by an artisan and features the flat back of a piece that had previously been mounted … somewhere else. Who’s the kid? Where did he come from? We don’t know!
One of the holy grails for American taphophiles are the monuments created by the Woodmen of the World. That mysterious fraternal order/life insurance society provided stones carved to look like tree trunks with severed limbs for just a few decades at the turn of the 20th century.
The Wilkins family tree (above) is not one of these (at least, it doesn’t bear the WOTW insignia)–nor are there any in Allegheny Cemetery as far as we can tell. We have reached full-on obsession with finding some–heck, finding one. [Side note: if you know of any Woodmen of the World markers in greater Pittsburgh, please let us know and we’ll be on the road faster than you can say Dum Tacet Clamet.] Regardless, the Wilkins didn’t skimp when it came to ordering up this extra-large trunk with a dozen or so names carved into the severed limb stumps.
We love this pair of open book memorials. It would be interesting to know the title of a couple good books (above). History would suggest they’re probably two matching Bibles, but with all detail worn away, they could as easily be Lincoln in the Bardo and The Lovely Bones. Let’s hope it’s something good, because they’ll be here a while.
No mystery with this one, though. The square and compass insignia tells us a Freemason planted this stout stone dais with an open book and the two aforementioned tools acting as bookmark. Around the base (not pictured) is additional iconography–a Star of David, cross, etc.
Cemeteries–all cemeteries–are dominated by the color gray. Grave markers, large monuments, cenotaphs–they all live somewhere in the very limited spectrum of dirty white to not-quite black. It’s why the larger environment looks so great among the turning leaves of fall and against the green grass of spring; it’s why they look so stark within the equally monotone grays of winter.
Green also appears every once in a while in the stone itself. The Orbit doesn’t have a resident geologist/chemist, but our understanding is that this is the result of some mineral (copper, probably?) oxidizing over its decades exposed to the open air.
Many individual markers and statuary have streaks of iridescent green in their surfaces, but none moreso than the big memorial for George Hogg (above), which has completely mutated into a psychedelic light show of rich, emerald greens, electric neon blues, and washed-out pale cornflower.
A couple oddballs here. My Angel Lilla (above) is nothing special but for the way time and tide have created this weird distortion in the lid. Did some imperfection in the stone cause it to … melt? Does that really happen to rock?
What the artist of the salt and pepper shakers (below) was going for might have been more obvious when it was installed and the details were sharp, but by now it’s a total mystery. Are those columns? cannons? some kind of industrial product? And what is binding them–vines? rope? chains? Heck, we’ve got today’s writing prompt for you right here.
Generally the newer-style, glossy black headstones with etched-in details just look too shiny and too computer-generated for these old blogger’s eyes. But we love this view of ninth-ward Lawrenceville–the 40th Street Bridge and Heppenstall mill in the foreground, the chock-a-block row houses rising above–as seen from the top of the hill, across the river in Millvale. Maybe it’s just because we like the art better or because this was obviously a Lawrenceville (after-)lifer, but this speaks more about the person than all those clip art shovels and Steelers emblems and musical notes we see on its sister stones.
Bailey Balken went rouge when s/he went out (above). Not afraid to mix media or typefaces, Balken’s marker includes a pair of flat marble stones inside a brass plaque laid atop a just-a-size-larger granite slab. That alone won’t get you in the Orbit scavenger hunt, but the volleyball-sized round rock inserted into the middle will. Looking like a rising loaf of rustic Italian bread, it’s unclear what Bailey was after … unless it was some kind of play on ball/Balken. Who knows?
We imagine Thomas Bowater (below) must have been an engineer, or a machinist, or something in that world. That seems the most likely explanation for including a rolling axle/cog/gear as the prominent feature in a gravestone that looks like it came right off the shop floor. This rock rolls.
These gates don’t really lead to nowhere–there’s actually a nice, circular plot back there–but the family clearly didn’t get the buy-in they were expecting from the rest of the crew, which left the space largely uninhabited. The result is a pristine little plateau with a great view across the river, down and over the rest of the cemetery, and up to Garfield–all with the ornate decorative blackened stone portico that says to the world you’re here–but we don’t know why.
Grave marker with ceramic photo inset of Rade Vujnovich, Beaver Cemetery
Like all those famous musicians, Rade Vujnovich was just 27 years old when he died in 1935. Unlike Jimi or Janis, we know very little about the man, but we do get to have one good last look at him. Dressed in an official uniform, hat cocked at a jaunty angle, Mr. Vujnovich stares right back at us with a goofy expression that suggests he’s holding back a laugh–or maybe just had one too many šljivovica some time between dressing up and saying cheese.
The information on Rade Vujnovich’s grave marker ain’t easy to work through. The cross-shaped granite stone was chiseled away in his native Croatian [thank you, Google Translate] and has had 85 years of harsh Western Pennsylvania winters eroding the details. But the mangled translation at least gets us the tidbit that young Rade was laid to rest here, in Beaver Cemetery, by his aunt Pipa and uncle Andja.
Beaver Cemetery in October: fall colors, raised Cyrillic lettering, and grave markers with ceramic photo insets
Every fall we make the trip out to the town of Beaver and visit its eponymous cemetery. Trees are reliably reaching their glorious technicolor peak, headstones come engraved in beautifully modern raised Cyrillic, and the uber-oddball James P. Leaf mausoleum will always ask more questions than it answers.
All that said, it is the collection of early 20th century photo graves (that’s our term) that really sets Beaver Cemetery apart. Dozens–more like hundreds–of stone markers that include inset ceramic photographs of the departed fill whole sections of the 46-acre grounds. You’ll see these photo graves other places [we first flipped our nut over them at Loretto Cemetery], but not in this quantity.
Men in bushy, un-ironic mustaches; women in big-bowed, broad-necked pre-war fashions of the day. Ceramic photo gravestone insets.
The preserved photographs are fascinating and haunting; a disappearing history in both subject and context. They have all the curiosities of any old portraiture: men in bushy, un-ironic mustaches that actually look good on them; women in the big-bowed, broad-necked pre-war fashions of the day; the dour, flat affect of a population raised in humorless Victorian times. They also come with reliably great old-world names–you try finding anyone in America still named Žita or Cveta, Beniamino or Liberata.
More than that, the photographs are visually arresting in a way our image-oversaturated brains aren’t used to seeing. Without fail, the figures appear to look right through us with a ghostly, world-weary knowing from beyond. Beware, they seem to say, or maybe just enjoy it while you can.
That the black-and-white portraits are inset into the grave markers of the humans who sat for them gives the pictures a deep, added pathos. The typically-oblong ceramic discs have lived outside in the elements for decades and almost always show a predictable level of wear-and-tear. Some of the photos are completely gone, leaving awkward oval cutouts in the headstones. For the majority that are still intact, there are hairline cracks across their surfaces, washed-out bits of silver gelatin, insect and grass-cutting debris, and–thankfully, not too often–the gouged and scarred evidence of vandalism.
Ghost couple: Simone Riccitello + 1
Gone girl/gone guy: unknown couple
As if spending one’s free time in a cemetery wasn’t existentially-draining enough, try picking out the one photograph that sums up your entire life. And then consider it’s a picture that will eventually crack, fade, and/or fall out of the rock it was embedded in…or worse. Chipped out with a screwdriver by bored middle school kids on a sleepover jailbreak–what a way to go.
We’re nato, we morto, and in between we hang out in cemeteries. Berardino and Liberata Dipliacita
The first wave of photo graves had a relatively short run. We tend to only see the old first-gen, black-and-white discs in the gravestones of those who passed in the 1920s through 1940s. At that point they seem to have gone out of vogue.
We have to wonder if this has something to do with the increased prevalence of photography. At the point where every household had a Kodak Brownie and every drug store could process film, it probably just didn’t feel that special to have a framed portrait on the mantle–or one’s headstone. But maybe, in the post-war modernist ’50s, tastes just changed away from early-century sentimentalism and toward sleek, down-to-business grave markers with little ornament and even less personal detail.
Cracked, faded, and washed-out, but still hanging on. Ceramic photo gravestone insets.
Stephen N. Burich
A trip to the cemetery is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s morbid, they say, or depressing. I’ve got plenty of time for the graveyard when I’m dead.
That’s hard to argue with. But cemeteries are also fascinating repositories of history that one can enjoy with all the fresh air, chirping birds, and fall colors of a nature hike. The arrangement of artifacts is haphazard and their current state has so many random influences–from the whims of the family that organized burial to nature and weather–that the experience is more that of browsing a junk store than visiting a curated collection.
It appears to be another gorgeous day in run of them we’ve had in this, our greatest season. If you want get out and see some people without any risk of the plague, there’s no better place than Beaver Cemetery.
Getting there: Beaver Cemetery is right on 3rd Street, the town of Beaver’s main drag and just past the downtown area. It takes 40-50 minutes to drive there from downtown Pittsburgh. You’ll find the photo graves throughout the cemetery, but a good place to start is at the very back (nearest the McDonald’s).
There is only one way to drive from El Rito to Abiquiu, in north-central New Mexico. You’ll take state road 554, a curlicued up-and-down route through wild and beautiful country that may as well be another planet for us “back East” folks. Gorgeous mountain views and scrubby desert vegetation join rugged canyons, dry river beds, and dramatic wind-scarred buttes.
What you won’t see much are signs of human existence. Sure, we’re on a two-lane blacktop that someone had to build, but there aren’t any other vehicles on it, nor will you find gas stations, billboards, graffiti, guard rails, or reflectors. You may come across the occasional stand-alone house, a stretch of elevated power line, or barbed wire fencing marking a property boundary, but often, that’s about it.
So the memorials that appear with alarming regularity–some dozen or more on the short, sixteen-mile stretch between El Rito and Abiquiu alone–pop from the roadside as the most tender of touches in a landscape otherwise devoid of human intervention. The shapes–vertical and angled in a world of broad horizontals, colored in eye-popping reds, pinks, yellows, and purples found nowhere else around these parts–make the tributes jump from the scraggly earth.
There are some simple wooden crosses, sure, but most of the memorials are unique elaborate displays that include custom ironwork, closely arranged stone formations, photographs, religious dioramas, plastic funeral flowers, garlands, flags, and treasured personal mementos of the departed.
Fabian Lawrence Mata, Ojo Caliente
A little Googling proves that, surprise surprise, Pittsburgh Orbit wasn’t the first to take notice of New Mexico’s descansos, the Spanish term for this tradition. New Mexico Explorer, a kind of NM Orbit, has a nice intro with some good photos and the Albuquerque Journal ran a 2015 piece about Pam and Doug Rietz’ documentation of descansos (but no links to see the pictures!) There are plenty of photo collections out there.
So why cover it here? Well, for one thing, we’ve written about roadside memorials back home a couple of times [see our Memorial Day 2018 and 2019 stories], so the subject is near and dear. Also, we’re jealous–with all due respect to the loving displays on Pennsylvania’s rural routes, New Mexico’s descansos are just so much more–excuse the apparent contradiction–full of life*. Each one is unique, glorious, heartbreaking, and beautiful in its own way.
And yes, it’s a good way to squeeze vacation for an Orbit story.
Jeffrey Zamora, Ohkay Owingeh
Phil Snow, La Madera
Dylan Romero, Abiquiu
D.D.H., Rio Grande gorge
Juan Mariscal, Abiquiu
Gilberto “Beto” Maestas, La Chauchia
Baldino Elizardo Gomez, Ojo Caliente
Kenneth and Elmer Martinez, El Rito
* In fairness, though, the relentlessly dry sunny weather in New Mexico naturally elongates the lifetime of a descanso. Pennsylvania’s omnipresent rain and thick humidity, plus winter snow and ice, make all SW PA memorials de facto temporary installations. For what it’s worth, it is also true that New Mexicans die in motor vehicle accidents at greater than twice the rate of Pennsylvanians. [Source: https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/state-by-state]
Penn Lincoln Memorial Park mausoleum and chapel, c. 1960, North Huntingdon
The unusual roofline, viewed from either end, has the perfect semi-circular curves of a series of long sheets of paper, each arched gracefully to bend back in on itself. Across the front of the big building are evenly-spaced openings echoing the same design motif. The big spaces are filled with aluminum grids and stained glass windows that echo the fantastically frenetic line drawings of Ben Shahn or Paul Klee.
In fact, one can imagine the entire structure modeled in miniature, constructed from simple cardboard tubes, thick paper stock, and colored gels. You can almost see the architects–’50s beatnik-meets-big city corporate; all cigarette ash, turtlenecks, and horn rims–as they talk the wary customer through an unexpected design laid out before them in the firm’s big conference room.
Penn Lincoln Memorial Park mausoleum and chapel, North Huntingdon, PA
Appearing like a retro-futuristic science-fiction film set, the mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park rests atop a gentle hill along Route 30, east of Pittsburgh. Driving by–one would have no good reason to walk or bicycle this stretch of highway–it may not even be obvious what you’re seeing as the big building flashes past the driver’s side window at 45 MPH.
An industrial R&D laboratory? Experimental school? A sneaker preacher’s mega-church? Heck, maybe even some crackpot millionaire’s attempt at an ex-urban Utopia. Any of these seem as plausible as something this designy winding up as an “above-ground burial” for Westmoreland County’s deceased moderne.
CMS East, Inc., the parent company that owns Penn Lincoln Memorial Park, along with 22 other cemeteries across five states, declined to provide The Orbit with any information on the architect who designed the mausoleum or any history of the design. CMS didn’t even respond to our request so it’s safe to say we do not recommend having any organization this rude turn your lifeless body to cinder!
The Google Machine offers no more information, so we’re left to wonder and speculate.
And that’s a shame. Not the wonder part, mind you, but the complete lack of recognition this remarkable construction seems to have received.
I’m no architect, but the artful curved concrete pours, the clean lines with no square corners, and the New Age yoga camp-meets-abandoned spaceport atmosphere all feel like ample source material for some academic’s Ph.D. thesis or a full-color spread in a glossy design magazine. At the very minimum, it’s worth pulling over to take a walk around the next time you’re headed east, toward Jeannette or Greensburg.
Most of metro Pittsburgh was constructed in a relatively short period of the city’s great industrial build-up–say, from the 1880s to the start of the Great Depression. So the prevailing design heritage here is curlicued Victorian filigree and blunt worker efficiency. The modernism of mid-century American design–so prevalent in breezy West Coast cities and Sun Belt oases–largely passed us by.
There are some notable exceptions, of course–Gateway Center’s gleaming aluminum cladding, Pitt’s brutalist expansions throughout Oakland, and (sigh) the old Civic Arena’s extraterrestrial colony come to mind.
But the lovely mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park reminds us that the brilliant ambition of post-war America extended everywhere–to gasoline stations and dry cleaners, ice cream stands and car dealerships. It even came out here, to the distant suburbs of Pittsburgh, as a place one might entomb their loved-ones forever … in the future.
“above-ground burial” plots
Getting there: Penn Lincoln Memorial Park is on Rt. 30, half way between East McKeesport and North Huntingdon. It’s about a half hour’s drive from downtown Pittsburgh.
This blogger has spent a lot of time in the boneyard. So much time, we dare say, that we’ve hung out more than some cemeteries’ (newer) full-time residents. To visit one is a whole enchilada experience: you get to be outside in the introvert’s version of Kennywood–usually alone, in near silence, on beautifully-cared-for grounds that feel like a wild city park. Often there are the deer and crows and opossums to back it up. But it’s a park alive (ironically) with stories and history, carved images and statuary. Any cemetery has way too much to take in for just a single visit.
Have you seen the back? Large boulders embedded in the Leaf mausoleum.
What these hallowed grounds don’t tend to feature so often is the touch of the human hand. Typically, gravestones are professionally-cut, perfectly-engraved, production line affairs. They’re marvels of precision stone-cutting and restrained grace, symmetry and classical iconography.
Rarely, however, does one encounter a grave marker that was hand made by the grieving family. [An obvious exception to this is the “DIY gravestones of Highwood Cemetery” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, 2015).] It is especially rare to see a stone or tomb that looks like his or her bats-in-the-belfry aunt or brown bottle flu uncle would have built it.
Leaf mausoleum, entry (detail)
That, however, is exactly what Beaver Cemetery’s James P. Leaf mausoleum looks like. At approximately the size of a one-car alley garage, it’s definitely the right scale for your typical double-crypt couple’s tomb–but it sure doesn’t look like one. There are none of the straight lines, white stone, or classical features we normally see. Mr. Leaf didn’t even receive the customary stained glass rear windows like we peeked in on in Allegheny Cemetery.
Instead, the monument has clearly been constructed by hand, from an oddball collection of irregular stones. These range from the size of a cantaloupe to huge boulders that would crush a house in their falling path. One of these massive rocks has been set to entirely block the front entrance to the tomb, leaving only an oxidized copper Leaf nameplate visible awkwardly above. Water-smoothed river pebbles have been used to create decorative features within the mortar walls and vertically-places stones sit on top to resemble crude castle battlements.
There is a maybe too-good-to-be-true story that the mausoleum was built with stones pulled from each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that appears in several sources, all unsubstantiated.
Detail: pebble mosaic
James Pinney Leaf (1866-1949) seems an unlikely soul to spend eternity in such a ramshackle final resting place. The son of an engineer, Leaf followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree in engineering, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I, and working on projects and surveys in Rochester, PA, the Ohio canals, Pymatuning Reservoir, on Lake Erie, and along the Ohio River.
So how did a lifelong builder and engineer end up in a cattywumpus backyard barbeque of a crypt like this one? There’s got to be a great explanation here.
View into crypt interior
Spoiler Alert: We don’t know!The Orbit sat on this story for an entire year, dug into the books with the crew at the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Room, consulted professional archivists, talked to Beaver Cemetery staff, and … Zilch. Goose egg. Bubkes. “Nothing burger”.
Who James P. Leaf was is well documented–Hillman Library has a huge collection of family papers–but it’s a total mystery how such an esteemed veteran, builder, and prominent community member ended up with this pile-of-rocks mausoleum.
One of these memorials is not like the rest. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery.
It was a rough week–emotionally and physically. Nobody wants to hear about all that, but you’ll no doubt respect the need to just move on and let a mystery be its own mysterious self. Maybe by having this story out there someone who actually knows what’s up with the Leaf tomb can enlighten us and we can finally set the record straight.
Currently, we’re in the apex of leaf-changing glory. If you’re looking for a destination to get your fall colors on, you could do a lot worse than the fun drive out Route 65, past Punks Ice Cream and the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy, to lovely little Beaver Cemetery. See what you can find out for ol’ Orbit, will you?
This one’s not going anywhere…until it does. Marble monument detail, Allegheny Cemetery
Generally, when one plants a couple thousand pounds of hard stone it stays put…but not always. With around 134,000 long-term residents over 300 acres of land, Allegheny Cemetery would make up one of the larger neighborhoods in the city all on its own. Some of these folks–dead or alive–are going to move around.
There are all sorts of reasons for this: separately-buried individuals are consolidated in family plots, a spouse chooses to spend eternity next to the husband or wife who departed first, buried caskets are migrated into a mausoleum, bodies are disinterred to other facilities across town or way out-of-state.
Last week we ran the story “A Graveyard for Gravestones”–a look at the strange world created by a cemetery’s recycling lot. It was meant as humorous look at an unusual, fascinating scene, along with a polite nudge at one of our favorite places in the world to clean up one of its (very few) rough edges.
We had no idea about the reaction this story would generate. Within hours of its initial publishing we heard it from all sides: the cemetery felt it had been misrepresented, neighbors got wild ideas about what was going on within its stone walls, readers called it “nuts”. At the mere suggestion that retired grave markers might find a reuse outside of the cemetery we were tarred as “grave robbing” and “the lowest of the low”.
SO, in this most teachable of moments–for us here at The Orbit along with our readers, neighbors, and anyone else who’s ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings of a large, historic cemetery–we talked briefly with David Michener, a man who knows his stuff as president of both Allegheny and Homewood cemeteries.
First of all, the vast majority of items that have ended up in the cemetery’s recycling area are not grave monuments. In the piece, we mention “dozens of…gravestones”, which is accurate–there are maybe 30 or so total stones currently retired to the lot. But the stacks of other material in our photos could be misconstrued as many more.
“Ninety percent of what’s [removed/recycled] is foundation,” says Michener. Foundations are, as the name implies, poured concrete structural elements that are buried under the surface and used to anchor the visible, sculpted portion of the monument. As markers are removed, so is the foundation, and it all ends up in the same place.
“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” goes the passage from Genesis. It turns out this applies to retired monuments as much as expired human beings. As we saw, when a grave marker has reached its, ahem, “end of life” (sorry) it is removed by the cemetery’s grounds crew and taken to a kind of purgatory in the recycling yard. At this point, when the stone has been divorced from its grave and retired from service, it will eventually have any identifying information (the deceased’s name) ground down, defaced, or otherwise removed.
“At that point,” says Michener, “they’re just stones.” Allegheny Cemetery does all it can to recycle these no-longer-used materials into its own infrastructure projects–they’re deployed as foundations or supports and added as clean fill to stabilize land areas.
As for why there is an obvious delay in processing the retired markers, Michener says, “Our concern is taking care of the place where burials occurred and not our recycle yard.” Anyone who’s ever visited Allegheny Cemetery’s immaculate landscape knows this is true.
Two become one: shared (replacement) grave marker in Allegheny Cemetery*
A couple of the more outrageous criticisms we heard were that families would be shocked to find out the state of their loved ones’ markers and would want to be notified so they could come pick them up. “They just need the descendants of the original owner to pay the cemetery to have them put back”, was one statement. All of these are patently false.
First, families are the only ones making the decisions on the movement of graves and retirement/replacement of grave markers. “We never–by our own volition–remove a monument”, says Michener. If a gravestone has ended up in the recycling yard, it was at the request of the family.
Second, grave markers weigh from hundreds to thousands of pounds. No family takes mom’s granite stone home in the trunk of their Buick. “They are entitled to them–they own them”, says Michener, but do families ever claim the marker as a memento? “Very very rarely.”
To sum up: most gravestones are going to stay right where they are until they crumble to dust all on their own. A very small proportion of them will be removed and retired at the behest of the deceased’s loved ones. If the family declines ownership–which is what happens almost every single time–the cemetery takes ownership of the monument and processes it back into raw material to be born again. May we all be so lucky.
* The identifying information [surnames] on these monuments have been intentionally obscured in the photographs at the request of Allegheny Cemetery.