Ask the Dust: An Orbit Vacation Postcard from New Mexico’s Roadside Memorials

Taos

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.

Pilar

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.

El Rito

Abiquiu

Jeffrey Zamora, Ohkay Owingeh

Abiquiu

El Rito

Phil Snow, La Madera

Dylan Romero, Abiquiu

Abiquiu

D.D.H., Rio Grande gorge

Jamie, Hernandez

Juan Mariscal, Abiquiu

Gilberto “Beto” Maestas, La Chauchia

Baldino Elizardo Gomez, Ojo Caliente

El Rito

El Rito

Hernandez

El Rito

Abiquiu

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]

Dying To Get In: The Mid-Century Mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park

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.

chapel interior

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.

James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

James P. Leaf mausoleum, 1949. Beaver Cemetery.

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.

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

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.

large stone blocking entry to mausoleum entry, Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

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.

mosaic detail made from pebbles, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

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.[1]

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, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

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.

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

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?


[1] University of Pittsburgh Library System, Leaf family papers.

Where Do Gravestones Go To Die?

sculptural detail of family with features worn away on marble grave monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

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.

marble grave monument with details eroding, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

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.

simple headstone with three names, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Shared (replacement) grave marker, Allegheny Cemetery*

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.

broken porcelain doll on base of marble grave monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“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.

granite headstone with names for "father" and "mother", Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

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.”

grave monument featuring two sculpted figures with both heads broken off, one of them has a bird's nest where the head would be, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

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.

A Graveyard for Gravestones

dismantled granite building in unruly pile, Pittsburgh, PA

Deconstructed building in the graveyard for gravestones

Editor’s note: This story generated no small amount of controversy. After a discussion with the cemetery’s president, we made the decision to update the story, removing certain identifying details for general public safety. Based on the many questions raised by the piece, we responded with the follow-up story “Where Do Gravestones Go To Die?”


The simple grave marker is nothing out of the ordinary. Gently curved and smoothly hewn, the stone is a standard off-the-shelf/out-of-the-catalog mid-century model we’ve seen hundreds–perhaps thousands–of times in different plots over the years. About the size of a microwave oven, it has raised block letters on its face which detail only the most basic facts about the deceased: Frederick W. Zinsser, 1878-1942, Father.

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

What’s strange about Frederick Zinsser’s headstone is how it arrived in its current position–upside-down, squashed between two felled trees, in a hidden, barren spot just outside the cemetery’s otherwise beautifully-groomed and spectacularly-scenic acres of visiting space. Oh, and why is it surrounded by dozens of other gravestones and stray cemetery infrastructure that appear casually tossed in the dirt like children’s playthings at the call for dinner?

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

We’re not talking about just a few stones–a pile here and a pile there. No, the graveyard for gravestones is extensive. It’s a big, basin-shaped open area just downhill from the older side of the cemetery. By now–in early May–you probably wouldn’t even notice it. But when we visited on Easter Sunday the thin shroud of young trees hadn’t yet fully sprouted all its leaves, allowing this unsightly broom closet of quickly-tossed granite to be impressively available to the passer-by.

column bases from dismantled mausoleum, Pittsburgh, PA

This graveyard-within-a-graveyard contains piles and not-so-neatly-stacked collections of granite monument trimmings, grave edging, foundations, pedestal bases, supporting structural elements, and a least a couple full cemetery buildings, deconstructed and laid out like parts to-be-assembled in an Ikea box.

The stones didn’t just get dropped-off yesterday. They’ve got several years worth of viney overgrowth climbing in, on, and around the various pieces; a number of fall seasons’ downed leaves mulching their bases.

gravestones removed from their graves and under thick vine, Pittsburgh, PA

In the head-heart continuum, we tend to want the cemetery to be the final place where one may rest in peace…forever. We also know that nothing actually lasts that long. Most of the time, for good or bad, we won’t have the chance to confront that reality. But seeing dozens of (literal) set-in-stone, lifetime memorials uprooted from their primary locations and dumped in a strange public-private boneyard junkyard makes it all the more obvious.

trimmed granite pieces in woods area of cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

We don’t know why these gravestones were uprooted or why the cemetery has dumped them so casually right in the middle of the property. The Orbit maintains a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward clarifying these matters, preferring to speculate and wonder over the cruel realities of truth.

That said, it seems like a strange business move for the marketing side of the cemetery. Will customers really want to buy that plot seeing the downed markers so nearby? And–assuming there are legitimate, practical reasons for the markers’ removal–why can’t the grounds crew at least put the retired stone in some kind of relative respectful order?

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

We imagine the current market for used gravestones is pretty low. That said, there simply must be more interesting uses for this substantial supply of unique historic, hand-cut, and incredibly-durable pieces than just sweeping them under the cemetery’s rug of fallen leaves.

The stockpile could absolutely be turned loose for artists to work with, used to decorate public spaces around the city, or recycled by monument makers into new graves. Speaking from experience, those of us who haunt the cemetery and ponder how the whole thing works would appreciate an educational display explaining how and why all these elements ended up displaced from the humans they once memorialized.

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

For our purposes, however, it’s a kind of weird disaster cool just as it is. The area evokes something between an Easterner’s imagination of the catastrophic wreckage following a big earthquake and the post-armageddon chaos that seems more likely every day. In zombie-obsessed Pittsburgh, we can picture the living dead rising from their crypts and casually tossing headstones like beach balls at summer concert. Perhaps the whole thing is social commentary: in just a couple months, The North Side can look forward to a similar scene in the wake of Kenny Chesney’s inevitable mid-summer return–only we may end up with more dead bodies around Heinz Field.

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

All the Way: The Arthur and Alfreda Antignani Mausoleum

Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park

The granite mausoleum stands alone inside a marquee plot surrounded by a thin circular cemetery road. A long stretch of musical staff wraps the perimeter with twenty-some bars of melody notation spelled-out; vertical fence posts serve double-duty as measure lines.

Two six-foot-tall ornamental saxophones flank the doorway; a third marks the crest of the roof. Palm to forehead, one can squint through the gauzy haze inside to the mausoleum’s stained glass window. There, a backlit treble clef symbol glows where one might normally expect the image of an angel or flowers[1]. The footpath out front is yet another gigantic saxophone, this one rendered minimally in two dimensions on red-brown granite tile. The entrance step is engraved “All the Way”.

detail of giant saxophone ornament on the Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Saxophone ornament, Antignani mausoleum

All the Way could–and should–be the title of Arthur and Alfreda Antignani‘s bio-pic. The couple lived large in a Hampton hilltop property they built for themselves and named Skyvue Estate. Our story on what remained of that shag-carpeted, double-bedazzled, rhinestone-encrusted, tchotchke-strewn, twenty-four hour party palace and its grounds [Graceland North: The Antignani Estate Sale, 4 Nov. 2015] is one of the most-read Orbit stories of all time. Though the Antignanis have left this particular stage, we thought it was high time to call for an encore and visit this fascinating couple in their final resting place.

stained glass window with treble clef symbol, Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Mausoleum stained glass window

That the Antignanis loved music should come as no surprise. Every inch of Skyvue Estate–from the guitar-shaped patio to the band of frog figurines jamming on the credenza–confirmed as much. So it is fitting that as Alfreda spent the very the last years of her life designing and planning the memorial[2], she’d want the imagery of music–especially Arthur’s tenor saxophone–featured prominently.

The touch to include actual musical notation on the small fence–as opposed to any old clip art approximation of stray notes on a staff–was an inspired design decision. If you haven’t guessed by now, the melody is, of course, “All the Way”.

detail of saxophone-shaped tile walkway at the Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Saxophone-shaped tile walkway

“All the Way”, the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen standard made famous by Ol’ Blue Eyes (among many others) is a classic tear-jerking ballad of life-long love. It may be a songwriting cliché, but a lyric like “Through the good or lean years, And for all the in between years” speaks not to the eros of so many pop songs and rom coms, but to the pragma and philia of a couple that spent over half a century together[3] in what we can only imagine as one of the great eccentric long run romances of our time.

To Arthur and Alfreda Antignani, may you rest in peace, all the way.

Arthur and Alfreda Antignani mausoleum, Allegheny County Memorial Park, Allison Park, PA

Art & Al, R.I.P.

Getting there: The Antignani mausoleum is in Allegheny County Memorial Park, 1600 Duncan Ave., Allison Park. The cemetery has very few above-ground average-sized headstones (possibly none?) so the handful of large memorials/mausoleums stand out really easily–you won’t miss it.

[1] For comparison, see Allegheny Cemetery: Mausoleum Stained Glass, Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 12, 2016.
[2] “In life and death, eccentric Hampton couple makes beautiful music together”, TribLive.com, Dec. 5, 2015.
[3] The Antignanis were married and 1959 and Arthur died (first) in 2011.

 

Look Out Loretto, Part 2: He’s Dead, Wrapped in Plastic

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown (detail)

He stands bolt upright, looking straight into the camera. The man is young–probably in his early twenties–dressed formally in jacket and tie with a corsage pinned to the lapel. Black hair is combed flat and parted hard to one side with a pair of troublesome locks springing loose across the forehead just above his eyebrow. The facial expression is curious: fixed formal, let’s-get-this-right sternness appears just on the edge of breaking to a suppressed, forbidden smile. This may have been his wedding day.

The small rectangular photograph is preserved in thick, transparent violet-hued Lucite and has one transverse crack across the man’s chest. A handful of small dings decorate the surface as if an assailant has taken to it with a crude weapon but gave up before doing any real damage. Otherwise, it is in fine shape.

The combined piece is about the size of a deck of playing cards and mounted to a beautiful marble headstone featuring Jesus on the cross, a pointed arch shape like a cathedral window, and a fading old-world cross-and-sun image we’re not familiar with. [Pious Orbit readers: help us out here–what is that thing?]

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of middle-aged man encased in plastic, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The irony of the photos mounted to headstones at Loretto Cemetery–most preserved on ceramic discs as we discussed in the previous post, but this and one other encased in thick acrylic–is that for so many, we don’t even know the names of the deceased.

What’s unique among the vast majority of photo markers here is the complete absence of identification remaining. At one time, the de rigueur details–name, birth and death dates, perhaps an epitaph or Lahke mu Zamlja inscription–almost surely filled the flat faces of the stones. But now on all but a few, they’ve been completely wiped-clean.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

How this came to be, we can only speculate on–but that’s what this blogger does best! It seems likely the cause has to do with the underlying material (marble? fieldstone?) and what was literally falling from the sky around Pittsburgh through most of the twentieth century. With the Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both sides of the river just downhill from Loretto Cemetery until the 1980s–not to mention plenty more like it up and down each of the rivers–regular doses of acid rain had to do a number on all the headstones made from susceptible materials.

This is a noteworthy turn of the tables for an environment where typically all we know are names and dates, forever left to wonder who these people were.

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph now broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown grave with faded and broken photo

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded and broken ceramic photo (detail), unknown

In Part 1 of this story we looked at a bunch of these headstone photos where the name of the deceased may or may not be known, but at least we got a pretty good (literal) picture of him or her. In almost all cases the ceramic has weathered with irregular cracking throughout the piece, but the image survives with enough clarity to get a sense of the person below the earth.

Not all these photos fared as well, though. First of all, at this point there are roughly an equal number of empty oval cutouts in headstones where the photos simply don’t exist any more. It’s impossible to know if these were stolen or vandalized or simply dropped out of their markers through a century of freeze-and-thaw cycles.

But even the ones that are still here aren’t necessarily all here. The sun had faded a number of the South-facing photos to mere ghosts represented in strange gray negatives. One of the pieces (above) has been broken with only the bottom half remaining. The detail is all gone, leaving just a vague outline of the woman’s face and basic description of the house dress she wore in the photo.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded ceramic photo, unknown

detail from granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of man in military dress, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Andreucci

Consider the plight of Joseph Andreucci (above) whose loved-ones ponied-up for a beautiful deep red and black granite that never suffered the erosion present on so many of the other stones. All this only to have his photo in military dress attire worn- or scraped-through to the iridescent green of oxidizing copper underneath.

The poor fellow below is not only unknown in name, but unknowable as image. It appears that some miscreant took a hammer directly to the photograph, rendering it completely unrecognizable. All that remains is a hint of combed, dark hair above the damage and a suit with jaunty floral accent below.

ceramic photograph with image vandalized on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If it’s possible to end both on a high note and six feet under, we’ll wrap this whole thing up with the big smile and voluminous curly locks of Anna Vensak. Her passing in 1996 is decidedly outside of the early century/between-the-wars window where we find all the other headstones in the series. But it seems notable for inclusion by virtue of its proximity here at Loretto Cemetery and the monument-maker’s continued use of the technique–certainly antiquated by the 1990s–deploying the oval-shaped photo, mortared directly to an inset cutout in the stone.

detail of granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Anna Vensak

In an age where photographs are so immediate, disposable, and omni-present as they currently are, it’s fascinating to think of a time not that long ago when a single image may be all that remains of the legacy of a human being’s time here on earth. For that one last opportunity to reach beyond this mortal coil to end up cracked, faded out entirely, or lost in the weeds of Arlington Heights is humbling at best and reaches to full-on existential crisis at worst. Either way, The Orbit will still be here, looking out for you.