Look Out Loretto, Part 1: Lahka Mu Zamlja

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a young girl and baby, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The first thing you’ll notice are the names: Kolesar, Zgurich, Csajka, Lippl, Knezevic. Any cemetery in Pittsburgh–certainly any older cemetery associated with a Catholic parish–will have its share of Eastern Europeans as long-term residents, but this one’s different.

Sure, there’s a couple token Irish and Italian names loitering among the stones–we spotted a Finnegan, a DiBlasio, and an Andreucci–but you’ll not any find any Smith, Jones, Williams, or Davis buried here. Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Kuchta are the rule, not the exception.

marble headstone with large cross and embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

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

unknown

Loretto Cemetery rests at the very easternmost end of the big mount that rises above the South Side. Far below, but difficult to see from the steep angle, is an S-shaped crook in the Monongahela as it snakes between Hazelwood and the South Side. It’s an enviable location: quiet, vacant, and with terrific long views across the river to Oakland and Greenfield on the other side.

We hadn’t come here looking for the dead, but any new cemetery is worth a poke-see when you trip across it. When we did, those names–Cvetkovic, Vnencsak, Mlinac, Turkovich, Opacic–just popped right out like candy on the shelf. Something interesting would surely await.

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

Toni Poljak

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of baby in high chair, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

That something came in the form of a small black-and-white photograph, cast onto an oval-shaped ceramic disc and inset directly into one of the tower-like headstones. The posed portrait was of a middle-aged woman, “Mother” Antonija Komlenić, Victorian in both high-necked formal dress and dour, no-fun-allowed expression.

The colored mortar used to anchor the piece in stone is half chipped-away, eroded by a century of industrial mill exhaust and harsh Western Pennsylvania weather[1]. The image is all there, but it’s faded and scored by sharp cracks awkwardly bisecting Komlenić’s face and torso.

headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić

detail of ceramic photograph on headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić (detail)

Looking around a little closer now, another headstone is embedded with the same kind of oval-shaped photo just steps away. This one features a large man in suit and tie, his head is cocked and he wears a kind of bushy mustache that hasn’t been in vogue for a very long time. Both the deep black of his dress jacket and the shade of the photo’s backdrop have worn away significantly. There’s an angled crack through the ceramic just under the deceased’s chin suggesting a sinister garrote, but the man’s face is calm–bored, even–and remarkably untouched by the hands of time.

Suddenly aware and on the lookout for more, the grave photos are all over–on stones tall and thin, mounted below marble crosses and flat on granite. There may be a couple dozen in total, scattered across the sections closest to Loretto’s entry gate on Devlin Street. At least as many feature an empty cutaway in the stone where the inset image is no longer present; its former tenant stolen or broken, weathered or vandalized long ago.

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

unknown

detail from headstone reading "Rojan 1893 - Umro 1927 - Lahka mu zamlja", Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lahka mu Zamlja

Lahka Mu Zamlja (alternately Laka Mu Zemlja), the Internet informs us, is either a Serbian or Croatian (perhaps both?) expression of condolence that translates to “may the black earth be easy on him.” Confirming this with Google translate was not very successful–it came up with preposterous gropes in the dark such as “easy land of mu” or “light mu country”[2]. But as this is likely an arcane idiom, it seems a pretty safe Balkanization of Rest in Peace.

We found this phrase on quite a number of Loretto’s graves, including some of the very ones with the inset portraits. While it’s impossible to know how “easy” the black earth was on each of these folks, the atmosphere above ground has taken varying degrees of torture out on their memorials. The photos here labeled unknown aren’t for lack of note-taking–there simply isn’t any text still readable on the headstones.

weathered marble headstone in the shape of a cross with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

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

unknown

The Orbit has spent considerable time in a whole lot of bone yards over the years and we’ve written quite a bit on the subject already. It’s nothing special to see more recent headstones with all manner of high-tech integral photos, bas reliefs, and digital engravings of the deceased, his or her family, loved ones, hobbies, and The Pittsburgh Steelers. But these hundred-year-old…ish[3] photographs-turned-grave ornaments are new to this blogger. Even if I have encountered other late Victorian/pre-war ceramic photos on headstones before, it certainly wasn’t with the quantity or density found in Loretto.

They’re something special, for sure. For one, simply because of the number that are still here [and that’s even more remarkable by the obvious number that are not]. More than that, though, it may be the context or the unpredictable deterioration they’ve been through, but the people in these photos seem to look right through you with a dark, foreboding wisdom of time and fate.

Old photos are almost always interesting. In these, though, there’s somehow a deeper presence. “Wife” Maria Miklin died in 1941, but her sepia-toned portrait as a young woman–scored, chipped, and cracked across the face and torso–seems to defiantly say is that all you got? Just wait ’til you get here, Jack. Lahka Mu Zamlja, indeed.

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

Maria Miklin

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a woman in bridal gown, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If existential blogging is what you’re looking for, The Orbit is qualified to satisfy. This whole bag conjured up all kinds of deep thoughts on memory and preservation and forever–luckily, we’ve also got a bunch more interesting photos to back that up. We’ll get to all that in Part 2.

GETTING THERE: Loretto Cemetery is in Arlington Heights and can be reached by going all the way to the east end of Arlington Ave. until it curls around to become Devlin Street. If you want a great hike, though, The Orbit recommends starting on the South Side at the base of the Oakley Way steps and making the journey all the way up and over on foot.


[1] In this case, literally a century; Antonija Komlenić died exactly one hundred years ago, in 1916.
[2] Note to Google: when you get tired of mucking about with driverless cars, see if you can translate “mu” from Croatian!
[3] An incredible number of these headstones have no remaining legible text, but the ones that do date from the 1910s to 1940s.

Sudden Death, Over Time: Steeler Graves

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Robert K. James, Allegheny Cemetery

In the great Autumn campaign that is each of our lives, we’ll inevitably begin to feel those last seconds of the final game tick off the clock. We can all hope to make it deep into the playoffs–heck, some may even get lucky enough to reach this preposterous metaphor’s Super Bowl. But even with the very best “clock management,” we’re all heading toward a long long off-season in the sky at some point.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Stacy and Stephen Slanina, Allegheny Cemetery

Forever, the Purple One reminds us, is a mighty long time. It’s likely, though, that The Prince was not thinking about funeral arrangements when he urged us all to “go crazy.” So I’m sure it’s with no small amount of consideration that most folks choose the design and ornament of a gravestone–either for oneself (if he or she likes to plan ahead) or for the loved one the family is burying (more likely?).

Why, there’s the stone itself, available in any number of shapes, sizes, finishes, and flourishes. There’s the text–a full name, sometimes with a favorite nickname, birth and death dates*, and then any manner of other possibilities: pithy epitaphs, Bible verses, embedded portraits, etched images both representational (occupations, avocations) and ornamental (flowers, angels, religious insignia).

grave marker with Steelers logo, St. Michael's Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jack W. Springer, St. Michael’s Cemetery

If the deceased happened to champion a particularly well-loved, black-and-gold-hued eleven, chances are maybe better than you’d think that the emblem of said N.F.L. franchise will end up etched into his or her headstone. This act of committing and commemorating the deceased to eternity as a devoted Steeler fanatic lets the living know that while still tripping on this mortal coil he or she bled (hopefully not, you know, all the way out) black and gold.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers flag, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Marie and Jim Coyner, Allegheny Cemetery

It’s a curious choice. Steelers fans would never admit it, but sports franchises are transient things. Pittsburgh has been fortunate to never have one of its teams skip town, but we’re only 80-some years into professional football history–there’s still a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.

Are there graves in Baltimore or Brooklyn or Hartford with Colts, Dodgers, and Whalers logos carved into them? I doubt it, but only because those moves all happened before the relatively recent phenomena of having one’s passions preserved in stone**. But what about St. Louis–are there fresh graves just set with Rams insignia marking them? Possibly…maybe even probably. What an indignity to give one’s afterlife to a team that just high-tailed it back to Los Angeles.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Roman L. Bryant, Allegheny Cemetery

It makes you wonder if this happens everywhere. This blogger can certainly imagine the same level of devotion from fans of the Boston Red Sox or Montreal Canadiens or Green Bay Packers. But what about Cleveland or Cincinnati? They’ve got their own rabid fans, but are there Browns and Bengals graves? We sure hope not–life on earth following these teams was already Hell, why take that misery with you?

upright gravestone with Steelers logo, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Frederick J. Brown, Highwood Cemetery

What about even more marginal sports territories? Is there anyone in Seattle or San Jose that cares enough about the Seahawks or the Sharks to tattoo it on a gravestone? Does most of North Carolina, Florida, or Texas even know they have hockey teams? What monument maker could carve the offensive Cleveland Indian or Washington “redskin” into stone in good faith? I don’t even want to look at the terrible Anaheim “mighty duck”, let alone get buried under it.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jeffrey L. Turner, Allegheny Cemetery

All that said, the good people of Pittsburgh are quite comfortable with this option. It wouldn’t be my choice, but I’m glad it is for some. Studying the cemetery is like anything else where we see changes in culture reflected over time. In many ways, future generations will know more about us now from these Steeler graves (as well as the other custom designs and embedded images) than we can derive from their much more opulent 19th century ancestors. At least, they’ll know we (Pittsburgh) sure liked football. On that, they’ll be correct.

gravestone with large Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Kevin Washington, Sr., Highwood Cemetery


* Coming across the occasional stone with no death date is always intriguing. We assume these are just folks who plan farther ahead than Orbit staff, but you never know.
** You’ll note that all photos are from graves dating from 2002 onward. We don’t know when monument makers began offering these kind of options, but almost all of the custom personal interest imagery seems to come from the 1990s-present.

Union Dale Cemetery: The Lamb Lies Down on Baahway

iron grave marker of a lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown)

Union Dale Cemetery‘s Division Three, Section b (yes: that’s a lower-case b) lies waaay in the back, at a high point in the park, bordered by treelined fencing that separates the property from nearby Presley Ridge School. Section b is so far removed that it doesn’t even appear on the cemetery’s online maps*.

But if you can make it out to Union Dale’s far northeast outpost, the tell-tale shapes of lambs popping up on gravestones and laying down in the grass will tell you you’ve reached the right spot. The creatures will be calmly resting, their little lamb ears pointing out at the sides. Each one of them will face the same direction.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Wm. B. Henderson

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jane Lee Blumfeldt

Listen here: when we shoot the sheep, we’re not talking about any jive-ass 2-D cutaways or bas relief lambs, either–though there’s plenty of those loitering on newer stones in the same neighborhood. No, this is full-on, worn-to-nubs marble and granite lambitude.

Two of the specimens (Kirk and Klein, photos below) seem to be the same general make and model, but otherwise each gravestone is unique. That’s not to say the lambs don’t look alike–they do–but there’s enough variance here to suggest these weren’t simply off-the-shelf lamb-on-a-box markers.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Kirk

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Ralph A. Klein

Jennie Benford, our Concierge to the Dead, says “The lambs were very popular but almost exclusively for children’s markers.” The Internet backs her up on this claim, as does the anecdotal evidence of the dates we can see on the (still-legible) stones here. The deceased were all between months and just a few years old when they arrived at Union Dale and given the concentration in this one small area, we have to wonder if Section b was earmarked as plot for children.

The association of lambs with the death of children has a number of explanations, but the most common seems to this passage from the Bible:

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.  — John 1:29

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown)

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

June Ann Reese

There are other similarities. Every one of the markers (that we’re able to read) is dated from the same decade. Jennie assures us “The lamb stones are not strictly 1920s–I’ve seen them used much earlier than that and for some time after,” but it’s an interesting data point.

The lamb is always sculpted alone and awake, but in a resting position with its legs folded underneath. I imagine there is a practical aspect to this–sculpting those spindly legs from delicate marble is likely very expensive and accident-prone. That said, one has to accept that the feeling of innocence is even more pronounced with the gentle creature in repose. What could be more harmless and vulnerable than a kneeling fluffy white lamb?

Perhaps most curious, every single lamb faces to the left (as the visitor faces the stone)**. Now, that may just be a coincidence in our small sample, but if so, it’s equal to flipping “heads” ten times in a row. Still, reading any dramatic symbolism into facing left vs. right seems like a major stretch. Left, in this case, is also north, since all the stones face the same direction–west, or downhill and towards the only small access road. Again: likely not a planned coordination.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown)

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Catherine Achey

Union Dale Cemetery is an intimidating place to explore. It covers a huge area–likely equal to the size of Allegheny Cemetery or many (larger) city neighborhoods. The full plot is divided by Brighton Road and Marshall Avenue/Rt. 19, which effectively turns the park into three separate cemeteries. [Union Dale labels each of these a division.]

It’s hard to imagine there’s any best or worst way to take in Union Dale for the newcomer. That said, like so many things in life–or, it seems, in death–there’s nothing wrong with ending up at Plan b.

weathered gravestone with lamb, Union Dale Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

John Buckalynn


* Section b should not be confused with Section B, right by the entrance. Also, it looks like Union Dale’s PDF maps may have a page 2 that just didn’t make it to the web site.
** Two of the markers photographed are simply freestanding sculptures without an engraved headstone, so there is no left or right.

Allegheny Cemetery: Mausoleum Stained Glass

mausoleum stained glass with pentagram, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Sproal-Splane

Seeing the world through the Orbit eye. Those words came to us a while back from superfan Lee, and we accept it as the ultimate compliment. Lee still requires corrective eyewear–so be warned that Pittsburgh Orbit is no substitute for Lasik–but we think we know what he was getting at.

If Orbit “reporting” has taught us anything at all, it’s to always take another look. Lose the expectations and open up the senses. Point those peepers everywhere you can: down the alley, around the corner, on the pavement, up in the telephone wires, and through the crack in the window. Like Irene Cara said: take your pants off and make it happen. What a feeling, indeed.

broken mausoleum stained glass with sitting woman and field of flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

James M. Miller

mausoleum stained glass of oil lamp hanging in arched window with columns, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown (possibly Krey, based on nearby cenotaph)

One of those spots, attentive Orbit readers will have anticipated by now, is through the thick barred grates, cobwebbed glass, and musky air of the ornate mausoleums at our historic cemeteries. Pittsburgh is sitting on a bunch of these.

This blogger has walked through, bicycled around, picnicked in, and shutterbugged Allegheny Cemetery literally hundreds of times over the last couple decades. Allegheny’s collection of mausoleums isn’t quite as spectacular as the rock star ones we toured with Jennie Benford last year at Homewood, but it’s nothing to scoff at.

The mausoleums act as both beacons and exclamation points on the rolling landscape and much of the art deco and faux-Egyptian architecture is really astounding. But for whatever reason, we rarely ever took the opportunity to shade the eyes and poke the schnoz in to check out the interior spaces.

mausoleum stained glass with angel, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown (detail)

mausoleum shelves with trophies in front of colored glass, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Sheets

I’ll tell you: it’s not an easy thing to do. The average mausoleum–in Allegheny Cemetery, at least–seems to have a pair of thin, highly-decorated entry doors, each behind some version of vertical iron bars or decorative scrolled metalwork. Half the time, the original door locks are still in use, if not, there’s an awkward after-market steel chain and padlock lashed around whatever it can grab ahold of.

If you can see much inside, it’s typically a narrow passage, just wide enough for a person to turn around in, flanked by the celebrated residents’ crypts. Sometimes there’s just one of these on either side; others are stacked floor to ceiling. At the rear of almost every mausoleum is a stained glass window providing the only natural light outside of the shaded entry doors.

So to look inside a mausoleum is to peer through several layers of obfuscation, from the outside daylight into a darkened interior that may have had a hundred years since its last human visitor.

broken mausoleum stained glass with architectural design, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

King

mausoleum stained glass with angel in green tunic, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Wettengel (detail)

And what do we get to see in the stained glass? In a word: flowers–lots and lots of flowers. Flowers in vases, flowers in gardens, ornamental flowers, and flowers held by angels; lillies of the valley and daffodils of the foothills. We only included photos for a few of these; the flowers are quaint, but they’re just not that exciting.

Beyond the flora, however, there’s some pretty neat stuff. An old-school oil lamp dangles under an arched cathedral window with ghostly leaf shadows backlit from the outside; angels appear with painted-on faces, doe-eyed and calming; and, of course, in that chestnut of mortal symbolism, the sun sets over and over again in Mausoleumville.

There are also the broken panes. Windows whose heavy weight, coupled with a hundred years of un-climate-controlled Pennsylvania weather, eventually overburdened the lower sections. Individual colored pieces have popped out and cracked, leaving the windows looking like incomplete paint-by-numbers; the unimpeded sun’s glare the brightest element in the tiny space.

broken mausoleum stained glass with arch and white flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lillian Russell Moore

Is it worth a trip? Well, Allegheny Cemetery is absolutely worth all the time you can give it–even if you don’t want to squint into (silent film star) Lillian Russell‘s final repository. But while you’re there, yeah, you should neb into whoever’s crypt you can. The Sheets and the Kreys and the Sproal-Splanes don’t seem like they’re coming around anymore, but don’t worry; we’ve got that Orbit eye looking out for them.

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 2

handmade grave made from cement block, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“Bucky” Bailey

In our previous post, we got all philosophical on the nature of a cemetery’s role in eternity. But coming across the D.I.Y. graves in Highwood Cemetery made us think about a lot more than the future of the mortuary industry or how long the living realistically need graves to visit. So in this follow-up we think about the possible reasons that moved these families to create their own grave markers. And, of course, there’s a bunch more pictures.

diy-grave-adelle-wright

Adelle Wright

This blogger won’t pretend to know why or how these folks ended up with a homemade cross or a cement building block for their grave marker–there may well be as many different reasons as there are plots. The most obvious though, is that it can be really expensive to purchase and install a custom-made granite stone. From the high hundreds to thousands of dollars it takes to have a stone cut, inscribed, and installed is likely way out of the budget for many people, especially immediately following a death, funeral, and burial.

At Highwood Cemetery, the D.I.Y. graves are all clustered in the same general vicinity, all the way at the back in a section bordering fence and the grounds crew sheds on spot of scrub grass that lacks all of the natural beauty and tall trees of the older sections. I don’t know what the pricing or politics of D.I.Y. graves is, but I’d guess these are the cheap seats.

handmade grave with rough poured concrete, flowers, and spinner, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown

It begs a follow-up question, though, which is that if money were the main object, why have a burial at all? Cremation is absolutely the most cost-efficient way to deal with a death and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would suggest that if you don’t have a “real” gravestone, then what’s the point?

I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. For a whole lot of people, it’s still very important to have a physical place to commune with their loved-one and for a totem of that person’s life to exist. Despite all the practicality of cremation, this is really the primary reason why cemeteries exist.

handmade grave with wooden cross and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Leroy Jacks

One thing that struck me about the D.I.Y. graves is that, for the most part, they seem to be visited much more recently than their more permanent neighbors. I’m purely basing that on the volume of flowers, wreaths, personal belongings, etc. that have been applied to them. These items don’t last at cemeteries–they’re routinely cleaned-up in seasonal purges by the grounds crew. With nearly every single one of the D.I.Y. graves having some form of recent offering, it’s a remarkable correlation to the type of grave.

handmade grave with photograph, flowers, and stones in shape of a heart, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown

We couldn’t help but think of the study showing an inverse correlation between the amount of money spent on the wedding and the length of the marriage. Maybe in today’s world, purchasing a raised lawn-level plaque is the post-mortal coil equivalent of just buying a Hallmark card and writing a check. How fast can I get out of here?

handmade grave with wooden post, white dove, and memory book, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown


 

Final note: We’re hooked! If you’ve got a tip on some D.I.Y. graves in the general Pittsburgh area, please let us know.

See also: The D.I.Y Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

handmade grave made of 2x4s with photograph and Hennessy bottles, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown

The cemetery, perhaps more than any other civic institution, implies permanence–or maybe eternity. Headstones are carved from granite or cast in bronze. The deceased are entombed in a manicured landscape that we optimistically imagine will appear with the same tranquility forever. Rest in Peace is both believable fantasy and contractual expectation for those laid out under its well-groomed acres.

handmade grave made from 2x4s, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Donald Lowry

So The Orbit‘s purely accidental arrival on a section of homemade or “do-it-yourself” grave markers at the far back of Highwood Cemetery was both a complete surprise and a total revelation. From a single PVC pipe with a child’s art class cement step stone to a pair of two-by-fours crudely nailed together, the departed’s name applied with a Sharpie to the bare wood, these memorials are already sun-bleached, rain-soaked, and definitely won’t make it through that many Pittsburgh winters.

diy-grave-brub-efb

Brub E.F.B.

This blogger will be the first to admit his general good fortune, both in life, and yes, in death. He’s still breathing, for one, and has never had to bury anyone, never had make funeral arrangements or pick out a casket, never had to select a grave plot or deal with a funeral home, never even had to make awkward conversation with distant relatives at the wake of a close loved one.

And so, of course, I’ve also never been in the position to select a headstone. Nor had I ever even considered that one might be able (err…allowed within the cemetery’s rules) to do this for oneself.

handmade grave with wooden cross and paving stones, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Bruce A. Jones

This whole month, Pittsburgh Orbit has been visiting local cemeteries. You start to see some interesting patterns when you spend enough time in a place. One of those is that in terms of visitation, our cemeteries may be roughly divided into three general sections. There’s the older parts, full of dramatic high-gothic mausoleums, giant focus cenotaphs, stained glass, and ornate statuary, often accompanied by a (locally) famous name. Jennie Benford gives a great tour of such monuments in Homewood Cemetery. Then there are the newer sections of (generally) more humble graves for the recently-departed. These collect nearly 100% of the flowers and teddy bears. And then there’s everybody else.

handmade grave with wooden cross, bandana, and Steelers hat, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

R.W.G. Bang

If your name isn’t H.J. Heinz or Lillian Russell or Stephen Foster and if you didn’t choose a gravestone tribute to Jaws, well, your monument may be available–and it’s probably still in good shape and totally legible–but realistically, probably no one cares that much. I’m not trying to harsh the mellow of someone who’s, you know, already dead, but it’s the truth. Even etched in stone, we’ve got a limited shelf life.

handmade grave with wooden cross, blue bow, and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Keith

I think this is ultimately what gives Highwood’s D.I.Y. graves such emotional power. These aren’t cold stones that will dramatically outlive the families that planted them. They’re very much living tributes for the people who are still in their lives and they will exist for exactly the time they’re most in need–while their loved-ones are still grieving.

I don’t know if it will ever happen, but you could imagine this as a really beautiful, sustainable model for the future. Allow the family to have the closure of a funeral, burial, and a completely home-made memorial that they can visit for five or ten or twenty years–whatever makes sense. But ultimately return the earth to a general pool for another generation to use.

That may or may not be something that would sell to the general cemetery customer but I’d be willing to–let’s abuse our metaphors here–put it in the ground and see who eulogizes it.

Homemade grave with PVC pipe and cast concrete medallion, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Dad


Orbit note: There are so many of these D.I.Y. graves in Highwood and they raised so many interesting questions that we decided to break this into two posts. Here’s part 2.

Sad Toys: Graveyard Edition

pink teddy bear leaning against gravestone

Pink bear, Highwood Cemetery. [Yes: for a sad toy, this guy looks pretty happy–but don’t let that grin fool you!]

The grass-is-greener daydreamers that loaf around Pittsburgh Orbit’s office imagine there’s a point in any blog’s creative arc when the pieces begin to fall together without even trying; when the self-referential tropes loop in on themselves. Like a well-primed compost heap, or a nuclear meltdown, heat is generated all on its own and the stories pop out as fully-formed posts, and then barrel their way through the earth’s core.

“Imagine”? Hell: we’re counting on it! By one reasonable calculation, mere months separate the Orbit from magically appearing on your computer screen without any legwork or finger-clicking on our part. There’s Yoo-hoo in the fridge, call me if you need anything–just don’t interrupt my Rockford Files.

four plastic action figures in weeds in front of gravestone with date and epitaph

“Our Beloved Son”. Superheroes in the weeds, Highwood Cemetery

Whatever the reality of “publishing” “new media,” we don’t think we’re abusing too many metaphors to say there was some kind of magic that happened when this little piece of manna dropped from the sky and rolled across the Orbit editorial desk. There it was: a story with all the ingredients for the most satisfying of autumn blogging stews: a heaping helping of cemetery tales, a motherlode of sad toys, a dash of pathos, some human expression, and nature-without-man chaos. Bitter, sweet, and yes, umami. Oh, and it was all timed for Halloween season–when the graveyard toys rise up to take back what is rightfully theirs.

2 teddy bears in thick grass

Twin teddy bears, Allegheny Cemetery

To label stuffed animals left at grave sites as “sad toys” is certainly a judgement call. These creatures are not flotsam dropped from strollers or ejected from the open windows of minivans. No, the figures were left very intentionally as tribute or companion to the departed. In that way, they’re exactly where their owners expect them to be, doing just what they intend them to do. Is that so bad? We should all be so fortunate.

grave with teddy bears, solar lights, and deflated champagne bottle balloon

Sad teddy bear, sad cool bear, sad inflatable Cristal bottle, Allegheny Cemetery

stuffed animal dog on bed of plastic flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Game over, Rover, Allegheny Cemetery

But to not call them sad would be an even greater oversight. These playthings are, after all, left out in the rain, ice, and snow; their once-soft fur a gnarled, sun-bleached mat. Often alone, these fierce friends watch over the graves of the deceased with no company but the occasional stray deer, opossum, or wild turkey. A drive-by from this flash bulb-popping blogger paparazzi makes the highlight reel of their short lives.

If this wasn’t pathetic enough, these toys’ inevitable fate is to be corralled in every cemetery’s seasonal cleanup where Build-a-Bears and Steeler monkeys join the plastic flowers, laminated photographs, sports balls, Hennessy bottles, and deflated Mylar balloons in grotesque heaps that, as one Orbit pundit put it, “look like a florist threw up.”

stuffed bear and stuffed dog with flowers

Bear and dog, Highwood Cemetery

two plastic action figures with living flowers

Wrestler (?), stunt man (?), last-legs flowers, Highwood Cemetery

To you, faithful servants, doomed sentries of the cemetery, mud-soaked minions of Mordor: know that at least one of us is here looking out for you. You may be in a trash compactor in McKees Rocks by the time we go to press, but you’ll live on for eternity–or at least a couple months–in cyberspace blogosphere Purgatory. Godspeed.

monkey in Pittsburgh Steelers colors with sad bear

Steeler Monkey and friend, Highwood Cemetery