Death & the vulva: ancient erotica and the fear of mortality

Death & the vulva: ancient erotica and the fear of mortality

Death anxiety is embedded in the human experience. So too, fear of women, especially their exposed genitals, has captivated society for millennia. Putting these two phobias in context by examining historical depictions of the vulva, vagina and womb reveals how preceding cultures understood death as a cycle emanating from the divine feminine. Just as female reproductive organs are connected with life-giving, they have also been objects of panic symbolizing end-of-life or power to take life away. In this post I examine beliefs and myths surrounding women’s genitalia. Striking examples include ancient erotica such as Venus figurines, vagina dentata, and sheela na gigs. Analyzing these and other artifacts invites us to consider how fear of death has been socially constructed through the ages.

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Baubo figurine, 323-230 BC. According to researchers the goddess is in a state of giving birth. Her organs are seen as life-giving, or the personification of sexuality. Some interpret these statues as spiritual artifacts used to ward off disasters. Credit

Vulvas have been both feared and worshiped since antiquity. Etchings of what is assumed to be a vulva date back some 37,000 years and is the oldest known cave art in existence. Venus figurines made by early humans 35,000-22,000 years ago have been discovered across Europe, Asia, and as far as Siberia. Earliest examples like the Venus of Hohle Fels is the oldest undisputed depiction of a human being. In total, over a hundred such figurines are known. Most have small heads, wide hips and exaggerated breasts or vulva. While most researchers comment on their explicit sexuality, we should not discount their capacity to convey sexuality and death simultaneously. In fact, many Venus figurines were worn as amulets in burial rituals.

Not all representations of the vulva have been favorable. Folklore of the vagina dentata (toothed vagina) provides evidence that humans have imagined female sex organs to be attractive but also very dangerous. Myths vary in time and region yet exist in abundance all over the globe. The basic message is that a woman’s body and sexuality are deadly and must be controlled. In psychoanalytic terms, vaginal teeth produce castration complex and penis envy. Freud was the first to coin the term vagina dentata in the late 1950s, although the motif has existed for centuries. This myth has entrenched fears of women’s bodies and may even be linked to rape epidemics and female genital cutting. It also connects women to a symbolic fear of death because the malignant vagina will maim and kill any man who dares enter.

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Dermoid cyst (cystic teratoma) with fully developed tooth and hair formed inside an ovary. UCL Pathology Collections. Credit

Hine-nui-te-pō’s tale offers a version of vagina dentata that is perhaps more redeeming. Also known as “Great Woman of Night” this giant goddess of death and the underworld is prominent in Māori history. One night a demigod trickster named Māui attempts to crawl through Hine-nui-te-pō’s vagina as she sleeps. Disguised as a worm passing through the birth canal in the wrong direction, Māui hopes to exit through her mouth and win immortality. But a laughing bird recognizes Māui’s arrogance and awakens Hine-nui-te-pō. She clamps down with her obsidian vaginal teeth and crushes Māui to death, thus securing the same eternal fate for all mankind.

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Death goddess, Hine-nui-te-po and the demise of the half mortal Maui. Carver and location unknown. Photograph by Charles A Lloyd, circa 1900. Credit

Similar artifacts that have shifted the narrative in a more empowering direction are sheela na gigs, or “sheelas.” These 12th- to 17th-century stone carvings of supernatural females proudly displaying their vulvas have been found in the British Isles on all kinds of secular and religious architecture. From medieval churches, castles and town walls to holy wells and gravestones, they are usually shown standing or squatting with an exaggerated vulva that looks like a portal between their legs. They are fascinating remnants of a pre-Christian era, but there is no consensus as to what they symbolize. Experts have suggested everything from fertility to shaming women’s sexuality and endorsing chastity. In fact, they were so upsetting to clergy and churchgoers during the Anglo-Norman reformation that many were chiseled from their pedestals, buried or burned.

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Sheela na gig opening her vulva, ornamental cornice at Kilpeck Church. Credit

One interpretation is that sheelas were pagan goddess figures emblematic of the divine Earth Mother who births us then takes us back into her at the time of our eventual demise. Researchers often site the shape of the vulva with Paleolithic cave formations as an embodiment of the universal womb. The pubic opening as a source of life and destruction is a prominent theme in the archeological record as I described above. It has been associated with all stages of life including virility, decay and renewal. Taken in this context, sheelas are gatekeepers of human transformation representing return to the womb at the time of death.

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An example of a claviform, which is a vertical bar with a small bump at the upper end interpreted as being a stylized female figure or womb. Female symbols in caves, both the vulva and claviforms, tend to be located at smaller natural cavities or windows. La Pasiega Cave, Cantabria. Credit

During the medieval period, vulvas were used as symbols of protection. Archeologists have discovered a large collection of leaden badges dating from the mid-14th to the early-16th centuries. These small wearable charms were often carried by travelers during times of pilgrimage. Such devotional items show the vulva winged or crowned making them seem more like royal entities rather than objects of fear. Some researches have described them as obscene, pornographic or parodies. But compelling evidence suggests the badges were used to protect the wearer from contracting the greatest pestilence the world has ever known: the Black Death. During plague years it was commonly assumed that the illness spread through eye contact with a diseased person via the Evil Eye. Lacking concrete medical knowledge, early folkways suggested shocking the Eye and diverting its deadly gaze through the use of quasi-magical or apotropaic devices. While not all amulets carried by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures were graphic, what could be more shocking than the sight of nakedness?

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Leaden pilgrimage badge depicting a vulva, dating from 1350-1500 CE. Credit  

“Anasyrma” or exposing the genitals is a form of exhibitionism that has been documented since at least the time of Ancient Greece. Such ritual exposition has accompanied circumstances of war, to evoke laughter and for emotional healing. Many historical references suggest that anasyrma has supernatural effects to thwart harm or evil spirits. In the Homeric Hymn, Demeter (goddesses associated with cycles of life and death) is in mourning after her daughter, Persephone, has been taken to the underworld. Baubo visits Demeter and makes the goddess laugh by lifting up her skirt. In some parts of Nigeria, women invoke a curse upon men by showing their genitals. Men who are exposed are considered socially dead and no one will cook for them, marry them, enter into contracts or buy anything from them.

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A woman reveals herself to the Devil in this 1896 illustration by Jean de la Fontaine: Tales and Novels in Verse. Vol. 2. Credit

As women give life, they can take it away. Throughout historic displays and myths of the vulva we can see many aspects of sexuality, fertility and spirituality. Intrinsically linked to these cycles is the final stage of life culminating in death. While such images may be shocking, they are necessary for recasting women’s creative/destructive power and cultural connection to dying. Moreover, recognizing their importance helps shift the personification of death from a masculine, malevolent force to something more womb-like and motherly. No doubt death will always be scary. But expanding our interpretations means getting more comfortable with death as a concept and eventuality. Maybe its time to pass the Reaper’s proverbial scythe to its rightful owner, the vulva.

 

The execution of Guy Fawkes & Severed Heads of the London Bridge


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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The story of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder treason doesn’t end on the 5th of November. After famously failing to blow up the House of Lords and destroy British Parliament with a group of co-conspirators, Fawkes plotted a final act of revenge on January 31, 1606 by taking his own life at the Westminster gallows. In the aftermath his decapitated head was spiked on Traitor’s Gate at the London Bridge, becoming one of many cases in a gruesome and often overlooked tradition that lasted 355 years.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A judge ordered Fawkes and his comrades to be hanged, dismembered, genitals mutilated, and remains scattered throughout the kingdom. Following three days of torture Fawkes marched to the gibbet. While ascending the scaffold he turned from his would-be executioner and leapt, breaking his own neck with the fall. His sentence was complete after being drawn and quartered. This was a customary death penalty issued to many during Britain’s 17th century. Public head staking, however, was reserved for members of the aristocracy and high profile traitors like Fawkes.

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Photo via British Library

Perfidious Fauks, whole hopes were lately high

By Treason to be rais’d to Dignity;

By Justice, finds Treason retaliated,

His Head upon a Pole high elevated:

That All may see Gods vengeance prosecuting,

The proudest Traitors, treason executing.

By Francis Herring and John Vicars in, The quintessence of cruelty, or, master-piece of treachery, the Popish pouder-plot, invented by hellish-malice, prevented by heavenly-mercy, 1652.

Various construction projects for the London Bridge were underway by at least 1066 utilizing wood and floating pontoons. In 1209 it was established as a permanent stone viaduct. The structure contained modern features such as a drawbridge, defensive gates on either side, multi-seated public latrines, and crowded retail shops. The north gatehouse was the first notorious site in 1305 when the skull of William “Braveheart” Wallace was affixed to the top of a looming spike. The southernmost gate was eventually selected to serve as the macabre scene because it was more visible to pedestrians.

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Photo via Daily Mail

The job of maintaining this gallery of horrors fell to the “Keeper of the Heads.” Said individual was responsible for boiling, bathing them in hot tar to stave off rot, and staking them atop the gate. Following 2-3 weeks of sufficient spectacle the Keeper removed weathered skulls from view. Unless an industrious family member paid a hefty bribe to retrieve their loved one’s cranium it was discarded into the Thames.  There are surviving ghost tales of an infamous lute-playing Keeper who took his job a little too seriously and refuses to leave his post.

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Photo via History at North Hampton

Guy Fawkes was one among many whose eviscerated remains were used to deter criminals from acting out against the Crown. These repressive tactics were effective for roughly four centuries of social control. As a German traveler to the city described in 1598, over 30 heads were on display during one visit alone. The cruel and unusual punishment finally fell out of favor around 1660, but heads were reported at the site as late as 1772 by John Timbs, author of Curiosities of London

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Photo via British History Online

City Asleep: History of Garden Cemeteries and Philadelphia’s Abandoned Mount Moriah

An elegant sprawl of manicured land is probably what comes to mind when you think of a cemetery. But this picturesque model is relatively new in the Western world and has been difficult for some cemetery associations to preserve. Such is the case with Mount Moriah in Philadelphia. Before the 1700s overcrowded churchyards housed a majority of a city’s dead as I explored in another post. Thankfully, city planning took over for sectarian gravesites after they became an issue of public concern.  The first landscaped cemetery opened in France in 1804. Greenspaces built in this romantic style are the marbled terraces that taphophiles know and love today.

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1861 engraving detailing plans for a garden cemetery in Rhode Island. Credit.

Sometimes called rural cemeteries because they were strategically placed outside city limits, the first manifestation of American garden cemeteries was established in 1831 at Mount Auburn near Boston. This trend quickly took hold and by the 1850s nearly 30 garden cemeteries were built across New England and the MidWest. From their earliest development garden cemeteries were used as public parks for recreation purposes.

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Mount Auburn Cemetery, oil on canvas by Thomas Chambers. Credit .

Unfortunately, civic interest has dwindled throughout the twentieth century and some cemeteries have fallen into disrepair. The number of cremations also increased meaning that families no longer needed a physical site to visit their dead. Moreover, maintaining a huge ornamental garden was an exceptional cost that some growing municipalities simply couldn’t afford. Mount Moriah fits into the latter category.

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Screenshot of The Woodlands via Google Maps.

Healthy garden cemeteries maintain clean geometric shapes that balance natural elements like the satellite view of Philadelphia’s Woodlands shown above. Mount Moriah on the other hand has become astonishingly overgrown. For visual reference I contrasted the original cemetery plans below with an aerial cutout outlined in red as it exists today. Where there should be rows of neat headstones are now mostly trees.

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Original 1910 map of Mount Moriah with inlay of overgrown rotunda via Google Maps.
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View from the ground of the same rotunda. Photo by Alysen Wade.

Mount Moriah cemetery was complete in 1855 in southwest Philadelphia. It joined other famous garden cemeteries like Laurel Hill and The Woodlands. At one point Mount Moriah outpaced them all, consuming over 200 acres of land making it the largest in the state.

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Headstones in a tangle of trees. Photo by Alysen Wade.

It is unclear when the cemetery began to visibly decline but has suffered from neglect and mismanagement throughout the twentieth century. There are however two military plots located here that are still well-maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Vines overtaking an ornate sarcophagus. Photo by Alysen Wade.

The cemetery has no clear ownership after its last known member of the cemetery association died in 2004. Since then it has been gridlocked in a unique battle because it spans two county lines.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Fortunately for those laid to rest and families who wish to visit the deceased, a nonprofit group called Friends of Mount Moriah organizes regular cleanups and fundraisers to secure the yearly $500,000 operating fee. Even with community support there is much to be done in the way of clearing extensive brush.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Several famous political figures are buried here including past mayors and state representatives. Betsy Ross, craftswoman of the first American flag was interred with her husband until they were both relocated to Christ Church in the mid-1970s.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Mount Moriah cemetery was known in the community for being an affordable option. While other facilities charged upwards of $5,000, Mount Moriah offered similar landscapes for less than half that – an option considerate of its surrounding lower-income residents.

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Mausoleum damaged by vandals. Photo by Alysen Wade.

Business activity officially ceased as of 2011. Even if families currently hold deeds to plots there is no operator who coordinates and consents to burials on the property, which means that no new interments can take place.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

The city of Philadelphia has no oversight of the land and cannot offer funds for its upkeep. There are no shareholders to push for election of new board members. Mount Moriah’s complicated status may be the only predicament of its kind. With no legal precedent it is unclear when and if duly authorized individuals can rectify the cemetery’s insufficient perpetuity fund.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Lending to Mount Moriah’s importance as a cultural hub is the provision of many unique arrangements. Several Muslim burials have taken place here while other regional sites historically shut them out. Mount Moriah features rare communal burials allowing for up to three family members in the same plot which helped reduce costs.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

To see such a beautiful place in a state of disrepair with no certain future is heartbreaking to say the least. The feeling of woe is further compounded when considering the geographic location. While places like Laurel Hill are situated in more affluent parts of town you have to consider that Mount Moriah’s neglect is part of the larger issue of urban decay plaguing Philadelphia’s lower West side.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

The Friends of Mount Moriah have been operating since 2011 entirely on public support. As their mission statement notes, the cemetery is an important resource for several racial, religious, and socioeconomic stakeholders. Widespread community involvement to revive the cemetery’s rich history is a cause to celebrate. If you do not live in Philadelphia or are otherwise unable to attend restoration events you can assist by purchasing a t-shirt or donating in kind. With continued engagement from cemetery lovers of all walks of life the history of garden cemeteries like Mount Moriah will continue to thrive.

Death & Feminism: The History of Funerals as Women’s Work

Women have always played an important role in handling the deceased. Yet funeral customs throughout history reflect significant labor shifts. In the mid-1800s women called “shrouders” or “layers-out of the dead” offered their services as primary caretakers of those who passed. Women who were themselves widows or previously bereaved washed, dressed, and posed corpses of friends and extended family for their at-home ceremonies. This included grooming, removal of organs, and applying preservation techniques to stave off rot.*

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The Shrouding Woman, by Loretta Ellsworth tells the story of Evie, whose aunt with a strange profession comes to live with them after her mother’s death. Credit

Since antiquity women’s burial duties have consisted of much more than body preparation. They also presided over ancient funereal rites. Greek and Roman women carried out the iconic Charon’s obol, or placing of a coin over the deceased’s mouth in payment for a last ferry ride.

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Even the display of grief has been historically women’s work. Dating as far back as the seventh century women earned money by mourning loudly at Irish wakes in performances called “keening.”* Folklore of the banshee stems from this tradition of wailing women. The practice still exists in many forms throughout the world. Women in Ireland abandoned the keening marketplace during the 1950s when Catholic priests no longer agreed to share profits from burial fees.

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Vocational options for women in the death industry were initially blighted by economies of war. During the Civil War formaldehyde embalming procedures became the norm because it allowed fallen soldiers to be returned to their families with less decomposition after lengthy train rides home.

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By mid-1800s women were not present among growing ranks of mortuary science graduates and funeral duties were shuttled away from the home almost entirely. Instead they became relegated to parlors where undertaking was established as a formal occupation dominated by men. In 1867 Philadelphia reported 125 professional male undertakers and only four female shrouders. Women’s access further diminished at the hands of trade journalists who routinely published on the topic of women’s ineptitude for embalming careers.

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Like other industries that have pushed women out as soon as it became a lucrative and respected job (see the Medieval beer trade as another example) the world of deathcare is shifting again. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reported in 2010 that 57% of mortuary science students in the US were women. That figure was up 60% from 1995. However, these statistics do not always equate to real jobs. Women’s employment continues to rank well below their male counterparts. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that women make up less than 17% of NFDA’s overall membership.

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Women’s rights movements of the 1970s and 80s have been influential in reshaping demographics of the American funeral industry, but there are still battles to be won. Funeral homes remain conservative institutions due to their clientele. Getting hired is especially difficult for women of color, women with visible tattoos, and trans people.

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Fortunately, more women have become funeral directors and owners of their own facilities allowing women’s employability to increase. Green and independent burial practices have also created opportunities for women interested in professions like death doulas and funeral celebrants. Fortune magazine stated in an article over two years ago that an increasing number of mortuaries “will probably be run by a woman.” As inevitable consumers of the death industry, we can help support this reality by choosing women and minority-owned business for our own end of life plans.

[Footnotes]:

*https://deadmaidens.com/2018/01/24/feminist-death-work-a-history/

Year in Review (Part Two): All the Cemeteries!

Welcome back for part two! If you missed the first half of this review you can read it here. It’s been a wonderful process growing into this blog over the last year and I can’t wait to share more. I’m also looking forward to clearing out my photos since 90% of my data is taken up by cemetery shots. Here’s to 2018 and all the cemeteries to explore!

10. Dublin Cemetery (Dublin, OH)

I love secret societies and dedicated my first blog post to one. The Dublin Cemetery was founded by a secretive organization known as the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) so I knew I had to visit. IOOF’s share a connection with Freemasons and date back to the 15th century. They are far less popular but more progressive in that they offered membership to both men and women. Their name comes from the establishment of guilds that represented tradespeople with unusual or odd professions. IOOF membership has significantly dwindled over the past century so the Dublin Cemetery established in 1858 is rather unique.

IMG_4211.JPGBecause the cemetery has been in operation for over a century and is still accepting interments, it is fascinating to trace developments in burial technology. The oldest part of the cemetery contains hand-chiseled epitaphs that were preferred by early settlers. The ground is also more spongy suggesting that concrete vaults were not initially used to reinforce the earth. Today the popular headstone style appears to be intricately cut granite memorials. This technology showed up in the late 1980s and produces a high-resolution image on dark stones. Laser engraved markers are so numerous here they’ve become the norm. For a cemetery built to honor those with odd professions I’m sure it would please IOOF founders to know that laser monument artists are in such high demand.     IMG_4203

9. Ward Cemetery (Allen County, OH)

Just outside of Lima there is a highway cemetery with the most unusual headstone I’ve ever found. Near the cemetery site, Samuel McCluer cleared land to build a log cabin in an area called Hog Creek Settlement in 1825. Born in 1799 in Kentucky he relocated to the area after fighting in the War of 1812. McCluer was regionally influential and had 23 children between two marriages.
IMG_4232 2Samuel’s story is told by those who knew him in that mythical way befitting a rugged settler who tamed the land and became master of his hard-won domain. One of Samuel’s sons recounted: “I had often heard father say he wished that the wolves would attack him, for he would delight in a fight with them…” Samuel got his wish one night when wolves descended upon the camp. Samuel rescued a baby calf from the mouths of hungry wolves then beat them off while holding the calf over his shoulder. Apparently wolves never returned to the homestead again. 
IMG_4228Samuel died in 1884 at the age of 85 and instead of a traditional tombstone the McCluer’s made a replica of the family cabin. Members of his kin are also laid to rest near him with headstones shaped like stumps of wood. IMG_4489.JPG

8. Rutledge Cemetery (Roundhead, OH)

When people ask about my favorite cemeteries it’s not difficult to choose. There’s something moving about tiny family farm cemeteries dotting the countryside. Since moving from Indiana to Ohio I pass several of these little sites on my route. I finally mustered the courage to stop at this one. It was worth the sound of barking dogs coming from the nearby farmhouse and the uneasy feeling that someone was pointing a gun at me for approaching unannounced. I hope if the farm owners ever stumbled across this blog they know I visited with respect. IMG_4294 3.JPGThe Rutledges moved to Roundhead in 1832 after their mill burned to the ground in a nearby town. Richard Rutledge was Justice of the Peace and had two wives (Mary and Sarah) who bore many children that unfortunately died in childhood. The cemetery reflects this for which most of the interments are young people under age 20. The first Rutledge buried here was an infant in 1835. The last burial took place in 1911. 22 members of the Rutledge family are laid to rest in total at Rutledge Cemetery. The headstones are in pretty bad shape but the little green patch is well maintained amid the seemingly endless stretch of farmland.IMG_4482.JPG

7. Melrose Memorial Park (Orange, CA)

I have a penchant for going into cemeteries after dark. I popped into this one during another recent trip to California for new-job training. I didn’t stay long as the lighting wasn’t great. But I did notice that many graves had non-traditional markings like this. I’ve never seen a stick figure on a grave so this was a touching find. Makes me wonder if the child depicted at the top with “Dad” designed this for his mom.IMG_4343 3.JPG

6. Allegheny Cemetery (Pittsburgh, PA)

This one is a bit of a cheat as I didn’t visit Allegheny Cemetery in 2017 alone. I’ve been attached to this cemetery since I lived in PGH in 2014. I visit every time I go back to see friends. What I love about this cemetery is that every time I return it feels like home. 13423838_576381755854388_1951536562035813735_n.jpg

Happy 2018 Everyone!

Love,

Alysen

Best Cemeteries of 2017: Year In Review (Part One)

During the end of the holiday season I enjoy seeing everyone’s year in review posts across social media. It reminds me of a eulogy recounting all the good and letting go of the rest. It seems fitting to share my own 2017 memorial of memorials here. I chose my top ten but to keep word count reasonable split them into two posts. In no particular order here are the first five of my highlights from the past year!

5. Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Los Angeles)

In July my boyfriend and I traveled to Los Angeles. Of course my first request was to see the dead famous of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. While the list of celebrities was impressive on its own, what I found more touching was the amount of care and attention given to non-celebs. Burial sites like this are often covered with colorful trinkets and mementos:  IMG_3701.JPGEven if visitors go to see the lipstick-speckled tombstone of Johnny Ramone, they leave with a sense of celebration for all those laid to rest here. Hollywood Forever also hosts an amazing year-long event series including outdoor movies, concerts in the mausoleum, and a renowned Dia de los Muertos celebration. You can tell L.A. city-dwellers honor the cemetery as part of the community fabric and it’s anything but a somber place.
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4. El Campo Santo Cemetery (San Diego)

We visited El Campo cemetery during the same California trip and remarked on how different it was from the one we saw in L.A. El Campo was only in use from 1849-1880. Some of its 477 inhabitants have been paved over by the sidewalk and street. This occurred after the fall of Old Town in which the cemetery was abandoned and a streetcar line built directly through. It is affectionately known as the “Sidewalk Cemetery.”
IMG_3713 2.JPGThose interred include some of the region’s earliest pioneers. A group of native people who were executed for carrying out a raid against the burgeoning town of San Diego are also remembered. Infamous criminal, James “Yankee Jim” Robinson was hanged and buried for stealing the town’s only rowboat in 1852. He is said to haunt the adjacent Whaley Family Home. After much local petitioning in 1993 radar was used to locate bodies of those forgotten under the asphalt. Their remains are now marked by small round discs like the one shown below.IMG_4480.JPG

3. Clover Cemetery (Alton, OH)

If you’ve ever been in the car with me I’ve likely made you pull over to look at some cemetery by the side of the road. This one I spotted just outside Columbus in Prairie Township. It was first used in 1824 and I couldn’t find anything past the 1950s. This cemetery is technically abandoned as evidenced by multiple stones heaped in a pile of one corner. However the grounds are still being mowed. Small outpost cemeteries are interesting to me because those buried might have been members of an early church or extended families who shared a plot. If you were traveling through the region in the late 1800s/early 1900s and happened to die you would have also been placed here as it was cost prohibitive to ship bodies long distances by train (not to mention preservation techniques were not supremely advanced).
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2. Mount Calvary (Columbus, OH)

This cemetery has stolen my heart as a favorite in Columbus. The best part is the astonishing collection of Victorian era photo-ceramic memorials that adorn many headstones. The phenomenon is often found in Italian-American Catholic cemeteries of which Mount Calvary is one. IMG_4479.JPGAfter the invention of the daguerreotype in the 1830s ceramic portraits were quick to follow in 1854. Because photography was still relatively inaccessible and expensive a person had few pictures of themselves. The use of photo porcelain on monuments was widespread in Italy and sources suggest that the practice of affixing one’s portrait was a way for immigrants to maintain cultural ties. I especially love the ones that have sturdy covers. The tombstone below has two marked “Father” and “Mother” on metal lids that reveal a stunning photograph beneath.IMG_3964 3The other sobering thing is the number of babies buried at Mount Calvary. Toward the back fence is the oldest, most heavily populated area of young children and infants. I also found one of the saddest memorials ever–a handmade stone from 1916 with a girl’s ceramic photograph and epitaph explaining her death from falling down a well. She was only four. The cemetery is still active and also houses notable native, Anna Marie Hahn who was the first female serial killer executed in the Ohio electric chair in 1938.IMG_3975 3

1. Green Lawn Abbey (Columbus, OH)

The Abbey has been my saving grace this year. I’ll be honest that making friends post-college has been hard. Not to mention I have to explain that most of my hobbies center around cemeteries and death. Since I started volunteering to clean marble and help with events I’ve finally found my taphophile tribe. The historic mausoleum was built in 1927 and holds many Columbus-elite including the inventors of Swisher Sweets cigars and a famous magician. If you’re in the Columbus area and interested in volunteering please look us up here.

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…Thanks for getting through the first half. Check back tomorrow for part two!

-Alysen

(All photos by Alysen Wade. Please do not recreate without credit.)

 

Bedazzled Bones: Catacomb Saints and Catholicism

Bedazzled Bones: Catacomb Saints and Catholicism

I have long been fascinated by the opulence of Catholicism. While I’m not particularly religious I appreciate its moribund ritual depictions. Case in point: these exquisite corpses who were revered but largely forgotten in Europe after the 19th century called Catacomb Saints. A quick Google search suggests this name has not yet been claimed by some metal band.  for-smithsonian0014.jpg(Credit)

Catholics have been conspicuous about their elaborate iconography since before the 4th century A.D. Not all of the attention has been good and criticism gave way to church plunderings across Europe during the 1500-1700s. Opponents saw to it that once-cherished statues were systematically destroyed in protest. To bolster support and rebuild the church the Vatican sold bones to congregants and wealthy families that they passed off as official relics. The only problem was that most were not real relics, meaning they were not consecrated remains of actual canonized Saints. gorge.jpg(Credit)

To local churchgoers mainly in Germany and Switzerland whose communities inherited skeletons it didn’t matter much. While cadavers could have belonged to any commoner plucked from the Roman Catacombs, church officials pooled parishioner funds to purchase the expensive remains. Skilled nuns then spent years meticulously decorating their Saint’s bones. They became a source of regional pride and were even thought to perform miracles.3fe508bfd655a600016c0cff111c7927.jpg(Some were enshrouded in fine mesh cloth hand-woven by nuns. Credit)

Communities were unwavering in support even if their beloved Saint was found to be a fraud. Then in the late 18th century Austria’s Enlightenment-era emperor decreed all fakes were to be destroyed. The Saints were again marched to their graves, tucked away in cellars or ransacked for their gems. Paul Koudounaris, author of the book Heavenly Bodies notes that only 1 out of every 10 bodies that disappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries survived for public display.Heavenly-Bodies-Cult-Treasures-and-Spectacular-Saints-.jpg(Credit)

I used to be put off by the seeming decadence of the Catholic Church. But since I’ve been studying historical deathways I can see how organized religions like Catholicism use the macabre and garish as a means to cope much like I do. I’m also struck by the sense of unity that being around such beauty evokes. It’s a way for communities to promote awe-inspiring if not complicated art in the face of death.IMG_4354.jpg(Saint Sepulchre Cemetery; Photo by Alysen Wade)

I feel this same sense of communion when I visit Catholic cemeteries with all their giant crucifixes and gilded statues. On a recent trip to Orange, California I was fortunate to witness a large family celebrating with a picnic around a relative’s burial site at Saint Sepulchre well into dusk. Even my Uber driver proudly remarked that his mother-in-law was laid to rest in the cemetery where he was dropping me off. It’s a lovely place and deserving of the praise. IMG_4355.jpg(Thanks to my friend and new co-worker, Alison for tipping me off to this beautiful place! Photo by Alysen Wade)

P.S. if you’re doing any world traveling here is a list of all the places where Catacomb Saints are located.