When it comes to blood-chilling fear, being locked in a cemetery isn’t quite on par with being buried alive. Still, I’d guess most people would opt not to be locked in a cemetery, given the choice.
In my cemetery roamings, I’ve been locked in a few times. And believe me, it’s not something you get used to. One of the most memorable occasions was in the Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia a couple years ago. I normally pay attention to the closing time posted on the gate. 4:30. Cool. I drive around, walk around, shoot some angels. Suns’s going down, check the watch-4:15. Get in the car and start heading for the gate. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but-a locked gate! Ok, the brain shifts into “escape mode.” Adrenalin on board. Didn’t I see a white pickup truck trundling off toward the maintenance building about 10 minutes ago? “GO FIND THAT TRUCK” are the only four words that matter right now.
I hit the gas in the turbo Saab and find the white pickup parked just over the first hill, with a driver inside! My personal saviour. I pull up along side of him and sheepishly ask if he’d open the gate for me. I’m not saying he looked a lot like John Carradine’s character in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episode The Big Surprise” but he was close enough. With a grin he says: “Skeered ya, didn’t I? Sometimes that’s the only way to get you people out!” The insane are not without their charms.
But as Bill Cosby would say, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. The main reason I now pay close attention to closing times is because of an adventure my brother and I had at Woodlawn Cemetery in the North Bronx, NYC. This was maybe in the summer of 2002. I convinced him to take the train with me from Philadelphia to the Bronx to go shooting in this grand old Victorian cemetery called Woodlawn. It’s all the way at the end of the subway/elevated line at the Woodlawn stop, a pretty rough neighborhood.
The main gate was about 8 feet high, and of wrought iron. My brother made special note of it, and commented on the 4:30 closing time. Well, we both shot to our heart’s content and toward the end of the day, began making our way toward the main gate. I, of course, had my head turned by the magnificent Belmont mausoleum. This is a full-scale replica of the Chapel of St. Hubert in France’s famed Loire valley. It was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci in the “Gothic Flamboyant” style in the early 1500s. Da Vinci’s remains were placed in a sarcophagus in this original chapel. So this ain’t no ordinary mausoleum. After we exhausted our film on the gargoyles and flying buttresses (I don’t know what those are but I always wanted to say it), we realized it was 4:45! Hence, to the gate! But alas, she was closed!
It took me about a minute a side to scale up one and down the other, camera gear in tow. My poor brother, though, had such a horrendous time! He cursed me coast to coast the whole while it took us to get him out. At the point he was sitting on top of the closed gate with me outside talking him into a safe descent, people driving by must’ve thought us insane (“Why are they trying to get out? Its certainly safer inside.”). But we got him out. Took about a half hour. To cool him down (in more ways than one) I bought him a couple beers at the biker bar under the el across the street. Then we took the long series of train rides home.
As an aside, I came to find some time later that this gate, the Jerome Avenue gate of Woodlawn Cemetery, was the site of a clandestine meeting related to the supposed kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. One evening, a police officer reported seeing a man sitting on top of the closed gate talking with one on the sidewalk outside the gate. These men were believed to be Charles Lindbergh’s agent (Dr. John Condon) and the kidnapper/extortionist. For more on this, as well as photographs of the gate, please click here.
Read more about Woodlawn Cemetery and the Da Vinci chapel in Douglas Keister’s book Going Out in Style – The Architecture of Eternity.