Poor Soul/Rich Soul

I’m working on a series about cemeteries and the stories they tell. There’s something fascinating about them and about all the stories hidden under the ground, etched in their stones. Most of the places I will be visiting and writing about will be here, in the Northeast, but when I venture South or West, I might see a war memorial that speaks to me, or a grave at the side of the road, and I might investigate and write about it. The care that some organizations, townships, or religious institutions give to their dead is honorable and touching, but the neglect that happens to others is appalling. As an artist, I’m compelled to explore things that touch me, and cemeteries move me in some way. Perhaps, it’s because I recently lost someone I love–my grandmother, or maybe the recurring discussion (by others) of the loss of my unborn daughter, Olivia Grace, 13 years ago, has prompted me to follow this vein of interest. I thought I had moved past that, but people keep wanting me to talk about it. I don’t want to. But I don’t have a grave for her either. The Commonwealth of PA would not allow it. I have to wander about the Rose Garden to seek out flowers that have grown up out of her ashes, spread there by strangers on a hot summer day.

Or maybe, I’m just seeking the tangible history that moves all around me–veterans of the American Revolution, women memorialized for dedicating their lives to equality, or the nameless and faceless lives of slaves, who lived even in the North before the mid-19th century. Every soul has a story, and I’m a writer, so I’m urged to seek those stories out and share them with the world.


Child Grave, Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

James Joyce, The Dead


Walking through a cemetery is like reading a long Russian novel. You see whole families who’ve died within a week of each other when the Great Influenza Outbreak of 1917 spread throughout the eastern half of the country. You learn who was clergy, who was a milkman, who was loved by his friends and coworkers, who’s been forgotten, and whose branch was broken too soon, symbolized by a broken poppy flower emblem or a snapped cord.

Yesterday, I walked through the old German churchyard near my house, idling through the names etched in old High German, wrangling through my early college language classes to decipher the bits and pieces of scripture and poetry. The Germans were big on symbols. They used tulips to show blessing–the cupped flowers perfectly shaped for receiving gifts from heaven. They used angels to show holiness and the flight to heaven, hearts connected by ivy to show friendship and love within a long lasting marriage, and heavy draping willows to show mourning.

‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps.’

Psalm 137


Willow Tree Grave

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

It was clear that these graves were cared for, that their descendants and loved ones came by often to care for their graves.


Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)


Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

Only the graves of servants and slaves seemed less tended to, but none of them were tossed aside. None of them were lost to age or neglect. These were the people of one of Pennsylvania’s tiniest communities, where families have lived for three hundred years, burgeoning with the growth of the British commonwealth and rising with the birth of a new nation in the late 18th century. Even graves so old and weathered that their faces are smoothed down like river stones, have been given attention and care. Even if no one can read their names, they’re still remembered.

But that was yesterday in a small section of neatly cultivated Pennsylvania farmland. Today, I went to another local graveyard, and this one was municipal, laid out adjacent to the 8th Street Bridge in Allentown, the largest concrete bridge of its time when it was first constructed at the turn of the last century. Fairview Cemetery was designed by the same man who designed Central Park in New York City, back when Allentown was bustling with trolley cars and canal boats that moved up and down the Lehigh River.


Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

Fairview must have been a grand place at one time, the kind of place where mourners could go to talk to their beloveds passed on, because it’s laid out beautifully in grand sweeping hills and valleys. And just as you feel you’ve finally reached the end of it, it leads on to another place. Behind it, the industrial hub of Allentown, a city that has been reinventing itself since the steel and iron industry fell away.


Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

But, as with most municipal cemeteries, you can see the disparagement between rich and poor, between the upper crust and the middle class. General Harry Trexler has a tall, clean column leading straight to the sky, while the gravestone of ordinary citizen, Lydia Campbell, is being overgrown with weeds and dandelion grass.


General Trexler’s Memorial Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)


Grave of Lydia Campbell, Born 1827. Death, illegible. Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

And this unknown person’s resting place has been vandalized or just damaged by one of Pennsylvania’s many hurricanes or some other natural event.


Headless Woman Among Fallen Tombstones, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

There are many like this in the most populated part of Fairview, and their deaths were so numerous, that sinkholes have begun to form under graves, some dipping down 30 feet and more. Stones have been toppled, piling on top of each other like Legos, and the ground is spongy and bounces like a trampoline in parts.

“The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors of its ancestors…but the current generation proudly…begins a set of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.” Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

The poorest of souls don’t even have stones, just crosses staked to the ground with index card notations of name, birth and death dates.


Simple Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)


Child’s Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

While walking around, I momentarily lost my father who had stopped to right a torn American flag on the grave of a veteran.


Mike Burnett Tending to Veteran’s Grave at Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

It was a sobering moment, noting all the graves that had been abandoned, that were no longer cared for. I know that I have a great great grandfather who’s buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, and his grave is overgrown and has been forgotten for decades. I only recently discovered where he was buried, though I’d known of him for a while.He was a gilder in the Point Breeze section for most of his life and, later, he worked as confectioner in Brooklyn. I plan to visit soon and clean up his gravesite. His father is buried in the Knights of Prometheus Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey with other decorated German immigrant veterans of the Union Army. But that cemetery has warnings to remain in a moving car while passing through, because the neighborhood surrounding it has become too dangerous for honoring loved one’s graves while standing still.


The Mourning Dove, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

This mourning dove followed me from grave to grave. The Holy Spirit, the symbol of peace, the Companion of those  who wake and those who sleep eternal. It filled the faithful parts of my heart with great joy and sudden rest. He is always with us, no matter how completely our mortal bodies betray us.

The whole experience made me think that I’d like to gather some volunteers to clean up local cemeteries that have been abandoned, ones that don’t have the care and attention that the old German churchyard does. Discussing this with my brother prompted him to share a story.

“I was walking home from work one night, about midnight, and I was passing over the 8th Street Bridge. I saw a silhouette at the end of the bridge, and someone was dancing there, like the Charleston or salsa, maybe. A dance that doesn’t require a partner. I moved around a bit to see if the shadow would move with me. I wondered if it was my eyes playing tricks on me, or some sort of illusion, but there were no lights at that end of the bridge, no cars driving down that side of the street, no houses with their porch lights one, no way for a sillouette to be made against anything. It didn’t grow or shrink, but when I got within a few feet of it, it slipped off into the cemetery, near that torn part in the chain link fence.”

This was the first thing we saw when we got into the cemetery.


Nothing but a simple cross that stands, despite the fallen tree at its side. I did some research, and I found only the briefest of obituaries about Mr. Figueroa. I don’t know if he spoke with the same Puerto Rican accent of my inlaws, if he liked living here where it snowed and there were no palm trees, or if he liked to dance, but since he was the first to introduce us to the souls at Fairview, I stood and made the Sign of the Cross at his grave, and offered a Fatima Prayer in his honor.

Abraham Figueroa, 49, of Bethlehem died Thursday, August 26, 2010 at VNA Hospice at St. Lukes. Born in Corozal, Puerto Rico on November 18, 1960, he was a son of Angela Rivas Figueroa and the late Abraham Figueroa. He worked as a Pallet Assembler at Ratt Pallet Co., Easton, PA. He was a member of Smyrna Church of the Lord, 1537 E 6th St., Bethlehem, PA.

I think Boyko Funeral Home, who was said to have handled the arrangements for this, should clean up Abraham’s resting place a bit more. They could take some lessons from the Germans of Dutch Country.

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