Saturday, June 07, 2008

Buried in Bottles

Eleftheria Kourelis, the fearless lady that was my mother, loved to save bottles. This would drive my sister and I crazy as kids, a familiar source of embarrassment with parents or grandparents raised during the Great Depression or the World Wars. Now, of course, bottle hoarding is socially acceptable, hip and ecological. Elie, as Mrs. Kourelis was known to all her American friends, passed away in December, 2006, but some of her recycled bottles, filled with spices like eucalyptus or oregano, survive in our kitchen cupboard. We fondly look a these bottles now with the meticulous marking by her own hand. A bottle of oregano, for example, notes "8/18/05, brought by Popi." The spice had been bought by our Aunt Popi at the "Ecologists,"an organic store on Omonia Square, Athens, and brought in her suitcase during her last U.S. trip before it was jarred by my mother in an airtight reused container.

At the beginning of summer last week, Celina and I visited my mother's grave at Fernwood Cemetery in Landsdowne, PA, on the edge of Philadelphia. We went to water the flowers planted last spring, light the candle and simply say hello soon after our arrival in Philadelphia. Fernwood Cemetery contains two sections belonging to Saint George and Saint Demetrios, the two major Greek Orthodox Churches in Philadelphia and Upper Darby. the previous summer, we had observed that adjacent Section 186 was being surveyed for expansion. This time around, it was booming with burials. Out of curiosity, we approached two of these newly prepared graves plots (their funerals took place on June 1, 2008). The excavated heaps took us by surprise. Mixed with the dirt was a massive array of bottles, plates, iron objects and other pieces of historical garbage. Clearly, this section of Fernwood Cemetery was a dumping ground during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This must also have been the case with the area around Elie's grave, and it dawned on us that Elie was buried in bottles. Her tomb, pictured here, is located at 39°56'48.9"N, 75°15'17.4"W and can be seen with these coordinates in Google Earth.

Fernwood cemetery dates to 1870 with sumptuous tomb stones along its earliest paths. Once an idyllic suburban cemetery along Cobbs Creek (of Fairmount Park), it was encroached upon by an expanding city. Unable to suppress our archaeological training, Celina and I became fascinated by the historical potential of all the bottles sticking out of the fresh dirt piles, such as the blue Milk of Magnesia bottle from the 1940s (left). We thought it would be fitting to clean them up, photograph them and see what kind of information they might yield about the archaeological history of Elie's graveyard. As with Philadelphia's better known cemeteries (Laurel Hill, Woodland), Fernwood has beautiful tombstones of prominent families, Civil War heroes and famous Philadelphians. My favorites are social reformer Wiliam Sylvis (1828-1869) and Major League player "Yaller Bil" (William Harbridge, 1855-1924). Far from its original rural beauty, Fernwood now has a distinctively inner-city flavor with adjacent basket-ball courts, lower income houses and urban blight. In order to get to it from Center City, one has to process along Baltimore Avenue from 38th to 63rd Streets, which is a grounding and deeply humbling experience. The Greek section is onthe northwest corner and visually stands out through the liberties taken while investing the Protestant grounds with Greek iconographies and rituals. As with cemeteries throughout Greece (or Spain and Italy, for that matter), the Greek section of Fernwood is bustling with social activity. We have never visited when some family member was not tending a nearby grave. When we first asked the cemetery officials about the rules for monuments and landscaping at Fernwood, they conceded that none of the cemetery rules mattered at the Greek section. The tone in the officials' voice suggested exacerbation; the Greek did not follow the cemetery rules, they built monuments, planted cypress trees, brought in gravel, built grave boundaries. Celina enjoys serving the funerary duties of a Greek bride, but also enjoys discovering similarities with the Ancient Greek cemeteries of her scholarship. In our last visit, for instance, we noted that many graves had planted mint, which may be connected to the myth of Hades and the nymph Menthe. During the 2007 Annual Meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Diego, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory gave a fascinating paper on her fieldwork and Ph.D. thesis on East Korinthia and Cythera, "Remembering and Forgetting: The Relationship between Memory and the Abandonment of Graves in 19th- and 20thCentury Greek Cemeteries." Lita's paper gave us incredible insights (and analytical tools) in understanding the modern Greek cemetery from an anthropological point of view. Discussions with Lita about grave maintenance, grieving rituals and diaspora communities, moreover, was personally therapeutic. Elie had been buried in her Fernwood plot only a few days before this conference. The paper will be published in a special issue of the
International Journal of Historical Archaeology that I have just finished editing.

Especially since Celina and I are not going to Greece this summer for fieldwork, the bottles of Fernwood put us in an archaeological mindset, while we both work on our books and get in touch with Philadelphia history. The rapid growth of the new cemetery sector is striking. It does not appear to be ethnically Greek. The Greek sector seems much slower, which is perhaps indicative of the shrinking Greek community in Philadelphia and its dispersal into the suburbs.


Jennifer said...

Love this post Kostis! My sister collects bottles (trained in historic preservation and material culture) and has a whole stash found in her own backyard in Maine.

legein said...

Interesting reading about Greek instransigence regarding burial and cemetry customs.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States