June 22nd, 2011. As night gives way to the bluish-purple hue of early morning, a crumbling gatehouse steeple slowly becomes visible against the gradually lightening sky.
Once a proud structure, which in its prime warmly welcomed visitors through its iron gates and into the Woodland cemetery of West Newark,
is now little more than a decrepit shadow of its past self, as much a product of its environment as it is a victim of the elements.
Gunshots ring out, a percussion cutting through the morning air as bullets pierce flesh. Four people are hospitalized this morning, luckily all survive.
Sadly, this kind of occurrence is nothing new for Woodland Cemetery and the surrounding area. This place was originally intended to allow those
who passed to rest in peace, but it has now become a haven for violence, drugs, and prostitution. Just nine days earlier police responding to a call,
come upon the body of 22-year-old Nahaaj Hunter. He had been shot to death upon the doorstep of the old gatehouse.
This goes without saying, but the times have certainly changed since this gatehouse and once-beautiful cemetery were first built in the late 1850's. An air of mystery and death
now wraps about these grounds like a crimson fog. It is no wonder why either, as it has seen many unnatural horrors in the 150+ years that mark its existence.
Four months earlier, on a cold February evening, the white earth of the cemetery slowly became stained with a deep red as Raheem Singleton bled to death at the foot
of the old gatehouse, another victim of these miserable grounds. He was found too late by paramedics, and was pronounced dead later that day at University Hospital.
Just one year prior, firefighters who had received an anonymous call in regards to a house fire arrived at the corner of Rose and Brenner. There was no house fire,
what greeted them instead was a far more grisly sight. At the foot of the gatehouse, face down upon the concrete, wrapped in cellophane and burned beyond recognition,
was a human corpse. Dental records later provided that these sad remains belonged to 43-year-old Melvin Williams. He was reported missing two days earlier by his girlfriend.
2005 - The body of 15-year-old high school student Yusef Johnson lies cold upon the pavement of the cemetery entrance. Yet another life cut tragically short
under the solemn gaze of the Woodland gatehouse. Four years prior, in 2001, was found a body which some say initiated these dark times for Woodland Cemetery.
In amongst the toppled headstones, dead animals, and litter was found the corpse of an African American man. The body had been partially burned before it was discovered,
and to this day has yet to be identified.
All of these crimes, with the exception of the body found in 2001, took place in front of or under the old cemetery gatehouse. This sinister history as come to turn
what was little more than an old and neglected gatehouse into a looming harbinger of death. Its appearance has come to match its past, for it looks not of this world.
As if more likely born of a nightmare than built by man.
There is much more history here than that of the old gatehouse, though it serves as a very suiting entrance way to the cemetery proper.
The Woodland Cemetery is a mostly-overgrown property of 55 acres which entombs the bodies of over 80,000 dead. Many of those which lie here are war veterans,
some 330 of them from the Civil War. They now rest eternal amongst the weeds and garbage. In addition to dishonoring the dead through neglect,
the cemetery operators themselves have personally desecrated approximately 11,000 graves by burying people of unrelated families atop existing graves.
The spectrum of dead disgraced in this fashion includes those of babies, children, adults, and even some of the aforementioned Civil War veterans.
In 1999 a case was filed against the Woodland Cemetery Board of Trustees for the desecration of these graves. The state of New Jersey was also named as accountable
since it had come to light that they were aware of these acts as far back as the 1970's. Unfortunately, the lawsuit was eventually dropped due to the
Woodland Cemetery Board of Trustees' money being held in a trust fund which could not be touched.
The case against the state of New Jersey was dropped for “reasons unknown”.
So Woodland cemetery sits, rotting and unkempt. It's hallowed ground violated as it slowly becomes saturated with the blood of the community in which it resides.
To close, I offer a humbling quote by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus.
“Shoals of corpses shall witness, mute, even to generations to come, before the eyes of men that we ought never, being mortal, to cast our sights too high “