Cossack Corpses: St. Andrew Memorial Church and Cemetery

June 29, 2013 — Between my book projects and this site, I’ve written about scores of cemeteries. Never have I described one with the word “exotic.” I’m doing it now. For a cemetery in New Jersey.

St. Andrew Memorial Church can be found at 240 Main Street in the borough of South Bound Brook. It’s a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, meaning it’s Catholicism one country away from having a Bela Lugosi accent.

As you can imagine, its Baroque Cossack architecture sticks out on the New Jersey soil, as it would most anywhere else but Eastern Europe. I also mean that literally. The building is extremely tall and extremely thin and tapers to a cross, like it was built in a much rarer atmosphere and then transplanted to ours. It was completed in 1965 after a decade of construction.

It’s a memorial church, meant to honor, according to the church website, “those who were victims of the genocidal famine created by Josef Stalin and those who gave their lives for the independence of Ukraine and the United States of America.” The archbishop who spoke at its dedication called it a “very humble cross over the graves of millions of victims of the genocidal famine ploughed over by the enemy.”

It’s pretty impressive-looking for a “very humble cross,” and the only thing that could possibly make a person tear their attention from it as they pulled into the parking lot would be if the church erected a large black statue of an evil queen in front of it.

Which, I must hurry to say (so read fast), it doesn’t have…although it does have the ebony statue of an enthroned saint-princess looming above the road in front of it. According to her pedestal, she’s Saint Olha, Equal to the Apostles, Great Princess of Kiev, Sovereign of Rus-Ukraine, 945-969. She’s the one who brought Christianity from Constantinople to the Ukraine.

But, probably due to the color of the stone, the sober set of her features, and too many old Disney movies on my part, she looks like something out of a fantasy story, especially since her wizard is close by.

Again, I hurry to say it’s not really a wizard, but another saint, Vasyl Lypkivsky. He’s depicted as a bearded, robed guy standing atop a tall pedestal and motioning to the heavens, declaiming to some hellspawn or other “You shall not pass.” He’s also made in that same black stone that renders him more mysterious than holy.

Now that all that’s behind me, we can get to the cemetery. I also mean that literally, since the cemetery is behind the church and statues.

At first glance, St. Andrew Cemetery seemed to us like an ordinary, uninteresting modern cemetery. It’s small, nicely kept, with close rows of polished headstones. So no classic graveyard atmosphere. But then, as we started looking closer at each headstone, it seemed more like an ordinary graveyard that had been rotated about ten degrees into a different dimension. The cemetery arrangement was familiar, but the shapes and flourishes of the stones were alien. Or exotic.

Very few were your basic rectangles. Most were asymmetrical, with off-centered points or shaped like grand piano lids or punctured with cutouts. Others look as if they were commissioned by avant-garde artists trying to deconstruct the very idea of a tombstone. Heck, with many of them, the only reason I knew they were tombstones was because they were in a cemetery. And, of course, every epitaph was chiseled in Cyrillic script and featured the triple-bar cross of that Eastern Orthodox church.

Basically, there was enough fascinating Old World funerary art here that makes me wonder if being a cemetery guy in the New World is the wrong place to be a cemetery guy.

I tried to be sensitive in taking pictures. As I mentioned, it’s a modern cemetery, so some of the compelling stones and images were for and often of people recently deceased. There was this one really great bust of an older woman that for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to defile with the camera. Of course, now I regret that. My favorite by far, though, was this guy:

I honestly don’t know exactly what he is, but he looks like some kind of ancient Cossack warrior….which means, what with the saint and the queen statuary up front, the place was that much closer to being the world’s coolest chess set.

Not the way you’d think a post about a New Jersey cemetery would end, huh? That's because I suck.