Monday, July 9, 2018

I love history, and that inevitably means cemeteries. Most historic figures were rarely depicted (and with little accuracy, if they were). A historic person's house? Now a strip mall. But in a large number of cases, a grave remains.

looking W across sec L - Green Lawn Cemetery

Cemetery photos aren't just about illustrating an article about Jane Doe, Famous For Whatever. They're time capsules of memory and art. They reflect time, place, and socio-economic realities. They show us what people believe about themselves, and their after-life.

American cemeteries in particular are wonderful places. The idea of the cemetery in the U.S. has been dominated since the 1830s by the concept of the "garden" cemetery -- a beautiful, lush, parklike setting with winding paths, many trees, luxurious funerary art, and in many cases water features like fountains or ponds. Until the 1940s, American cemeteries were designed for the living, not the dead: People picnicked there, strolled there, wooed there, enjoyed concerts there. They served as open-air art museums where the unwashed could see good-quality sculpture and bas-reliefs normally only available to the wealthy in private homes or galleries. They were places were most people spent holidays -- enjoying the day with their decedents, fireworks, speeches, cold drinks, food, and entertainment.

As American culture has become terrified of death, so the role of the cemetery has changed. For nearly half a century, the emphasis was on "ease of maintenance" -- the lawn cemetery, with headstones flush with the earth so lawnmowers could more easily respect the dead... er, cut the grass. Trees became equated with dead limbs, fall leaf removal costs, and deadwood falling over and destroying headstones. Out, damned spot!

Many cemeteries became bleak.

For someone like me, passionate about what history can say, I'm glad I get to go into these older cemeteries.

When I "discover" a cemetery -- that is, when I start to write about a historic cemetery on the NRHP or realize that a cemetery contains a number of historic graves -- I don't just stroll in lah-dee-dah with my camera and take a couple snaps.

I research who is buried there. That means more than just using that half-assed Find-a-Grave site.

I research WHERE in the cemetery these people are buried. Many 19th cemeteries are pretty vast, consisting of 200 acres in a lot of cases. One had better know the exact location -- section, plot and quarter-plot -- of a grave if you're going to find it. It's extremely useful to know who is buried around the grave, as a great many graves are unmarked, have had their markers removed (due to destruction or repair), or are part of a "family plot" and hence represented by a large memorial rather than a headstone.

I try to see if someone else has already taken a picture of the grave. I uses these as on-site finding-aids, and then take my own photo.

I have to know the days and times the cemetery is open, where parking is available, whether I'll be doing lots of walking or not, what the weather will be like the day I show up, where the cemetery office is, if the cemetery staff will help me locate graves (Catholic cemtery staff usually will not; instead, they'll kick you out), how to get there, and whether I should bring water or not. (Hot summer days make for sweaty, heat-exhaustion-inducing cemetery trips.)

It's extremely common for me to have to visit a large cemetery like Columbus' Green Lawn, or Cleveland's Riverside, or D.C.'s Oak Ridge, anywhere from three to seven times in order to get all the photos I want.

1 comment:

  1. I get it. Most of my father's side of the family is buried in fabled Laurel Grove in Totowa, New Jersey. The cemetery is so large, and the town so small that there are more dead people per capita in Totowa than living people. The oldest parts of the cemetery are gorgeous. The modern sections are quite dull, but I love going to see the relatives once or twice a year.