Monday, September 30, 2013

Photographing in Cemeteries


(The photos below were taken in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, unless otherwise labelled.) 


I’ve always been drawn to explore cemeteries, especially when I travel.  And I love photographing monuments and gravestones. Often the words on the stone are intriguing-- clues to a cryptic but dramatic story. 

A cemetery in Minster Lovell, Gloucestershire, England

My kids would probably attribute my love of cemeteries to my morbid streak, but I disagree—I love cemeteries because they are filled with testaments of love as well as hope for a future reunion with the  departed.  Lovingly tended graves are a physical pledge: “You are not forgotten.  You live in my heart.”


So it’s no wonder that, for a photojournalism course I took last year at the Worcester Art Museum with photographer Norm Eggert, I chose for my project photos taken over many visits to Hope Cemetery in Worcester.


I posted some of those photos on Dec. 3, 2012, in  “A Cemetery Called Hope. I began the essay this way: Hope Cemetery is the place where my body will be buried.  I like visiting and photographing cemeteries because they’re filled with virtual symbols of love, expressed in the words engraved on the stones, the flowers, candles, flags, toys, burning incense, balloons, statues, birthday cakes, prayers, rosaries, letters, even bottles of whiskey and un-smoked cigarettes left by visitors on the graves.


“All these things are an expression of the hope that one day we may be reunited with our departed loved ones.  No one knows if that’s true, but that’s why ‘Hope’ is an appropriate name for a cemetery.”



Over the years, I‘ve visited beautiful and incredibly moving cemeteries in many countries.  Some that stand out in memory include the “City of the Dead” in Glasgow, Scotland; the famous “Pere Lachaise” in Paris (where I saw a mourner pour a whole bottle of Scotch on the grave of Jim Morrison—and I was enchanted by the monument to Heloise and Abelard—the nun and the philosopher/monk, apart in life but together forever in death.)   

Heloise and Abelard, Pere Lachaise, Paris

One of my favorite cemeteries, which I happened on by chance, is the “poor people’s cemetery” on the island of Martinique, where each grave—every one of them homemade-- looks like a little house with a photograph of the deceased over the door.

Day of the Dead poster, Oaxaca, on my studio wall

The ultimate cemetery experience is staying up all night in Mexican cemeteries during the Day of the Dead celebrations.  I’ve had that privilege as a member of chef Susana Trilling’s  “Dias de Muertos” cooking adventures in Oaxaca.(See “Seasons of My Heart” for a list of all her culinary tours.)   

The Mexicans have a much more comfortable relationship with death than we do in the United States.   On the days of the dead (children are believed to return on October 31, adults the following day)—the surviving family members decorate the graves with flowers, candles and (often) elaborate sand paintings and then settle in to spend the night and welcome visitors with food, music, beer and whatever else the dead person liked in life. The whole holiday resembles a fiesta more than a funeral.


Of course I take photos when I’m visiting a cemetery, and often I’m photographing and weeping at the same time.  Most graves don’t make me cry, and some make me laugh, like the one that showed the deceased posing with his favorite cockfighting rooster.


But when I see an elderly person talking to a gravestone, and especially when I see the stone of a young child who barely tasted life, but whose grave is decorated at every season by parents who never stopped mourning—that’s when I start crying.


 At Hope Cemetery I was frequently brought to tears by the small, flat gravestones in the “Garden of the Innocents” where the city of Worcester will pay for the burial of infants and children whose parents can’t afford a plot and gravestone.


 Most touching of all the small stones, where parents leave toys and holiday decorations, was this one where the parents carved the message by hand: 


 Given my penchant for photographing cemeteries, it was a sure thing that I would sign up for a class at the Worcester Art Museum that takes place next Friday, led by my friend, photographer Mari Seder.   All day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., we will be photographing in Worcester’s Rural cemetery—within walking distance of the Museum—with a break for a picnic lunch.  I’ve heard that Rural Cemetery is even older and more picturesque than Hope Cemetery, and I’ve been wanting to visit it; an experience which will be even better with Mari’s guidance and photographer’s  eye.

Mari is a prize- winning photographer who spends half the year living in Worcester and the other half in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she’s had exhibits of her stunning photographs of Mexican women and their household altars.  Here’s a photograph she took of the grave of a 12-year-old Mexican girl, Juanita Velasquez Cruz, who lived from 1890 to 1902.

I’ve already traveled to Oaxaca twice for the classes that Mari offers there in photography, painting and collage, and once I got to tag along with her to photograph in Puebla, as well, where the Indian-decorated churches of Cholula, virtually encrusted with zillions of folk art angels, blew my mind.  You can see them on my blog post “Angels in the Architecture”.


 Mari’s day-long class at Rural Cemetery on Friday is part of a new series of immersion classes offered by WAM that allows students to spend an entire day with regional artists in an intensive day-long class in each artist’s speciality,  learning their secrets and getting face time with these experts in the fields of photography, collage, illustration or Celtic art.


Now that fall colors are burnishing the trees, I’m hoping for some remarkable photographs to come out of Rural Cemetery this Friday.  Stay tuned.

1 comment:

CJ Kennedy said...

I love walking through cemeteries and looking at the carvings on the headstones. My family thinks I'm a ghoul, but I love the art, symbolism, and history found on the stones