Thursday, October 7, 2010
Guest Post from Jo: Cemetery Photography
When I put out the open call for people to guest post during Helluva Halloween, I was hoping to get some new and interesting things that I would want to read, figuring that you'd like new and interesting too. So imagine my delight when Jo from Fluidity of Time asked if she could do a post about cemetery photography, and whether that would be too weird. O_o
a) too weird for me?
b) !!! really!!!
c) do you know I love cemeteries?
d) how could I turn that down, it's perfectly Helluva Halloween!
So here you have it: a beautiful, thoughtful deliciously Halloween post from Jo, with pictures!
Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I not only look forward to pulling out my own decorations the first week of October, but I love seeing what people in my neighborhood put out, as well. One thing that some people put on their lawn are fake gravestones (some are fancy, most are plain), and that made me think of a topic for Helluva Halloween: cemeteries. One of my hobbies is cemetery photography, so gravestones are things I actually honor all year long. I actually was always intrigued by old cemeteries, even as a child, but didn't start taking pictures until a few years ago. Once I started, I was hooked, and I started doing more research about cemeteries, and symbols that I found on some of the stones. Now, I know enough that when I see a certain type of stone, I know a little about how old it might be, or a little about the cemetery, itself. My husband is also interested in cemeteries, so the two of us have visited quite a few (although I admit to taking more pictures than he does). Fall is our favorite season, and some of our favorite pictures have been taken in fall (makes for wonderful contrast against a gravestone).
The oldest cemeteries I've visited were on our trips to Maine, so I thought I'd focus a little more on those. On our first trip, I picked up a book about Maine's coastal cemeteries, and we worked finding as many of those as we could in the areas we were visiting. There were some places where the stones were slate (if you see these, they're usually dark stone and pretty smooth, as opposed to the rougher granite used today), and dated from the 1700s. We had seen in the book that some of these would have a winged death's head, and found that as we wandered through the cemeteries, we'd be looking for as many of these as we could find. According to the book, this symbol is one of the most common symbol for this period of time, and while they might seem a little scary (or odd) to us now, for the people back then, the winged death head was a reminder of their belief that few people actually went to Heaven (and most were damned).
As time moved forward, these symbols weren't as favored, so we knew that when we found one of these stones, we were looking at something from a certain time period. Interestingly, even though these stones are so old, in many cases, the slate was in such good condition that the stones were quite readable. Being able to read old stones is sometimes a real problem, especially as the kind of stone used changed to marble and granite. Depending on the angle, they're sometimes easier to read from a distance, but sometimes, there's no way to read most of the stone. I always keep my eye out for interesting carvings, and bits of the dates. I haven't tried doing rubbings of the stones (yet), but can usually adjust my digital camera so that I capture as clear an image as possible.
Other common symbols we found in Maine, and also in other areas (Wisconsin, Illinois, Teaxs) are urns shaded by a willow, draped books, obelisks, cherubs, and lambs. Lambs in particular are always a little sad for me to see on a stone, as they indicate that it is a child's grave. Another symbol that is popular is a hand with the index finger pointing to heaven, or clasped hands (I've discovered quite a few of these around where I live in Illinois). Statues are also common in older cemeteries, such as angels. Sometimes, the statues are missing bits of hands or feet, but I think this lends them a poignant air. You can also discover some really interesting names in cemeteries (Hipsey, Experience, etc).
The thing I think I enjoy most about visiting old cemeteries is not only the discovery of the beautiful gravestones, but also the feeling I have of honoring the dead. In many cases, the stones are for people who are long gone, and who probably aren't remembered by anyone any more. While I never knew them, I feel that by visiting the cemetery, and paying attention to the stones, that I'm giving respect to the dead. I have visited old cemeteries that have been damaged and vandalized, and it always makes me feel a little sick. I just don't think it's a good idea to disrespect the dead like that. And it can be heartbreaking to see beautiful stones that have been broken and damaged. However, I honor these stones in photographs, as well, if nothing else than to document how I found them.
Meanings of some symbols:
Book: Word of God; wisdom
Drapery: passageway to Heaven
Obelisk: eternal life
Willow tree: earthly sorrow
The book I've referred to is: Maine's Coastal Cemeteries by Karen Wentworth Batignani; ISBN: 0892726040