Sunday, July 30, 2017

Photographing Cemeteries

St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, Waterville ME
 I have had this blog for a long time, and I could have sworn I had written about my cemetery photography hobby before, but it's only vaguely mentioned in a post from 2015 where I talked about getting my creative spark back.

I've been visiting cemeteries in a non-funerary function for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to help my parents as they helped fill Memorial Day orders at the family greenhouse for the local cemeteries, which included delivering arrangements and planting at the grave sites. Because visiting cemeteries was never associated with anything "scary" or "sad" for me (and indeed, the only "graveside" service I can remember attending is from adulthood) I have always found them a place of calm serenity. Oftentimes, if I need a quiet place to sit with my thoughts, I'll go to a cemetery. While some people do use them as walkable greenspaces (as they truly are), I typically have the place to myself for the most part, with the exception of the people who come to tend the graves of their loved ones. It's quiet, peaceful, and filled with art.

St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, Waterville ME
I started photographing cemeteries when I was in high school. I think the first time I put any effort into photographing something at a cemetery was at St. Francis Catholic Cemetery in Waterville, Maine, when I went with my mother as she tended to the graves of families. There are the most spectacular bronze angel statues guarding the gates of the cemetery (the Catholic side, because there is a secular side), one with a cross raised up to the sky, and another blowing a trumpet. It was natural, when I started photographing cemeteries again, that I recreate some of my first photos (the above is one of the recent photos). St. Francis is one I have traveled the width and breadth of because it is not only massive and convenient to get to, but it is filled with some of the most beautiful monuments. There are angels galore, many in varying state of decay due to age and the inevitable lichens that feed on the stone they are made from. There are virgin statues (see right), incredibly old grave markers that are barely legible, and new, shiny, modern marble and granite head stones with likenesses of the deceased etched into them with laser precision.

Maplewood Cemetery, Fairfield, ME
I have a set of personal rules or standards I hold myself to when I'm visiting the cemetery to photograph monuments. I try to remain as respectful as possible, and treat it like you would a national park: what goes in comes out with me. I try not to tread on the flat markers if I can help it (some have sunken into the ground and become overgrown over the years), and while I haven't encountered a fresh grave yet, I wouldn't tread on the dirt or otherwise disturb someone recently interred. I give anyone else in the cemetery a wide berth because I realize that some people find it weird and morbid and possibly inappropriate that I'm photographing grave markers and monuments. I also don't photograph (with one exception, because I hadn't seen one like it before) the names and birth/death dates if I can help it. If I can't, usually editing can help make them illegible. To me, photographing the personal information of the dead feels invasive. I do not sit on or lean on grave markers, ever. While a cemetery is a public greenspace, it is still a place where people are interred and their loved ones visit. It's not a park, or a playground, and I get upset when I see people walking their dogs through a cemetery or riding a horse through one (I have seen this). Cemeteries are sacred places to me, and they-- and their residents-- deserve respect.

Cavalry Cemetery, Skowhegan, ME
Photographing cemeteries is a sort of self-soothing act for me at times. It allows me to completely disconnect from the outside world for a while and do something creative. I often edit the photos on the spot and upload them to my Instagram account (you can find more there, but my page isn't all cemeteries), and I will walk through the more historic areas with their old, leaning marble stones to learn about the history of the area (anyone with an interest in epidemiology should visit an old cemetery or one with an old section, there's a lot to see and learn). Sometimes, though, I get sad, because I see graves with plastic or silk flowers on them, tattered and faded, and to me, that says "this is an obligation" or "I don't really care" and I would hate for my final resting place to be treated that way by the people I've left behind to care for it.

A friend recently asked permission to print some of my photos to decorate her office with and asked why I don't sell prints. Honestly, I don't photograph cemeteries for money or fame. They are available on my public Instagram page to view, and I would hope people would ask before reproducing them. I do this for myself. These cemeteries and the photos I take in them make me happy. I enjoy exploring different angles, getting close, and editing on my phone (because I take them ALL with my phone). I enjoy the time outside, walking, seeing the varying types of monuments, and learning the history of the area. I'd like to visit more than just the local cemeteries, but there is a lot here I'm sure I haven't seen. Cemeteries are a happy place for me.

If you're interested in death, cemeteries, mortuary science, and anything to do with death rituals, I highly recommend looking up Caitlyn Doughty either on Youtube or on her website. She's informative, funny, and a mortician that specializes in green burials.

All photos in this post are mine. If you want to see more, use the link above to visit my Instagram. Please don't steal them, I don't want to start using watermarks.

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