“As We Are Now” series
From my early childhood, I remember numerous family visits to cemeteries. It wasn’t that we were abnormally morbid, or a large family with many relatives who had already “passed on.” In fact, we didn’t know any of the people whose markers we examined. My family was just doing something that’s not uncommon in New England: checking out old gravestones. Since my father had been a history major in college and his parents lived in New England, it seemed natural that we should find ourselves exploring old cemeteries, looking for memorable epitaphs and designs.
Along with the consideration of aesthetics, cemetery folk art offers us windows into the lives and cultures of other people from other times. In summing up individual lives, cemetery art tells us something about what people of a certain time and place collectively valued and how they defined their lives.
Around 1980 I discovered that some modern cemeteries featured something of a revival in cemetery folk art. Since about the start of the Industrial Revolution, gravestones mostly offered the basic facts: name, date of birth and date of death. But in the 1970s gravestones and their surroundings began to feature folk art that told us something more about the person or persons they marked. This included images of worldly possessions or pastimes, representations of work occupations or spiritual beliefs, and notes either from or to the deceased.
I took a lot of photographs exploring this subject in the early 80s, but then dropped the project as my attentions focused on other aspects of my life. In the fall of 2008, equipped with a new digital camera and visiting my sister in Texas, we explored some local cemeteries and found that modern cemetery folk art has flourished. I have been photographing it ever since.
What does cemetery folk art tell us about the person memorialized? What does today’s folk art tell future generations about us? What does that tell us about ourselves? And how do we deal with the mystery of Life and Death today? These are questions I’m exploring with these photographs.
In addition, I’m creating a photographic record of what this folk art looks like while it’s new and fresh. Just as most old cemetery art we find today has weathered and faded to near illegibility, modern cemetery art will eventually suffer a similar fate. Depending on the materials and technology involved, that process can happen fairly quickly.
The title of this project – “As We Are Now” – derives from part of a popular epitaph on old gravestones: “Stranger pause, as you pass by. As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be. Prepare for death and follow me.”
My approach of photographing these gravestones in color on sunny days was inspired by a more recent observation of modern life, taken from the Beatles: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies.”
Postscript (5/31/2010): CNN has an item on their website titled “What headstones say about the living.” It’s interesting, though almost all the examples they present are of older gravestones.