Macabre: The Subtle Art of Grave Photography

This is the story of how you don’t know you do something a lot until you have a visual record: Boy, do I like graveyards.

Colonial Era America, the Old West, or Europe from 300 years ago — I am clearly not picky when it comes to final resting places. Now, I don’t like like graveyards. I don’t sleep in a coffin, and if I didn’t live in New York, I would not nearly have so much black in my wardrobe. But when I travel, I do tend to check out local cemeteries. One reason is because I like “old things,” and once a person is buried, that site freezes in time even if everything around it changes.

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“Infant Son”: The Children’s Graveyard at St. Mary’s in Hay-on-Wye in Wales.

They are the ultimate reflection of their age, being the ultimate destination for everyone in that age. In this way, graveyards have their own themes.

Often, people have a showier death than anything they had in life; when Europeans began to be buried in the New World, graves were the only things on which you ever saw anything in the way of “art.” Daily life was too busy and laborious, particularly in the very early days of colonization, for creative pursuits for their own sake.

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In Portsmouth, NH.
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Catching the final rays of the Sun for all time in Old North Cemetery, Portsmouth. 

Welsh cemeteries tend to be glades in the middle of a yew forest; the tree has an association with the land of the dead going back to the Druids. These next two shots are from St. Martin’s Woods, in Laugharne, and this place should have its own TV show. It is, part and parcel, what every boneyard in Gothic horror looks like. It was pretty cool; I could have spent the whole day taking snaps. And, for all the ghoulishness, it was actually very tranquil and peaceable. Respect for the dead keeps the outside world at a distance.

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St. Martin’s, by the way, is where poet Dylan Thomas is buried. He is marked with a simple, white, wooden cross in an open field next to the older, original kirkyard.

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“And death shall have no dominion” – Dylan Thomas

You’d think that wooden graves would be a bad idea, and indeed, Thomas’s has to be replaced constantly in a land as sodden as Wales. But when I was in Virginia City, in bone-dry Nevada, wood memorials turn out to be a lot more long-lasting than you’d think

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Wood lasts a long time in a desert, if not the inscription…

The drawback with wooden gravestones (there’s a paradox) is that daily erosion quickly grinds away the script; the memorial may be over 100 years old, but it is only after a few years that the identity of the dead is lost. I found the Virginia City cemetery the most melancholy because so many of the “stones” had become anonymous, or simply fallen into some other form of disrepair.

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Nature now lays flowers on the graves in Virginia City.

Virginia City, not far from Reno and very much alive, is one of those Old West boomtowns; usually it is gold that kicks things off, but in the case of “VC,” it was silver. Nevada to this day is called the Silver State because of the HUGE amount of wealth pouring out of Virginia City mines. People from all over the world came here to find their fortune; I found graves of people from as far away as France and Britain. But it was this stone of a New Yorker that really struck me:

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Mines were notoriously dangerous. People were dying all the time from accidents, including De Witt Stanton, who, from his marker, never even made it to 20. Who was he? Does his family still exist? Do they know he is here?  Somebody must have thought very highly of him to put up a stone memorial in the dustbowl vastness of the Rockies. I found it so sad that he had made it this far, getting all the way across the continent, and who knows through how many diseases, only to bite it at 19. At least there were flowers.

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You’ll make old bones in Virginia City.

VC, for its part, is well aware many of the gravestones are crumbling. There is an ongoing fundraiser to help maintain the cemetery, which is one of the biggest draws to the town. I actually had to (politely) shoo people out of the background for a good shot. Clearly, I am not alone in my thanatophilia.

I didn’t notice this ok-so-its-creepy aspect to my photography until I started posting things to Instagram. I often post an entire trip linearly, so it can seem like I am stuck on one theme or one location for several images. Over time, I noticed I was posting a lot of graves.

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One of the few graves not to have crumbled away completely at Soar-y-Mynydd in Wales.

But because a good picture is a good picture, I’m not overly self-critical about what goes up. I do get a little more specific with the hashtags, of course (entering in #macabre or #deathly got me a strong goth following). But if I snap it, it is gonna be splashed over the Interwebs.

And since I’m going to end up under one of these things anyway, getting my head around that fact sooner than later is probably a good thing.

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