Compared to others my age, I suppose I spend more time in cemeteries than most. This is not a new habit with me…I have been hanging out in cemeteries since I was a little boy. As a ten-year-old, cemeteries offered a direct link to the history my young mind craved.
Having grown up in a Catholic family in a small town, I was not shielded from funerals, wakes, or cemeteries. Though I don’t remember the “first” time I was in a cemetery, the earliest recollection I have is going to the small cemetery in Freeburg, Minnesota.
Before the 1947 flood, Freeburg was an important stop on the rail line descending to the Mississippi River. The Graf family first settled in the community around 1872 when my great-grandfather bought a flour mill on Crooked Creek in the small community. His sons all grew up in the community, working at the mill, hunting the hills and fishing the creek. One of his boys, Tom, was about to leave for WWI when the armistice was signed. Instead of going to France, he moved twelve miles to Caledonia where he raised two children—one of them my dad.
Dad grew up in Caledonia, but Freeburg was “home” for him and my grandpa. That is where they went to visit, hunt and fish. It was where they attended weddings, baptisms, and funerals.
By the time my dad was raising his five kids, his uncles were passing on. With each passing relative, our parents dressed us in our best and packed us into the Impala to make the 12-mile trip to Freeburg. After the service, Dad would walk us through the cemetery to “introduce” us to our ancestors. This is my earliest recollection of visiting a cemetery.
The same routine played out many times in my own hometown of Caledonia. There, we had two main cemeteries — the “Catholic” and the “Protestant” cemeteries. That distinction didn’t really matter to me, though. What both of these burial grounds did mean to me, however, was that they were a source to connect to Civil War history. I would drag a buddy to either of these cemeteries where we would spend hours: Sometimes walking and looking at tombstones, other times just sitting there doing things young boys do like lighting firecrackers, racing bikes, playing war games, or talking about girls. Surrounded by relatives, familiar family names, and history, the cemeteries seemed like safe places for kids to play (I suspect there isn’t a parent around who would still allow a kid to play in a cemetery for the day!).
A DIFFERENT KIND OF COLLECTING
I have always liked shooting pictures of tombstones. In fact, I developed much of my photography skills in cemeteries. Stones are great models: Lots of character, often have interesting carvings or inscriptions, and unlike models, sit still while the photographer composes the shot.
By the mid-1980s, I had amassed thousands of slides of tombstones. I carefully curated these into albums based on the carvings that topped each stone or the inscription on the faces. Stones of veterans or with a patriotic theme were a favorite.
During that decade, I often gave talks on cemetery “artwork” and Victorian mourning traditions. I invited people to “enjoy” a cemetery, much in the way Victorian America did – by strolling, observing, and reflecting inward. I would hate to count how many picnics my daughter had to endure in cemeteries when she was a little girl, as it was a common place for us to take a bag of carry-out, a blanket, and a camera to a cemetery. We would have our picnic next to some tombstones under a shade tree and then walk the rows together looking at the stones and occasionally snapping a photo or two.
In the forty years since Dad and Mom used to drag me funerals and my daughter has grown up, I have continued to visit cemeteries, camera in hand. By gathering images of veterans’ tombstones and markers, this habit has served me as another form of “collecting.” With each veteran I “meet” in the cemetery, my mind is opened to the experiences he or she must have had. In some instances, that curiosity is enough to lead me back to my computer to do a bit more research on the veteran’s unit and experiences.
If you decide you are going to shoot a few tombstones, here are a few photography tips I have learned along the way:
- Before you shoot any stones, take a photo of the entrance sign on the cemetery. This will be valuable when you are trying to remember, “Where the heck did I shoot that tombstone!”
- Cloudy days are better than sunny. Tombstone photography is all about controlling the shadows. The clouds will eliminate the strongest of these for you.
- Keep the sun to your back. This is hard to control in a cemetery as you can’t “repose” the stone. But, your best shots will be made if you can keep the sun to your back.
- 9-11AM or 4-6PM will give you deeper shadows that make it possible to read difficult stones.
- Take a moment to prepare the stone. There are always grass clippings that can be gently swept off or tall grass growing in front of the stone that can be pulled. DON’T try to remove moss or other matter from the stone as this will likely damage it.
- Get yourself level with the stone. Most stones are low to the ground, so get your camera low to the ground too. Try to shoot as “straight on” as possible.
- Take plenty of pictures. Remember, with digital cameras, “film is cheap!” Make use of the freedom of digital to take various shots of the headstone from differing angles and distances. Take photographs of the section of the cemetery so that you can document the location of the grave. Tough inscriptions can be deciphered by taking several shots from different angles.
- Organize your photos. When you get home, download your images immediately and place them in folders named for the cemetery. If you organize in other ways, for example, by conflict, unit, or state, make sure that each image is labeled in a way you will know in what cemetery you shot the photo.
- com has been a tremendous boost to the hobby. You might have photos of tombstones that you will want to share with the website. Or, the website might have information on the veterans whose tombstones you photographed.
- Like any hobby, you can become as deeply involved as your interest will carry you. If you want to learn more about photographing cemetery markers or are curious about the history of gravestone carving you can contact the following organizations:
The Association For Gravestone Studies
278 Main St., Suite 207
Greenfield, MA 01301
They sell a basic information kit through their gift shop and publish an annual journal on gravestone history called Markers. They hold an annual conference with workshops, lectures, and tours.
You will be surprised by the military curiosity a walk through the cemetery will stir within you. And while this form of collecting won’t provide you with a room full of trophies, it does serve the same purpose: Reviving and maintaining the memory of our veterans.
Preserve the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine