30 August 2011

Tombstone Tuesday: Portraits set in stone

A few days ago I read an article about something called an "e-tomb," which appears to be a solar-powered electronic grave marker which stores the deceased's pictures, videos, blog posts, archives from social networking sites, etc. so that visitors to the grave can access it by plugging a bluetooth device into the grave marker itself. The article doesn't indicate exactly what stage of development this product is in, but I think it's sort of an interesting concept. The information about the dead inscribed on most gravestones is often beautifully presented and accompanied by some lovely artwork, but tends to be pretty bare in terms of actual data, never mind giving a real sense of personality or life.

Walking through our local city cemetery on Sunday morning, I was reminded that some gravestones already incorporate a very low-tech way to display a reminder of what the deceased was like in life- photographs.

These photos are customarily formal portraits, but sometimes even a formal posed portrait can reveal a real moment of life and humanity- discomfort and displeasure with uncomfortable dress clothes and stiff poses, for instance.

I had been under the impression that the inclusion of memorial photos as part of the grave marker itself was an older style, but I saw a personally surprising number of quite recent gravestones at this particular cemetery with photographs set into them, and a quick Google search demonstrates that at least a handful of marker companies do offer this service, in the form of ceramic plaques.

Older gravestones with photos held a photo behind a pane of glass; I remember once seeing a stone at an old, poorly-tended cemetery in the college town where I used to live, which had a shallow oval recess in the stone where the photograph would have rested. At the foot of the stone, hidden in the grass, I found some fragments of broken, dirty glass which fit into the edges of the stone "frame" perfectly.

I did not take many pictures of the more recent photographic gravestones (nor as many as I wanted of the older ones; even with an early start, triple-digit temperatures dictate short outings), but the shared headstone of the Castors was too sweet and moving to pass by.

29 August 2011

Beneath the willow tree (a surprise)

Yesterday, while my husband was stuck on duty, I spent a very pleasant (if uncomfortably hot) Sunday morning walking through a corner of our local city cemetery.

I had come for two Find-A-Grave photo requests, John R. Smith (1837-1910) and C. H. Davis (1820-1874). I located John R. Smith after just a few minutes of walking, a towering gravestone now tilted slightly to one side, surrounded by his family in a plot full of other Smiths.

Along the way, and afterward as I walked through the rest of the section looking for C. H. Davis, I took the opportunity to admire and photograph other interesting gravestones. I was thrilled to stumble across one engraved with a willow tree, a rare choice of gravestone imagery here in central Texas where real willow trees are such a rarity.

The inscription on the stone was badly weathered and discolored here and there with stains and mold, so I could barely read it; rather than stand there in the heat, I decided to rely on my husband's fancy high-resolution camera to let me puzzle it out in air-conditioned comfort later.

Eventually, when I realized I was just wandering around in circles, I decided I would have to come back for C. H. Davis's photo request another day and get an earlier start; I was disappointed that I hadn't found his gravestone, but pleased with what I had found and the photos I had taken.

That evening, while I organized the photos from my morning expedition, I came across my willow tree. With the image on my computer screen, I noticed something I hadn't seen in the glare of the sun back in the cemetery- the name on the gravestone, faded and worn and discolored, looked a lot like "Davis", and the first letter was definitely "C". The dates were clearly legible, so I compared them with the dates for C. H. Davis on Find-A-Grave, and sure enough, I had found my second photo request without even realizing it.

Mr. Davis has a beautiful epitaph, evidently written by his wife.

"Amiable and loved husband, farewell. Thy years were few, but thy virtues many. They are recorded not on this perishing stone, but in the book of life and in the hearts of thy (word is unreadable) friends."

25 August 2011

The Mourning Lamb

Gravestones become ubiquitous; I photograph them, transcribe them, look for connections between the names on them, and later I write about them and read about them; the image of the grave and the gravestone loses some of the stark emotional impact it has for others (this is doubly true for me since I work at a funeral home and spend large chunks of my off time with a volunteer canine team looking for the missing and most often dead).

I almost forget, sometimes, what it is I'm doing, and the reminders, when they come, are powerful.

For instance, I was flipping through some of my pictures from Sharp Cemetery just now, and came across this one, marking the grave of fourteen year old Ethan Jordan (d. 1889).

I'm struck by the lamb's pose and the emotion it conveys. Most of the lamb images I have seen on gravestones are soft and peaceful in their outlines but more formal in their poses; they are clearly resting lambs, but also clearly posed. Ethan's lamb, with its head hung low, appears to be mourning.

His epitaph also speaks of deeply felt grief.

Here lies the dearest bud
That e'er to man He giveth.
If thou wouldst know his
Present state,
Repent and seek the
Father in heaven.

(photography by dunerat)

20 August 2011

The Gravestone Project

All that nonsense about not doing any more cemetery stuff until the weather gets cooler pretty much went out the window last week when I discovered The Gravestone Project, courtesy of EarthTrek (although I'd like to point out that I did admit that decisionw ould probably only last until I saw something irresistibly interesting).

For the record, I'm an enthusiastic, if recent, fan of "citizen science" programs in general, partly because they're a clever and cost-effective way for researchers to gather certain kinds of basic but important data, partly because they're a really great hands-on public relations and educational tool, and partly because they're a nice combination of fun, worthwhile, and interesting (I'm working on a whole other blog post about the social and cultural implications of programs like EarthTrek, sites like Find-A-Grave, and other sites and programs that link online presence with offline task completion).

The Gravestone Project aims to plot global patterns in the severity of "acid rain" based on erosion of marble, which is particularly susceptible to its effects. This is accomplished by measuring marble gravestones and comparing their thickness at the base (which is less exposed to rain), the sides about midway up (which are slightly more exposed to rain) and the top (which is the most exposed), and comparing the difference in thickness (the amount of erosion, in other words). That difference, based on the age of the gravestone, lets the researchers calculate the extent of acid rain erosion during that time period in that location.

It seems like a worthwhile project, and I expect that seeking out marble gravestones and taking the measurements will give me something additional to do on cemetery outings, along with Find-A-Grave requests and my own iconography studies. If anyone is already involved in Find-A-Grave, this might be something worth considering.

I got a nice shiny set of digital calipers on Amazon (for about ten dollars including shipping); they just arrived in the mail today, so I'm all set to get started. I'm excited; I haven't measured things in the field since graduate school.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, One Day at a Time, and my pseudo-academic blog, Books, Bones, & Stones)

14 August 2011

Wanderings in a virtual cemetery

I spent part of a lazy Sunday afternoon today at my kitchen table playing around on Find-A-Grave, lamenting the heat and the health issues presently keeping me indoors now that I've run out of old photos and new interments to contribute to the site.

Eventually my browsing turned into flipping through local cemetery listings to locate some of the people whose services I helped with as part of my job at the funeral home. The act was meaningful to me on several levels; the sense of recognition when I saw a familiar name on the list, like bumping into someone I knew in a crowded room; the ability to leave flowers on their memorials as one last gesture of service and respect; and the reminder, on a day when I needed a boost, that in the lives of these people's families I was able to make at least small difference at a moment when they needed it.

As I read through the list of names, looking for those I recognized, I noticed several family names that correspond with street names or park names in the area: Elms, Young, Conder, Swope, Rancier, and others. These brought a different, less personal sense of recognition, and a reminder of how much local history is contained in these older cemeteries. You could trace the whole history of the community from the names and dates on these burial lists, and the relationships pieced together between them.

(Cross-posted on my personal blog, One Day at a Time)

13 August 2011

A willow tree: Since thou canst no longer stay...

On a recent trip to Sharp Cemetery, I spotted the only example of willow iconography I have seen in central Texas.

Willow tree images on gravestones are less common in this corner of the world than in others, possibly that's because willow trees themselves are less common in this corner of the world, making them a less relevant symbol for most people.

It seems worth pointing out that sheep are also not terribly common here (though not especially rare), but the weight of religious discourse behind the lamb symbolism ensures its relevance and hence its common presence on gravestones even here.

This gravestone also has one of the sweetest and saddest epitaphs I have ever read.

Wife Of
Aug. 13, 1835
Dec. 27, 1890.

Since thou canst no longer stay
To cheer me with thy love
I hope to meet with thee again
In your bright world above.

Her husband is buried beside her.

Not going out for a while

Since central Texas is rapidly approaching a record for the most consecutive days of temperatures over a hundred degrees, and since something is wrong with my left eye that makes it photosensitive and eager to avoid dust and debris, I'm taking a brief hiatus from cemetery outings until the weather cools, my eye problem resolves, or I just can't stand the temptation anymore.

This annoys me somewhat, because I've been in the process of photographing Sharp Cemetery, which is a really nice spot with a lot of really great iconography and some interesting local history; I had initially decided to break the project up into multiple short trips in deference to the heat; this is still the plan, it's just been delayed a bit.

I gathered enough material on previous visits for a few posts here, though, and while I was unable to fulfill the two Find-A-Grave requests that drew me there to begin with, I did manage to find a few stones that didn't have photos up on the site yet (evidently no one had gotten around to asking for them yet, is all), so I'll be posting those in a little bit, too, as long as my ability to stare at a glowing screen and my husband's willingness not to draft me into helping him glue models together holds out.

10 August 2011

McBryde Cemetery

I stumbled upon McBryde Cemetery by accident a couple of weeks ago.

The original purpose of my after-work expedition was to fulfill a couple of photo requests at Sharp Cemetery for someone on Find-A-Grave.

Sharp Cemetery is a short drive out of town, though it felt longer with the hundred-plus degree temperature and the air conditioner in my car enthusiastically blowing warm air at me the entire way.

Almost to my turn, I passed the brown Historical Marker sign pointing to McBryde Cemetery. As with pretty much every Historical Marker sign I pass (unless I actually have time to stop), I made a mental note of it as a possible stop for a later trip. Incidentally, it's sort of interesting how many of those signs in Texas are for cemeteries; it would be interesting to find out how other places' Historical Marker ratios compare.

I started intrepidly down Sharp Cemetery Road despite the yellow sign proclaiming it a dead end (clever, no?), and drove for a long while down a tree-shaded dirt road lined by a crumbling stone wall of loose construction and indeterminate age, but came up short at the second cattleguard flanked by a firm-sounding POSTED: No Trespassing sign, just in the shadow of someone's house. Unwilling to risk getting shot, or even shot at, I declared discretion the better part of valor and sadly turned around.

As I turned off Sharp Cemetery Road and back onto the highway, I suddenly remembered how close McBryde Cemetery had been and decided, on a whim, to stop and check it out. I had no idea whether there were any photo requests open for McBryde Cemetery, or whether there was anything left to contribute to the site's record on Find-A-Grave, but it seemed worth a try. Besides, I was unwilling to let go of my afternoon outing, and I decided it would make good photography practice even if I got no other results. I had come all this way in my poorly-air-conditioned car to photograph gravestones, after all.

McBryde Cemetery
is set on a lonely-feeling patch of land just off the highway, sparsely shaded by just a few small trees. It feels very open and on the day I visited was very bright and hot, archetypal central Texas ranchland.

It contains thirteen interments, six couples and one individual, all members of the intermarried McBryde and Hoover families.

Genealogically and culturally, the cemetery is interesting because it contains multiple generations of a single lineage. In terms of my personal interest in mortuary iconography, my attention was mostly captured by the oldest four interments, two pairs of heavily weathered markers facing west set in the stone walls enclosing two pairs of burial plots.

It is interesting to note that although members of these couples opted for individual burials- not only with individual graves and markers, but with the graves clearly delineated by roughly chest-high stone walls- rather than double interments and double markers (the choice of most of their descendants interred here), each pair of grave markers shares a common design, so that it is readily apparently from the images on the gravestones which person belonged with which in life.

McBryde Cemetery's first occupant, Jane W. (Gore) McBryde (1826-1885) shares a resting lamb image with her husband Mancel Theodore "M.T." McBryde (1821-1896).

Jane W.
Wife of
M.T. McBryde
June 14, 1826,
Aug. 31, 1885.
God gave. He [unreadable]. He will
restore. He doeth all things

M.T. McBryde
july 17, 1821.
Nov. 2, 1885.
Blessed is he that
considereth the Poor.
The Lord will consider him.

The couple died over a decade apart; note the differences in the individual artwork of the lambs; it is possible that either the gravestones were not the work of the same manufacturer, or the style changed in the intervening years.

It seems unusual to see the lamb imagery used for adult gravestones, since the sources I have read usually attribute the lamb to the symbolism of children and their innocence. I have seen lambs on several other adults' gravestones in this area, though, and just as commonly I have seen doves on children's gravestones, though they too appear on adult gravestones. Part of the goal of my cemetery wandering for the forseeable future will be collecting data to assess whether there is an observable correlation between symbolism and age at death in nineteenth-century Texas gravestone iconography.

Interred at the elder McBryde's right are his son Robert H. McBryde (1860-1887) who was apparently born in the same year his grandfather- whose name he shares- died, and Robert's wife Nancy Paralee (Story) McBryde (1867-1951).

The younger pair of McBrydes share a clasped-hands motif. Like the lambs on the older two gravestones, these two are markedly different in style over the sixty-four year gap between them.

Paralee Story

Wife of

R.H. McBryde

Oct. 15, 1867


May 6, 1951

At rest in heaven.

Robert McBryde's gravestone is substantially less weathered than his wife's despite being the older of the two.

Robert H. McBryde

Nov. 2, 1860,


Oct. 7, 1887.

The Lord giveth and the Lord

hath taken away. Blessed be

the name of the Lord.

The two images do share obvious gender differences in the sleeves on either hand, particularly Robert McBryde's; some gender cues are even obvious in the relative size of the fingers on the clasping hands.

This was my first cemetery outing without my husband and his photography skills, which meant it was my first attempt at gravestone photography. Despite some mostly theoretical training in crime scene photography (although we're required to know the rudiments in theory, the dog team seldom actually gets called on to take pictures on-scene), most of my prior photography experience was in the artifact lab under very controlled lighting conditions. The heavily slanted late evening sunlight cast long shadows and slightly awkward glare, which presented a real challenge. My own shadow unfortunately ended up in most of the east-facing photos; in retrospect, this could have been prevented if I had figured out sooner how to operate the zoom on my husband's camera.

Thanks to a very high-resolution camera and a bit of careful cropping, I still ended up with acceptable pictures of most of the gravestones.

It turned out that there were no photo requests for McBryde Cemetery, but the trip was still an enjoyable and interesting experience, and I came away with some nice photographs and a couple of gravestone photography lessons:

1. The zoom lens is a good way to keep your own shadow out of the images.
2. Time of day is important, otherwise shadows and glare get in the way.

As a side note, I learned the next day that cemeteries located on private property in the state of Texas are legally accessible by anyone for reasonable purposes during reasonable hours, and the landowner is legally obligated to allow right-of-way for such access.

I have since made several pleasant and productive visits to Sharp Cemetery.