The surprising beauty of portraits on gravestones.

Collected images.
Oct. 30 2009 7:08 AM

The Last Picture Show

The surprising beauty of portraits on gravestones.

The Last Picture Show. Click to launch.

When I visit urban cemeteries, I always document the photographs and relief portraits on gravestones. Portraits of the deceased add more of a personal touch to headstones than traditional funerary symbols such as crosses, resurrection angels, or stars of David. Images of the deceased on gravestones show the passage of time and exposure to the elements. Photographs fade, carvings are worn by the harsh weather, and some portraits are even vandalized.

Cemetery portraits of the dead are shaped by tradition, family resources, fashion, and cemetery rules. Sometimes the departed are depicted with their gaze fixed on the distant horizon. For example, Calcedonio D'Antona, an energetic-looking 21-year old, is shown behind a pulpit looking like a young bishop, his gaze on the far reaches of Queens' huge New Calvary Cemetery.

Sometimes the deceased are depicted enjoying the good things in life—eating, drinking, smoking—or as they appeared in a graduation photo. In a Los Angeles cemetery, George poses with a cigarette in his hand, smiling and ready to go. In Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, N.J., Paul can be found holding a plastic fork, hat on, sitting down for a meal and a drink at a restaurant.

Often monuments celebrate the strength of marriages and families, with deceased parents shown surrounded by photos of their children and grandchildren. Few family plots are as striking as the full-size sculptural grouping of the Niss family in Milwaukee's Union Cemetery: Their heads tilted toward each other, Augusta and Carl lie sleeping as queen and king.

Click here to view a slide show of tombstones that feature portraits of the departed.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his Web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The Biggest Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.