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.

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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.

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