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

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.