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

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

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

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 22 2014 8:07 AM Why Haven’t the Philadelphia Eagles Ever Won a Super Bowl?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  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.