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Critical Importance of Graveyard Photography

"Cemeteries are the roots of the Nation. They are the caretakers of tender sympathies. They are no longer just a place for memories, but a source of information for families to trace their own personal roots."

~Helen Zentz

We live in the digital age, where tools and modern innovations have allowed us to take the power of the home desk computer and carry it with us in our cellular phones, where our cameras are digital single-lens reflex with solid-state image sensors and digitally record images that no longer need the fiddly and somewhat temperamental rolls of film. And while some feel that the digital age whirls past far too fast, there is a subset of wildly passionate, dedicated people who are taking their modern innovations and DSLRs with them to help capture some of the world's most essential items for posterity, history, preservation and to help those seeking to understand their history.

Those people are graveyard photographers.

We briefly touched on how you can begin taking your graveyard photos, but today, in appreciation of these hard-working, passionate professionals and volunteers, we'd like to dive in a bit deeper about why this is such an essential undertaking for so many and why graveyard photography is so critical in preserving our history.

Why Someone Photograph Headstones and Graveyards?

Cemeteries are not simply just a functional place for us to lay our dead to rest. A cemetery is a tangible, physical place where mourners can visit and speak to those they have lost and missed; it can be a peaceful and contemplative space with stunning natural landscapes and is a wealth of historical information. Cemeteries are troves of priceless history, culture, art, and natural beauty.

Taking respectful photos within a cemetery is an active means and way for many graveyard photographers to help preserve their local history, as many tombstones and monuments hold historically significant designs and inscriptions. Many graveyard photographers take these elements they have captured and share them with the world, very often for free, to use as an invaluable resource for others to find and record the rich history and heritages that can be present within the cemeteries they photograph.

Just a few examples of where many graveyard photographers share their work for all to find are:

It isn't that these photographers are obsessed with death, but that they find cemeteries infinitely interesting places reflective of their surrounding culture and history. Many photographers may be amateur or professional historians, archaeologists, or genealogists.

  1. Photography is integral to recording listed monuments as primary records for genealogists and archaeologists. It's essential to their work and needs to be done in mass for the information to be relevant and useable.
  2. Photographs have long been an essential medium of not only widespread engagement but also for heritages of all kinds, including memorial art and monuments and historic churchyards and cemeteries.
  3. Photographing within cemeteries is an affordable and accessible means to record memorials, where the vast majority are not individually listed, and in some cases—such as rediscovered graveyards that have been lost or forgotten, whether through natural circumstances or negligence, one of the best means of preserving this lost information.
  4. Photographing a gravestone aligns with a family's wishes for the dead to be remembered and recalled publicly by non-relatives. Photographing even centuries-old headstones extends this tradition and does not counter it.
  5. Gravestones, markers, headstones, monuments, and mausoleums are threatened historical resources. These items are subject to the whims of nature and humans, which can often foster their destruction and erosion, including acts of vandalism. So much can be lost forever without a photo being taken and circulated.
  6. Photographing headstones and cemeteries is also a fantastic resource for monitoring the state of preservation within historical sites.
  7. Modern technologies and innovation allow communities, amateurs, and professionals to create and foster public digital mortuary archaeology and encourage the community to engage with and learn about their local heritage.

Art Preservation and Appreciation

Many photographers look at the world through the eye of the artist. A world of beauty can await them within the cemeteries and burial grounds within cities and towns. Many photographers find artistic architecture and breathtaking statues rivaling museums. In some cases, in historical graveyards, they are often attached to an equally historically important church with elaborate stained glass creations, and mausoleums may be sprinkled within the cemetery full of ornate details and stunning works of stone artistry.

It is also common to find epitaphs, carvings, letterings, phrases, memorial keepsakes, and poems that are heart-rendering and infinitely moving, with precious stone and metal elements beautifully weathered by time.

Cemetery Photography Connects Us All

Cemeteries provide unique insights into the lives that came before us. Even if you've never visited one, taking your first walk through an older graveyard, you'll no doubt immediately spot many differences in life expectancy over time. In most cases, it only takes a short glance at dates to get an intimate glimpse into what must have been a heartbreaking family situation or a reminder of how much life, knowledge, technology, and medicine have changed and influenced our entire society over the past centuries.

Cemeteries provide a symbolic bridge from the past to the present for scientists, amateurs, professionals, and artists alike. Whether gathering photos, stories, and art to share insights with those with similar interests or preserving precious treasure troves of history and family lineage—cemetery photography is an essential part of our human experience and knowledge.

There is beauty, inspiration, knowledge, and history within our life cycle, and cemeteries are more than a source of sadness—but a source of learning or remembering, of preservation of important events and the lives beloved to all. Cemetery photography connects us in many ways and is one of the most critical and unique means to blend art, history, and respect for all.

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