This post is now also part of my new blog Dave Higgins Photography.
From my early childhood, I remember numerous family visits to cemeteries. It wasn’t that we were abnormally morbid, or a large family with many relatives who had already “passed on.” In fact, we didn’t know any of the people whose markers we examined.
(Well, mostly. There are interesting gravestones of some family ancestors who were “murdered in a most brutal and cold-blooded manner” in New Jersey on May 1, 1843 – a story still talked about today. Miraculously, two children survived that massacre.)
Anyway, my family was doing something that’s not uncommon in New England: checking out old gravestones. Since my father had been a history major in college and his parents lived in New England, it seemed natural that we should find ourselves exploring old cemeteries, looking for memorable epitaphs and designs.
Beyond the consideration of their aesthetics, gravestones and monuments offer us windows into the lives and cultures of other people from other times. In summing up individual lives, cemetery art tells us something about what people of a certain time and place collectively valued and how they defined their lives.
Around 1980 I discovered that some modern gravestones featured something of a revival in gravestone art. Since about the start of the Industrial Revolution, gravestones mostly offered the basic facts: name, date of birth and date of death. But in the 1970s gravestones began to feature art work that told us something more about the person or persons they marked. This included images of worldly possessions or pastimes, representations of work occupations, and notes either from or to the deceased.
I took a lot of photographs of these gravestones in the early 80s, but then dropped the project as my attentions focused on other aspects of my life. Last fall, equipped with a new digital camera and visiting my sister in Texas, we explored some local cemeteries and found that modern gravestone art has flourished. I have been taking photographs of these gravestones ever since.
What are today’s gravestones telling future generations about us? And what does that tell us about ourselves? That’s what I’m exploring with these photographs.
The title of the project – “As We Are Now” – comes from part of a popular epitaph on old New England gravestones:
“Stranger pause, as you pass by. As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be. Prepare for death and follow me.”
My approach of photographing these gravestones in color on sunny days was inspired by a more recent observation of modern life, taken from the Beatles:
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, here beneath the blue suburban skies.”
Here’s an initial sampling of photos.
“In every tear, there is a river of sorrow and memory. In every tear, there are oceans of love and loss.”
The last gravestone, featuring the cartoon Tweety Bird as an angel, is an interesting contrast to early New England gravestone imagery.
All photographs are copyrighted by Dave Higgins; all rights reserved.