Stories in Stone: Douglas Keister

Self-portrait by Douglas Keister

I first became aware of Douglas Keister’s photography when I bought Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity, a sublimely illustrated exploration of tombs and mausoleums around the US.  He had a gift for capturing the perfect light, the perfect sky, in such a way that his subjects sparkled.  His Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography is a must for anyone who visits graveyards.

This Sunday, 10/21/12, Mr. Keister will present the End of Season Lecture at Cypress Lawn’s Reception Center in Colma, California. He will discuss the “famous and not-so-famous permanent residents of New York’s beautiful cemeteries” as well as “cemetery symbolism, funerary architecture, and secret societies.”  He’ll also be signing his latest book, Stories in Stone New York: A Field Guide to New York City Area Cemeteries and their Residents.

I had the pleasure of seeing him give a similar lecture — which he illustrated with slides of his photographs — for Forever L.A.:  A Field Guide to Los Angeles Area Cemeteries and their Residents.  If he’s planning anything similar this weekend, the event is not to be missed.  You can find the details here.

Douglas Keister has authored and co-authored forty-one books, including six books on cemeteries. His next cemetery-themed book is Stories in Stone Paris, which will be released in Fall 2013. He lives in Chico, California. Find him at www.keisterphoto.com.

Cemetery Travel: What sparked your interest in cemeteries in the first place?

Douglas Keister: Most photographers tend to like cemeteries. They are a “pure” environment: what’s there is supposed to be there. Cemeteries are sanctuaries of nature, art, and architecture. And they are, of course, the place we go to remember and contemplate our own lives and purposes. The event that was the lynchpin of my books on cemeteries was when I was photographing a book on bungalow houses in 1993. The writer and I were on our way to photograph a home in Oakland, California. We were early for our appointment and nearby was Mountain View Cemetery, which I now consider one of the best-sited cemeteries in the world. Many of its narrow lanes command spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and the city of San Francisco. After we drove into the cemetery, the writer, who is an architectural historian, began pointing out all the different styles of architecture. Well, the proverbial lightbulb went off. A short time later, I contacted my editor in New York and proposed a book on cemetery architecture. Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity came out in 1997.

Cemetery Travel: What do you call your love for cemeteries? Do you consider yourself a taphophile?

Douglas Keister: I am definitely a taphophile. I experience cemeteries on many different levels. Depending on the cemetery, my quest may be for art, architecture, history, notable citizens, or symbols. Almost always, it’s a wonderful treasure hunt,

Cemetery Travel: People who like cemeteries often feel isolated or strange. Do you have any advice for them?

Douglas Keister: Join some of the Facebook cemetery and funerary groups. You’ll definitely find that you are not alone. Following the threads in the groups will lead you to “Friends of” organizations, websites, and some very interesting people.

Cemetery Travel: What’s your favorite cemetery in the world – and why?

Douglas Keister: I like different cemeteries for different reasons. Like food, they feed different desires. However, for statuary, I’d say Cimitero Monumentale in Milan, Italy. For architecture, it would be Woodlawn in the Bronx. Views: Mountain View in Oakland, California. Spookiness: West Highgate in London. History: Père-Lachaise in Paris. Celebrities and a nice setting: Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles. Quirkiness: Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Graveyard in Waterbury, Vermont. Overall cemeteryness: Sleepy Hollow in Sleepy Hollow, New York. It’s hard to top the Headless Horseman.

Cemetery Travel: Do you have a favorite tombstone?

Douglas Keister: It’s hard to pick a favorite tombstone. I have to ask myself the question: “If I took someone to a cemetery, what tomb would I definitely want to show them?” A few: soda water king John Mathew’s castrum doloris (castle of grief) in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; Lefty O’Doul’s tombstone in Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California with the epitaph which reads (in part) “He was here at a good time and had a good time when he was here;” psychiatrist Guy Pritchal’s hollow-face sculpture in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris — that follows you when you walk — and Thelma Holford’s statue in Jonesboro, Arkansas depicts her holding a plaque next to her dog. The plaque says, “Don’t be afraid to stand alone.”

Cemetery Travel: What cemetery would you most like to visit that you haven’t yet?

Douglas Keister: There are many, but I definitely want to go to Bellefontaine in St. Louis, since it has a copy of the statue that is on the cover of my novel Autumn in Summer.

Cemetery Travel: Do you have any advice for someone setting out to photograph cemeteries?

Douglas Keister: Whether it is a cemetery or anything else, pay attention to the light. Usually, early morning or late afternoon or twilight are best. George Eastman, who founded Eastman Kodak, said, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth and you will know the key to photography.”

Cemetery Travel: Are you working on any new cemetery-related projects now?

Douglas Keister: I just finished Stories in Stone Paris, which will be out in Fall 2013. I’d like to do a book with a selection of the most interesting tombs in the world.

Cemetery Travel: What’s one thing people can do to ensure the survival of their favorite cemetery?

Douglas Keister: Get active in “Friend’s of” organization or a local historical society.

Cemetery Travel: Why should people care about cemeteries?

Douglas Keister: Cemeteries are our most direct link to the past. They tell us that our time in this realm is fleeting and that we should embrace life as well as honor the past.

I think that what we taphophiles should try to convey to others is that cemeteries can be experienced on many different levels. Ultimately, they are about life and lives and not about death.

Links to Douglas Keister’s cemetery books on Amazon:

Forever Dixie: A Field Guide to Southern Cemeteries & Their Residents

Forever L.A: A Field Guide To Los Angeles Area Cemeteries & Their Residents

Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography 

Stories in Stone New York: A Field Guide to New York City Area Cemeteries & Their Residents

 

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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2 Responses to Stories in Stone: Douglas Keister

  1. Cemetery Symbolism & Iconography? Those are three of my favorite words in one short phrase! Sign me up! I have a minor in art history and I get kind of geeky about that stuff.

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