Monthly Archives: February 2011

People in the cemetery watch you back

Forgotten Faces: A Window Into Our Immigrant Past (Forgotten Faces - America's Lost History)Forgotten Faces: A Window Into Our Immigrant Past by Ronald William Horne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Morbid Curiosity #8 featured a story by sculptor Mary Jo Bole, who worked at the Dedouch Factory learning the techniques they used to create the photographic ceramic plaques that adorn graveyards across the US. Dedouch subsequently sold its technology to a Canadian company. I mention this as a little background on the tenuous modern survival of memorial photo plaques on gravestones. Forgotten Faces glosses briefly over the existence of modern plaques in its aim to document antique photographs.

In fact, I was shocked to find there wasn’t already a book about ceramic memorial photos. The subject is touched on in Secure the Shadow, but Forgotten Faces is the first book to document 350 photographic mementos, mostly showing people whose images have otherwise evaporated from history.

In this book, some of the photo plaques are gathered into “galleries” of similar images. Particularly touching were the children’s pages, with a naked infant (who didn’t survive a year) stretched out on a velvet cloth and nine-year-old Alice with her dolly in her arms. I also liked the collection of couples from Colma, California’s Italian Cemetery. Arms around each other or with the bride leaning against her groom’s shoulder: these people look familiar, like relatives caught at the happiest moments of their lives. I wonder if Heaven for them is symbolized in the photos that memorialize them.

Forgotten Faces is a beautiful book, but a very strange one, too. Sometimes the photographs are labeled by which cemetery they came from. Other times, the cemetery is vaguely indicated as in “rural Northern California” or some such. I preferred the pages that not only displayed the memorial portraits, but also showed the monuments they adorn, along with their position in the cemetery. That sort of documentation strikes me as crucial, should the portraits ever go missing — or perhaps, turn up in an unscrupulous secondhand shop and need to be returned to their rightful places.

Throughout the book thoughts and images that gave me pause, like the remark, “In our sample of 500 portraits, two out of every three subjects died before reaching the age 30.” A page that displays three postmortem photos of babies comments that the rate of infant mortality was so high that parents often did not name their children until after their first birthdays. Six postmortem photos from the Italian Cemetery are gathered onto two pages with the comment that sometimes the corpse’s eyes were intentionally opened before the photograph was taken, in order to capture the deceased in a more “lifelike” pose. The effect is as creepy as you can imagine.

Since one “gallery” in the book collects the “Fashions of the Age” from high lace collars to furs to the variable width of men’s lapels, a student of historical costuming could find this book an invaluable resource.

Several photographers other than Horne contribute images to the book. Richard Meyer, former editor of the Association for Gravestone Studies’ journal Markers, and British photographer Cathy Ward provide images from Hawaiian and European graveyards. While the memorial photographs they document are striking and curious, I’m not sure their inclusion benefits the book at hand. It makes it feel jumbled.

I guess what I would have preferred to see was a brief recap of the history of personal images on grave monuments from the kings of stone in the European cathedrals to the invention of photography, which brought recording of an individual loved one into the reach of even first-generation immigrants. I suspect Horne might get around to that, as he plans to continue his documentation of these rare and fragile artifacts.

Please support his work and buy this book: Forgotten Faces: A Window Into Our Immigrant Past (Forgotten Faces – America’s Lost History)

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A take-along guide to cemeteries

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and IconographyStories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I snatched this book off the shelf as soon as my eye landed on it. It has long surprised me that there was no comprehensive dictionary of the symbols found on gravestones. I know the topic is a complicated one, in that the same symbol can mean different things at different times — or even at the same time in different locations. Richard E. Meyer’s introduction acknowledges these difficulties, while casting headstones themselves as a cipher for the person buried beneath. It’s a wonderful image with which to open the book.

Douglas Keister, illustrator of Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity has become the leading American photographer of gravestones. His work appeared in American Cemetery magazine’s “Tomb of the Month” feature, documenting the resting places of the famous and infamous. Photos included in this book have been recycled from other publications, but it’s nice to have them gathered together in one place.

“A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography” is the truer part of the title. The book’s format (tall and skinny) encourages the reader to take it along to the graveyard, the way you’d take a birding book to the park. However, while the color plates make for lovely viewing, they add to the weight you’ll be toting. In addition, the unfortunate page design doesn’t lend itself to identifying the symbol engraved on the stone before you. Too often, photographs appear at the fold of the page, so you really have to crack the book open to examine them. It makes it difficult to tell a sunflower from a daisy.

Still, there are an immense number of photographs in this book, often three to a page, so there is much on which to feast your eyes. There’s food for thought as well. In the opening section I learned about the significance of tumulus graves and their link to ancient warriors. I wished for a specific citation I could have followed up on, but maybe that’s just me.

The errors in the book — and of course there must be some in a volume of this breadth — are worth mentioning. The caption beside the photo of John Keats’ headstone in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome says simply “Poet.” That much is obvious, since the clearly visible epitaph reads, “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet…Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I’m nervous that Keister didn’t realize he was recording Keats’ grave as he snapped the photo, printed it, chose it for the book. If he missed something so widely known, can he be trusted on the finer points?

As I followed up on that train of thought, I discovered an unraveling string. The lyre adorning Keats’ gravestone isn’t listed in the index, but the entries mentioned are interesting. The main listing differentiates a lyre from a harp as “more playfully designed.” After some beautiful Chinese folktales, the lyre in Western mythology is summarized as “one of Apollo’s attributes.” No mention is made that the lyre is chosen to adorn poets’ graves in specific reference to the Greek god who invented poetry. Often lyres on headstones exhibit one or more broken strings, as in the case of Keats’ stone, to signify that the poet’s voice has been silenced. Seems to me those might be things the casual graveyard wanderer would like to know.

All that aside, this is a lovely little book, stuffed with photos and intriguing tidbits. Consult it to add whimsy to your wanderings, but it’s not the final word.

Amazon link to buy Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

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Czech graveyards as community records

Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish CemeteriesOld Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries by Arno Parik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arno Parik’s introduction opens with the Talmudic law that the dead are to be guaranteed the eternal inviolability of their graves. When founding these historic cemeteries, Bohemian and Moravian Jews purchased land on a permanent basis, which meant they often paid large sums for ground that was too steep or remote from town to serve any other purpose. Those criteria aided in the preservation of graveyards recorded here, even as the Nazis dismantled the Jewish communities of the surrounding area.

Parik describes the historical burial societies who cared for the dying, arranged funerals, and comforted the bereaved. He details Jewish burial practices. Memorial pebbles, placed on headstones whenever someone visits a grave, are explained as deriving from the duty of wayfarers in antiquity to add a stone to the graves they passed in the desert. I found this part of the book fascinating.

Things go downhill once the photographic section begins. Rather than focus on the artistry of individual gravestones, this book demonstrates how gravestones record community. Photographer Petr Ehl was more interested in documenting graveyards as a whole, rather than selecting special stones on which to focus, which limited his photographs to landscapes rather than the close-ups I prefer. The photos underline the similarities between the graveyards: weathered stones poking up between saplings, slanted stones staggering up steep grassy slopes, crowded stones huddling side by side. Unfortunately, the message of the book — that these graveyards (often the only record of the communities they once served) must be preserved — is undercut by the similarity of their documentation. If all the graveyards look the same, why not save one and let the rest fall to ruin? (Luckily, that question is answered by Arnold Schwartzman’s Graven Images.)

One hopes that this book was more persuasive for the audience for whom it was originally published: the Czechs of the living communities surrounding these graveyards.

Copies sometimes turn up on Amazon: Old Bohemian & Moravian Jewish Cemeteries

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Beautiful gravestone motifs

Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish GravestoneGraven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone by Arnold Schwartzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an indispensable little book this is! It collects 240 full-color photographs of motifs on Jewish gravestones, breaking them down into family symbols, workman’s tools, Talmudic references, etc. Like an encyclopedia, it defines each symbol, gives a reference from the Bible or Jewish lore, and remarks on the differences in symbolism from one community to the next. The artistry of tombstone carvers has never, in my experience with cemetery books, been as completely or as beautifully documented as this.

Inside are gravestones that depict Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, candelabra which were believed to ward off grave robbers, hands feeding the charity box, skeletons with scythes, Jewish cherubim, lions, monkeys, fantastic birds, even a scorpion (which the author can’t explain). The variety is startling and impressive.

My only disappointment with the book is the size of some of the photos. A two-page layout demonstrating the blessing hands motif contains 28 pictures, each less than two inches square!

Throughout the book, the photographs themselves are wonderfully reproduced, even the tiny ones. The printing captured the spectrum of lichen, as well as the ivy and grasses that surround the stones. The stones themselves seem rough enough to touch. The sunshine looks as if it’s warmed the stones. The occasional shadow looks chilly.

Chaim Potok’s foreword explores the second commandment (“No graven images”) and its relationship to the creatures here displayed. He grounds his discussion in passages from the Talmud and Jewish authorities (whom I wish he had named), saying that there was never any consensus on what constituted an image. Perhaps tombstone carvings are permissible because they are in low relief, rather than three-dimensional?

Potok also reviews the history of Jewish grave markers. The first tombstone is mentioned in Genesis, when Jacob places a monument at Rachel’s grave.

Schwartzman uses the centuries of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries to detail the persecution Jews have suffered. Many of the communities recorded on tombstones in this book have ceased to exist. I am glad these beautiful carvings were recorded before they too disappear.

Occasionally you can find copies on Amazon: Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone

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Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Rabbi Lowe’s sarcophagus

The Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague
Part of the Jewish Museum in Prague
U Staré školy 1
110 00 Prague 1
Telephone: +420 222 749 211
Founded: in the first half of the 15th century
Oldest surviving monument: 1439
Size: Approximately 2.5 acres
Number of interments: Perhaps up to 100,000 lie beneath 12,000 tombstones
Open: Every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Winter from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer from 9 a.m. until 6.
Admission: Adults – 200 CZK, under 15s and students – 140 CZK, children under 6 are free.

Jews first came to Prague as free traders in the 10th century. They settled along the trade routes below Vysehrad Castle, where they lived peacefully until Christian Crusaders destroyed their settlement in 1096-1098. Afraid to lose the money generated by the Jewish traders, Prague’s nobility invited them to shift their homes into the city’s Old Town. This area became the first ghetto, three centuries before the word was coined in Venice.

Medieval Christians believed that Jews had killed Christ and continued to use Christian blood in their rituals. The “Passover lamb” was considered a euphemism for Christ and it was widely imagined that unless Jews were locked behind ghetto walls at night, Christian infants would end up on Passover plates.

As the Middle Ages melted into the Renaissance, interest in the Kabbalah swelled amongst both Christians and Jews in Prague. In this atmosphere, Rabbi Loew (pronounced Lurve) became chief rabbi of the ghetto in 1597. History records that he was once summoned to the palace by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who funded research into the alchemical transformation of lead into gold. (This was the same period of time that Queen Elizabeth consulted astrologist John Dee about similar matters. Dee later came to study in Prague, purportedly with Loew.)

Legends sprang up around Rabbi Loew, said to be one of only four men, post-Adam, to see the Garden of Eden. While there, he was granted the shem, the secret name of God, which can create life.

This came in handy when the ghetto was once again menaced. (The menace varies according to the storyteller, though it’s always rooted in Christian bigotry.) The Rabbi and two apprentices created a champion out of the muddy banks of the Vltava River. This artificial man served faithfully, protecting the Jews from slander and worse, until something went wrong one night and Loew had to rip the shem — variously a clay tablet or a scrap of paper — from behind the golem’s teeth.


Founded in 1478, the Beth-Chaim (Hebrew for House of Life) served as the only Jewish graveyard in Prague for three centuries. Penned in by buildings on every side, the Old Jewish Cemetery could only increase in height. 12,000 surviving tombstones totter over the graves of an estimated 20,000-100,000 people. The ground consists of twelve layers of graves.

The most visited of these belongs to Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609). Rather than a tablet marker, Loew has a tomb of pink stone, guarded by lions. When I visited, pebbles, coins, and folded scraps of white paper covered its every flat surface.

I’ve read several explanations of the custom of placing pebbles on graves. The simplest appeared in Mystical Stonescapes by Freema Gottlieb: “Vegetation fades, but stones are as close as matter gets to Eternity.” Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries by Ehl, Parik, and Fiedler traces the ritual back to when the Hebrews wandered in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt. Anyone who fell during that forty-year trek was buried along the wayside. Travelers who passed those graves added a rock as a way of keeping the burial mound inviolable.

While the Nazis demolished many Jewish graveyards, this one — and Loew’s tomb — was spared as part of a museum dedicated to the extinct race. The beauty of the place must have touched some Nazi soul. Now overseen by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, the graveyard welcomes 10,000 visitors each year. Most bring pebbles in their pockets for Rabbi Loew.

Useful links:

The Jewish Museum of Prague visitor information

The Jewish Cemeteries of Prague

The New Jewish Cemetery of Prague

Rabbi Loew’s grave

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Jewish gravestones:

Old Bohemian and Moravian Graveyards

Graven Images

And it’s featured in: