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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One response to “People in the cemetery watch you back

  1. Pingback: Colma, Before the Graveyards | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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