Beautiful if Muddled Collection of Cemetery Photos

Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery (Penguin Studio Books)Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery by David Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This odd book is put together backwards. Rather than open with Robinson’s explanation of what he was doing taking these photographs (and his rambling explanation of why the book is called “Beautiful Death”), the book begins with an essay by Dean Koontz. Koontz seems to have glanced over the photos before he began to write, but the subject of his text — the loss of his long-suffering mother and the final, blessed end to his abusive father — bears no connection with the pictures of sentimental European grave markers.

In a way, Beautiful Death is a book in three pieces. First, Koontz puts forth a theory that cemeteries are much less frightening than living people. He refutes the title of the book by describing the Death that took his mother as having “a heart of maggots.” He disputes our hope that the monuments we erect in graveyards will immortalize our loved ones, admitting that the truest memorial is the love we feel in our hearts, which vanishes with our own passing. Even markers of stone will be wiped away by an ice age or flood. Monuments in words are as fragile as the paper which holds them. Nothing survives this world, Koontz says, so he hopes for reunion in the afterlife.

It’s an excellent essay, obviously deeply felt, but its relevance to the book it introduces is not easy to fathom. Beautiful Death’s argument is disproved before it can be made.

The largest section displays the photographs. Robinson does some wonderful work playing two-dimensional stained glass against three-dimensional sculpture, creating powerful hyperreal beauty. He has a fascination for hands that reach out of graves to clutch their mates or silken flowers. It’s never made clear whether he brings his own props or simply documents offerings where he finds them.

The photos I like the best are the more artistic views: the vivid light from a stained glass window brightening a cold gray stone, or the cemetery beyond reflected in the glass of the memorial niche. Too many of the pictures (for my own taste) are strictly documentary. Anyone could have taken them. In fact, I have taken a number of them. Without commentary by the photographer, I can only place the photos in my own experience. I would rather know what he thinks.

Another drawback for someone who collects images of graveyards is that several of the photographs also appear in Robinson’s book Saving Graces. If you claim to have taken 10,000 photographs — and you’re only able to publish a limited number of them — why repeat yourself?

The final third of the book is Robinson’s meditation on his work. He felt drawn to cemeteries in order to explore the sentiments there displayed. He sees them as expressions of hope — for reunion, for immortality. Only after he discovered a deathbed photo on a grave in Rome did he realize that all the memorial pictures he had seen so far were of living people. “In the cemeteries,” he says, “death was much talked about but seldom seen.”

Robinson’s own parents were, by their own choice, cremated. He never collected their ashes. He has created this book to be their monument. It is a grand sentiment, worthy of Pere Lachaise.

Despite the problems with the book (which I admit I have because it’s not the cemetery book that I would put together), it is truly beautiful and a worthy addition to the collection of mortuary art.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #1.

Copies are still available on Amazon: Beautiful Death: The Art of the Cemetery (Penguin Studio Books)

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