In early 1980, Lucinda Bunnen and Virginia Warren Smith left home on a mission. They wanted to record how survivors used graveyards to speak to the dead and those who visited the dead. As Susan Krane, curator of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, says in the foreword, “Cemeteries are pieces of perpetual (and tantalizing) alienation, points of communion that are forever thwarted by silence.” Bunnen and Smith understand graveyards as the only place where some people can make their deepest feelings public.
The two women traveled 26,000 miles of back roads through Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to photograph one-of-a-kind grave monuments and grave offerings. These range from Styrofoam adorned with a pink plastic telephone and the epitaph “Jesus Called” to wagon wheels with broken spokes to the pyramid-shaped tomb of a camel-driver named Hi Jolly. More than any sterile marble muse, these often-handmade monuments give a true sense of the life that has been lost. The viewer senses the joy of the fisherman holding up his catch in a photo plaque. The sorrow of the bird leaning from its branch to gaze down on its dead mate reaches beyond the stone, beyond the graveyard, beyond the photograph. The flat bronze marker of the 24-year-old Vietnam vet, scratched with a pin to read, “We miss you brother,” tells poignantly about loss that the Canadian Mist bottles left behind can’t begin to fill. The cowboy engraved with his head resting on his saddle explains more than names and dates ever could.
There’s plenty here that’s funny and inexplicable. What’s being communicated by the four-foot-tall picnic basket? A photo of a plate of tomatoes adorns a grave in South Carolina. Somehow, seeing Snoopy dancing, nose in the air, on a headstone just creeps me out. The photographers were weirded out by a Styrofoam Bugs Bunny.
Most of the photos are presented as simple black and white. Many have comments scrawled by the photographers, adding explanations that make the significance clear. Occasionally photos have been hand-colored, but that only serves to highlight the ephemeral nature of most tributes.
Beyond the photographs is the diary of their trip. In February the women had a scary experience when they reached an extremely remote graveyard in Texas and all their equipment, including their compass, magnetized. In the course of their journeys, they camped in a pioneer cemetery in Arizona, got stuck in the mud on the Navajo reservation in Canyon de Chelly, and were threatened by a man with two teeth and a shotgun in Kentucky.
All in all, it was quite an adventure to record these photos of graveyards. I’m glad they chose to bring me along for the ride.
This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #5.
I had to search the secondhand bookstores to find a copy back in 2001, but you can order your own copy from Amazon: Scoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art of the American Sunbelt States