Ten years ago, I started to collect antique postcards of graveyards. I was entertained that such a thing existed: why would anyone buy, send, or save a picture of a cemetery?
Things people chose to commemorate fascinated me. There seemed no end of variety to the images of Grant’s Tomb or New Orleans’s Saint Louis Cemetery #1. Sometimes cards showed a famous person’s grave: Buffalo Bill Cody’s stone under a lonely leafless tree or Benjamin Franklin’s slab against the fence in Philadelphia. I understand the star power in those images.
Other photographs displayed the cemetery all gussied up for Decoration Day or All Soul’s Day. Flags and flowers fluttered everywhere, their colors over-saturated by the printing process. Women wore brightly flounced dresses and carried parasols; their heads leaned together in earnest conversation. The cemetery looks fun, full of life.
Some photos showed simple landscapes with a gently reflective lake or a flowering tree, like scenes out of Eden. When you look closely, there might be a hint of the landscape’s purpose: a simple headstone, a Grecian temple tucked among the hills. Sometimes Nature cradles tiny figures: people picnicking amongst the graves, a man in a straw boater posing beside his Model T, or someone standing with arms draped around a monument like it was part of the family. I see the appeal of these peaceful scenes.
Sometimes, though, there is nothing special about the view or the graves or the cemetery itself. Those cards were made to advertise graveyards, like calling cards. While I understand the purpose behind the creation of the cards, less clear to me is the motivation of their collectors. Were these memento mori? Treasured mementos? Was looking at them a form of armchair travel? I still don’t know.
Not all of my vintage postcards were sent through the mail. The posted ones are my favorites, since they hint at the people who wrote or saved cards. I love to read about the weather or the other places the authors visited. One phrase that turned up again and again startled me. “Wish you were here,” the ubiquitous vacation greeting, takes on a whole new meaning when written on the back of a cemetery photograph.
I assume that the senders meant they wished the recipient could have come along for the trip. However, the phrase could also be read to mean, “I wish you were buried here.” I found the dual meaning funny.
When I couldn’t decide on a title for my collection of cemetery travel essays, I looked through my box of postcards. Now I’m calling the book Wish You Were Here.
Every Friday, I plan to display some of my collection of cemetery postcards. I think there’s a lot we can learn from them: about how cemeteries fit into their societies, about the things people treasured and loved and saved, about the past and its reflection in our present. I hope you’ll find them as fascinating as I do.
The cemeteries featured in this article are:
Cemetery of the Week #6: St. Louis #1 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Cemetery of the Week #11: General Grant National Monument in New York City
The other postcard essays are:
Cemetery postcards: the earliest years