Tag Archives: handmade monuments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Hot

The boulder over Jack London’s grave

One weekend when I couldn’t stand another day of San Francisco’s summer fog, I asked my old friend Jeff if he’d drive me up to Glen Ellen to visit Jack London’s grave. It suited him, since he was looking for a reason to take a drive in his ’65 Barracuda, to blast AC/DC on the CD player and absorb some heat.

I don’t think either of us realized how hot Sonoma Valley in September can be until we stepped out of the un-air conditioned car in the parking lot at the Jack London State Historic Park. Dust hung suspended in the breathless air. Nothing moved: not a bird, not a grasshopper. Gratefully we ducked onto the oak-shaded path and strolled up the trail to the House of Happy Walls, the cottage built by his wife after his death.

We moved through the museum more quickly than I would have liked, then left the air-conditioned building to visit the gravesite. The woodland canopy gave us a welcome respite from the sun, but the shade barely cooled the stagnant air. I was glad we’d brought water with us as we hiked up the powdery trail to the slight ridge where London finally found rest under a boulder salvage from the ruin of his dream house.

I framed a couple of quick sun-struck photos while Jeff loitered under an oak tree.
When we returned to the main path, a ranger pulled up to us on a little flatbed pickup.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Fine,” Jeff answered skeptically.

“I’ve been offering people a ride back to the parking lot,” the ranger continued. “It’s too hot to walk.”

“We’re okay,” Jeff said, looking to me for confirmation.

“It isn’t much farther, is it?” I asked. “We’ve got water.” I held up my bottle.

“Not too far. Look, I’m going to drive up to the ruins, see if there’s anyone up there that needs help. Don’t want anyone keeling over from heatstroke. If you’re still on the trail, I’ll pick you up on the way back.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

Jeff and I didn’t talk about fame or isolation as we ambled back to the car. The heat made it difficult to talk at all as we trudged through the dust.


This comes from a larger essay called “Not Fade Away,” published in Eleven Eleven last year.

Cemetery of the Week #24: Jack London’s gravesite

Snapshots from Cemetery Adventures

Scoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art of the American Sunbelt StatesScoring in Heaven: Gravestones and Cemetery Art of the American Sunbelt States by Lucinda Bunnen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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Grave Offerings in New Orleans

The ReposedThe Reposed by William K. Greiner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most books of gravestone photographs focus on monuments to the wealthy. For the most part, William Greiner turns his camera on mementos left on the graves of the poor, documenting faded silk flowers in an empty wooden frame, blue fish gravel spread as a grave blanket, an amputee doll, a tatty white dove on a red wreath. The acute angles he chooses comment on the sur-reality of the offerings he finds. The short focal lengths used in many of the photos (especially the cover image of the Styrofoam heart full of blue silk carnations) give them an intense three-dimensionality that’s almost threatening. This book manages to be simultaneously cheerful and scary.

I met Greiner, a resident of New Orleans, by chance at a book signing one Halloween in New Orleans. When I asked which graveyard he recommended I should visit in order to see a true New Orleans observance of the Day of the Dead, he suggested Holt Cemetery. Hidden behind a community college and a police academy, this graveyard isn’t impressive like its swankier neighbors in Metairie. Originally founded as burial ground for the city’s indigent, interment in Holt has remained very inexpensive. In celebration of this, Holt is filled with handmade monuments, many of them exuberant in the face of grief.

While the photos in The Reposed are not identified by graveyard (only by city, unfortunately), I suspect that many of the photos labeled “New Orleans” were in fact taken at Holt. It’s clear that brave cheer struck a chord in Greiner. He discovered its kith in graveyards all across Louisiana, but I suspect, if we looked, we could find kin in any cemetery outside the dictatorship of the lawnmower.

Mortician and poet Thomas Lynch notes in his introduction that “the last word belongs not to death but to life.” The living have much to say in these heartfelt, if shabby, memorials. Analysis provides no answers, but inspires sympathy deep enough to bridge the gap between the viewer, the survivors, and the reposed.

I’m giving this 3 stars rather than 4 simply because I prefer sculpture to handmade monuments. It’s a reflection of my preferences, rather than the quality of this book.

An earlier version of this review appeared in Morbid Curiosity #4.

You can still get copies on Amazon: The Reposed

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