MOST OF THE BEST THINGS in my life have happened by chance or by accident, and hanging around rural and small town graveyards taking photos was certainly one of them.
About a year ago, I was working on a scene set in a small, neglected rural cemetery for a book I was writing. I decided that a visit to just such a place with my camera would allow me to both get a visceral sense of the place…and capture all the visual details I’d surely forget by the time I got back in the car.
I was utterly unprepared for how the place captured my imagination that foggy autumn day, or how I would find myself drawn again and again to these poignant places. As I drive down two and four-lane roads in the countryside these days, my eyes scan the hilltops for a glimpse of tall obelisks rising above the surrounding grass, inevitably leading to a stop...or a return trip.
Sometimes it was the visuals and their symbolism that pulled me in, and sometimes it was the stories that rose from the words on the marble and granite tombstones. Oh, the stories written there, of lives and loves and losses. The monument to a married couple, and the string of small markers beside it for five of their children who didn't reach their first birthdays. Some lived only a day or two. The man born in Limerick, Ireland, who died in his thirties and is laid to rest in southeastern Wisconsin. The ship's engineer laid to rest at a small cemetery at a land-locked crossroads in Dodge County, a steamboat carved in bas-relief into his tall monument. The tall monuments to German immigrants, who died here but whose loving tributes were written in German, their dates of birth and death marked by "Geb" and "Gest." The old man who had fought in the Revolutionary War, and died decades later in Wisconsin when it was still little more than a wilderness.
Whether ornate and well-maintained, off the beaten path on two-lane country roads, or beside steepled churches in small towns, the graveyards and their stone markers stand as testaments to the fact that we want to be remembered, and that we mattered, and that we were, above all, loved. I have come across some cemeteries that are so small that they are not even on the map. Often the only sounds that I hear are crickets chirping and birds warbling, a dog’s far-off bark, the whinny of a horse in a pasture nearby, the wind in nearby branches.
And in the places that are more forgotten and less visited than others, there is a strange peace and beauty—the arching branches of oaks overhead, the fragrant crush of wild mint underfoot or the smell of lilacs nearby, the blaze of white trilliums and purple violets among the stones, a swirl of dead oak leaves from the winter before, resting against worn marble, brown and curled like scraps of leather. And as my fingers trace the worn letters, I know that here was love.