Friday, January 25, 2013

Soul in the Stone

What you see here is the cover of a book I purchased some years ago, though I don’t remember why. I suspect it was because there were so precious few cemetery photography books in print a decade ago that I would buy anything I came across. I think I probably saw Soul in the Stone (Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland), by John Gary Brown,  for sale on the front desk at some Midwestern cemetery (which is where most of these books are, I suspect - someone should make a list).

Satchel Paige (ref.)
Anyway, I pulled Brown’s large coffee-table hardcover off my bookshelf the other day after someone told me about baseball great Satchel Paige’s burial spot, and how wonderful the cemetery is in which it resides (Forest Hills), which is in Kansas City. I figured I might find a photo of it in here. Paige was a black pitcher in the major leagues and a Baseball Hall of Famer. His career spanned the twenty-seven years from 1926 to 1953, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971. There are no photos in the book of Satchel Paige's gravesite, just a few words about Forest Hills being the location of his burial spot. (To see photos of his memorial monument, check this link.)

“Don't look back, something might be gaining on you.” – Satchel Paige quote, from his tombstone

Paige's gravemarker (ref.)
In looking through the book, I was taken aback by the photography. It really is a portfolio of haunting black and white cemetery images (especially the chapter on children’s graves). The photographs are not happy, but ponderous and sad – moods which likely reflect that of many of the people who commissioned the sculptures and imagined their loved ones’ epitaphs. There are no photos of Paige’s tombstone, possibly because it is somewhat happy and celebratory, but what I did find was a treasure trove of cemetery art, both iron and stone.

The text is informative and will provide interesting reading to both the experienced and novice cemetery traveler alike. Brown introduces the reader to the concept of the Victorian garden cemetery, then moves to the movement’s influence specifically on those cemeteries established in America’s “heartland” states - Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and New Mexico.

“Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful.” – Satchel Paige quote, from his tombstone

Brown covers all the standard topics - gravestone symbolism, epitaphs, graves of the famous as well as gravestones that are famous themselves (e.g. the astounding Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas). Surprising to me is a section entitled “Outstanding Burial Grounds.”  What a great idea! I LOVE subjectivity! Seriously, I don’t mind considering another person’s opinion on such matters as long as sufficient detail is provided. THIS is what I want to see as I plan my travels to new places! Brown does an excellent job with this, as the cover leaf indicates: “Brown’s own artistry and insights reveal the ways in which these works embody or reflect personal grief, family relationships, religious and ethnic values, occupations, avocations, and social status.” The book itself a “haunting tribute to a neglected art form.”

“Avoid Fried meats which angry up the blood.” – Satchel Paige quote, from his tombstone

As if the author's photographs weren’t melancholy enough, I also found in the book two love letters from old girlfriends. (For the record, both are dated prior to 2008, the year I got married!) But hey, this is supposed to be a book review, of sorts. So let's get back on track. Some of Brown’s images rival those of Ansel Adams (who was also known to make a cemetery photograph or two) – these are far more than snapshots taken to support the text; they are truly riveting in their own right.

You won’t see very many angel statues in the book, which may be one reason I neglected it on my bookshelf for so long. This may be due to a paucity of such statues in the cemeteries visited by the author, or simply his avoidance of the more common cemetery statuary as subject matter. The book, however, does not suffer from this. Brown documents some wildly imaginative monuments that more than hold one’s interest (for example, the Harding family plot in Nebraska City which is a full-sized marble rolltop desk and the 1925 Chevy engine mounted in stone as a grave marker in Garden City, Kansas!). It must be said, however, that Brown’s photographs of even the most simple and spare grave markers are as fascinating as the elaborate ones – a tribute to his skill as an artist (he paints as well as makes photographs, as his website indicates). He seems to infuse many of the cemetery stones he photographs with his own soul.

Soul in the Stone, by John Gary Brown
One of the few examples of an angel statue in Soul in the Stone is actually a photo of a statue in Italy. Brown's descriptive history of the Herman Luyties monument in St. Louis (above, left side of page spread) is typical of the attention he gives to subjects in his book. The following is directly quoted from Soul in the Stone:

While on tour of Italy in the early 1900s, Herman Luyties, owner of the  first proprietary drug store in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, met and fell in love with a sculptor’s model. Luyties proposed marriage to the beautiful lady, but she declined his offer and he returned to St. Louis brokenhearted. Before leaving Italy, he commissioned the sculptor to produce a twelve-foot marble statue based on his beloved model.

After the statue was delivered to St. Louis, he kept it in the foyer of his home, so that he could see it every time he arrived or departed. Because the several-ton sculpture was thought to be damaging the structural integrity of the house, it was eventually moved to the family burial plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery.  After Luyties died at the age of fifty, he was buried at the foot of what came to be known as “the girl in the shadow box.”

Herman Luyties was probably unaware that the statue produced for him was based on a cemetery monument that his love had modeled for previously. I found and photographed this voluptuous angel in Viturbo, Italy, long before discovering the Luyties monument. The addition of wings makes her seductiveness all the more unsettling, bringing to mind a Mae West voice that coaxes us to “come on up to heaven and see me sometime.”

References and Further Reading:

For more information on Satchel Paige's grave site, click here.
Soul in the Stone available at