Tombstone Photography

It can be said that photographers are, in a sense, historical recorders. After all, photography is the art of capturing a very discrete moment in time and preserving that moment for as long as the photograph exists. Once the photograph has been destroyed, the moment can no longer be recreated. Take a moment to consider the photographs of historical significance we have seen at one point or another. Oftentimes, these photographs show scenes where people dress a certain way, or have a certain appearance that is no longer common in today’s society. Other photographs may show antique cars that were shiny and new in their common era, running on the streets that are common to us today. Other times, photographs like those of the Old West show daily business being conducted on the main street of a pioneering town. Unfortunately, there are very few photographs of how life was in the past, but there are still evidence of our history around us today.

One venue where these historical artifacts can be found lies within cemeteries. Cemeteries not only capture hand-carved stones from eras past, but they also carry an emotional attachment to the observer. Oftentimes, there are families who have few, if any, physical reminders of their relatives other than a marker in a family plot. Other times, the tombstones are reminders of periods where historical events are recorded in cemeteries that have become iconic reminders of our past. The photograph attached to this article is one such reminder. Taken in a public cemetery located in Salem, Massachusetts, the stones tell a story of those who were put to death as a result of accusations and persecutions of witchcraft during a dark period of American history.

Those who photograph tombstones are mostly interested in either the historical significance, or to record a chapter in a family’s history. For those who are pursue a historical interest, the cemetery provides an excellent opportunity to tie events to death records. For those who study military battles and campaigns, the cemetery provides a method to capture volumes of people who lost their lives. American National Cemeteries are arranged in meticulous rows where the shear numbers are staggering to comprehend. Other times, cemeteries in small towns and along back roads have been forgotten by most and are generally restricted to a period in time when a development was rather small and the town has either overgrown the usefulness or failed to thrive.

Others who are interested in tombstones may find these resources invaluable for constructing genealogy profiles. My father spent several years developing a family tree that brought our family back to Belgium in the early1600′s. During his research, he located a family marker that was photographed and placed on a distant relative’s website. The family marker became the cover photograph for book he had printed and bound for our entire family…a true family treasure.

Photographing cemeteries and tombstones is interesting and historically significant. For those who pursue these iconic memorials, they have become treasures that not only depict historical events, but common families who occupy geographical settlements. For those who have lost their loved ones, tombstones offer a way to pass along family ties to their heirs. Whatever your interest, by photographing and preserving the images in itself is a significant contribution to our history.


  • http://staticinstants.com chris hake

    This is a great post that sheds some light onto the subject that alot of people find morbid. I photograph memorials not for the historical association to the deceased but rather to serve as a artistic record. Most large memorials were not molded but carved. By noting the death year on the tomb a memorial and artist can be traced and therefore accredited. I graduated college with an art history degree and funerary art is some of the most beautiful expression dedicated to one any subject. Great post!

  • Robert

    In my case I like to photograph the non usual square o rectangular tombstone. Those that catch my eye, the sculptures, the artifacts left, or the way the tombstone has aged.

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